40 years on, a new edition of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves,'

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When "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was published in 1971 by the Boston Women's Health Collective as "a course by and for women," it propelled a seismic shift in the way women understood and took care of their own sexual and reproductive well being.

In that pre-Internet, pre-Roe v. Wade period, such topics were rarely discussed or explained -- except by doctors, most of them male.

"We were just doing what we could to educate ourselves," said Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, a nonprofit organization, speaking of the women who wrote the first edition. "Most of us didn't realize how influential it would become."

Influential it was, as a source of information and a feminist call to action. OBO became a best-seller, a groundbreaking affirmation of female empowerment and the acknowledged bible of a new women's health movement. It also drew denunciations from the likes of conservative preacher Jerry Falwell, who, in the early 1980s, called it "obscene trash," and from critics who had it banned from public libraries and high schools.

Now comes the 40th anniversary edition, revised and updated (Touchstone paperback/Simon and Schuster, 928 pages, $26). Included are changes in the health care system, safer sex, environmental health risks, body image, gender issues and cosmetic surgery, as well as birth control, childbearing, abortion, menopause and a host of other topics.

There's a new chapter on relationships, culled from an online conversation among more than 30 women ages 18 to 63. In addition, extensive related information is posted at www.ourbodiesourselves.org.

"The book's focus is on women's sexuality and reproductive health across the lifespan because so many websites [on those subjects] have inaccurate information," said Ms. Norsigian.

The pregnancy and childbirth sections are completely revised and updated with later data, she said, while the book "takes on the huge challenges in maternity care and looks at policy changes that would make a big difference."

Materials based on "Our Bodies, Ourselves" have been produced in 25 languages, and the newest edition includes the work of some of OBO's global partners.

Ms. Norsigian said there wasn't always agreement on every subject, and some points remain debatable, such as the value of yearly mammograms for women ages 40 to 50. Many topics include pro and con lists.

"If things are inconclusive, the book reflects that," she said. "We forced everyone to come together on language they could all accept. The main point is that it's all evidence-based."

Young contributor

To produce the finished product, seven editors worked with more than 300 contributors, including Kezia Ellison of Pittsburgh.

Ms. Ellison, 28, is the founder of Educating Teens about HIV/AIDS Inc., a nonprofit headquartered in Manchester, but her contribution concerns women health care workers, whom she studied while working on her master's degree in women's health at Suffolk University in Boston.

"It's a small piece in the chapter about the politics of women's health," said Ms. Ellison of her contribution, co-authored by her then-professor, Susan Starr Sered.

"Women are often the people taking care of others, but they aren't always taken care of themselves," Ms. Ellison said. "About 30 percent of direct care workers in the U.S. don't have their own health care coverage. In addition is the fact that minority and immigrant women have significantly lower-paying positions.

"We also wanted to highlight the occupational hazards, whether for the nurses, nurses' aides and physician assistants, or the women cleaning the hospital or working in the cafeteria."

Those hazards, she said, include injuries from heavy lifting, exposure to infectious diseases and hazardous chemicals, long hours, disrespect from patients and administrators.

"These can be high-stress jobs," Ms. Ellison said, "and stress impacts health. It's really important when we talk about women's health that we don't forget the people who are taking care of us."

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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