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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: How women learn about themselves

by Karen Martin | April 3, 2022 at 1:47 a.m.
Karen Martin

In my experience, women seldom share stories about how they learn the practical biology of being female. This lack of communication, caused by embarrassment, modesty, social taboos, and notions of privacy, can range from awkward to excruciating to terrifying to hilarious.

I remember when my mother and my teenage cousin Lilyann cornered me when I was around 10 years old. Lilyann was staying with us for a few days and was having her period, so my mother and older sister thought it would be a good time to have the birds/bees conversation with me.

So they sort of explained that menstruation (they didn't use that word; it was referred to as "your period") was likely to happen in my near future. They briefly outlined the cycle, with emphasis on a monthly event that requires all sorts of protective gear and could involve cramping, headaches, bloating, and acne breakouts.

I still remember my incredulous response: "You're kidding."

Information on how women's bodies work beyond this chat was not forthcoming during this brief discussion. Nothing was said about puberty, a word I didn't understand until later. Or pregnancy. Or birth control. Or aspects of sexuality.

I eventually learned what was necessary to know by reading "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a no-nonsense, intensely feminist guide to reproductive health and sexuality.

Since its first commercial edition was published in 1973, OBOS has influenced the lives, health, and human rights of women across the world. According to its website, it has sold millions of copies and received loads of honors. In 2012, the Library of Congress included the original "Our Bodies, Ourselves" in its exhibit "Books That Shaped America," a collection of 88 nonfiction and fiction titles "intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives."

OBOS started in May 1969 when a group of women in Boston met during a female liberation conference at Emmanuel College (such conferences were hot topics then). That group became the forerunner to the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which put its accumulated knowledge into a published format that would serve as a model for women to learn about themselves, communicate their findings with doctors, and challenge the medical establishment to change and improve the care that women receive.

For nearly 50 years, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was updated and revised approximately every four to seven years. It became angrier and more controversial as it aged by addressing birth control, sex education, and what the 2005 edition calls "the beauty culture," the system of assumptions about female bodies, beauty, desirability, and sexuality that circulates throughout the advertising, clothing, beauty, and entertainment industries.

"Today, we think of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' as primarily a book in which women can find candid discussions about masturbation or birth control, and it was indeed always that," writes Elizabeth Gumport in The New York Times. "But in those early editions, politics was given pride of place; the sections on anatomy and physiology appeared only later. In the second edition, the first chapter was titled 'Our Changing Sense of Self.' Its sub-sections included 'Changing Our Internalized Sexist Values,' 'Rediscovering Activity' and 'Rediscovering Anger.'"

This was heady stuff for those of us in the Me Generation who feigned interest in the era's political protests, anti-war demonstrations, feminism and women's rights, the civil rights movement, spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, yet counter-balanced such issues with our hippie-chick yen for self-fulfillment through waist-length hair, hoop earrings, and embroidered bell bottoms. We didn't pay much attention to social and political changes going on around us. This book changed that.

The most recent edition of OBOS was published in 2011. Over the spring and summer of 2018, OBOS decided to stop updating its published content and transition to a volunteer-led 501(c)3 advocating for women's health and social justice. It also began a partnership with Suffolk University's Center for Women's Health and Human Rights to develop Our Bodies Ourselves Today, a platform that uses stories about the health and sexuality of trans, intersex and cis women, trans men, and nonbinary people.

Before the Internet, says Neda Ulaby of NPR, "'Our Bodies, Ourselves' was a rare source for honest, plainspoken information that was hard to find and awkward to ask about. But today there are numerous trustworthy websites that teach about women's health, reproductive options and sexual identity, and some of the stigma around wanting that information has faded."

That, she writes, "is 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' real legacy."

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

[email protected]

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