We Asked 5 Sexual Health Experts What Made ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ Such a Revolutionary Resource
Earlier this month, the group responsible for publishing the long-running sexual health resource Our Bodies, Ourselves announced that it would no longer produce new editions. The website will also no longer be updated and will instead show excerpts from the book, archived reporting from the last 12 years, and information about the history of the book.
The book was originally published in 1970 under the name Women and Their Bodies as a 193-page booklet. Put together by a group of women first known as the Doctor’s Group, then the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (and now Our Bodies Ourselves), it was a revolutionary resource, thanks to its accurate and honest depiction of women’s health topics, including detailed information about reproductive anatomy and abortion. A year later, the title was changed to Our Bodies, Ourselves and, in 1973, the first commercial edition was published by Simon & Schuster, opening it up to a much wider audience.
Since then, it has been consistently updated every few years and translated into 31 languages. It’s become a staple in many women’s lives—something you might grab out of curiosity from your parents’ bookshelf as a kid or something your mom might gift you once you got to a certain age.
So, certainly, for anyone who grew up with Our Bodies, Ourselves, the announcement felt like the end of an era. But it’s also a sign that the way we seek out information and the wealth of information that’s available has evolved considerably since the book was first published nearly 50 years ago. And, at this point, there are many other ways to get that kind of information (hello, Internet).
Below, we spoke with five sexual and reproductive health experts about how Our Bodies, Ourselveshelped shape their ideas of women’s health and how we can help pass those ideas along to younger generations.
It’s hard to overstate the legacy of a book that’s impacted women’s lives for nearly five decades.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves was the women’s health book for decades,” Debra Herbenick, M.D., professor and director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, tells SELF. “Many people don’t know this, but when it was first published, the collective of women who made it priced it incredibly low in order for the most number of women to be able to access it.” It was originally sold for just 75 cents.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves is one of those rare books that generations of women can recall shaped their early sense of their bodies and their sexual and reproductive health,” she says.
Bodies in the book were realistic and authentic—rather than sexualized or pornographic.
“I remember reading Our Bodies, Ourselves cover to cover before I had even had my first period, which was probably the mark of a future gynecologist,” Gillian Dean, M.D., senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood, tells SELF. “It was hugely important to me, it gave me a powerful feeling of being in control of some very important information and was a resource to me as I looked ahead to the changes that I was going to be going through.
“I’m sure it [impacted the way I practice medicine], I certainly came across it at a very formidable time,” she says. “I remember things like, in the ’70s, pen-and-ink drawings with all of the hyperrealism, the bodies with their different shapes and hair and in all of their real material humanness. And that really was part of why it was so powerful, because it didn’t provide an idealized image of people’s bodies and sexuality, but just a very real one that was nonetheless very positive and embracing without having to resort to something airbrushed or pornographic.”
The book covered all aspects of sexuality—not just safe sex, but also pleasurable sex.
“It really was a critical book,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “When it came out it was the very first time there was a book that was frank, that looked at women’s sexuality in a way that was medically accurate and that was accessible to women, taking away the mystery behind it. For a lot of women this was really their only source of information, they certainly weren’t getting it in sex ed, they weren’t getting it from their doctors. And if not for Our Bodies, Ourselves they would have had no source of this critical information to help them navigate through these reproductive issues and even something as simple as normal anatomy.”
At the time it was originally published, marital guides—which contained information about how to keep your husband happy—were common. But Our Bodies, Ourselves “took a very different approach,” Dr. Streicher says. There were other books out there that explained safe sex or what happens in terms of the reproductive cycle, but this one also covered “the element beyond that, [which] is pleasurable sex, pleasurable intimacy,” she says. “This was about what you need to know as a functional mature woman in terms of your own body, your own sexuality, and your own reproductive functions.”
It encouraged everyone to take ownership of their body in a revolutionary way.
“I was privileged to work on an update of Our Bodies, Ourselves a few years ago and it’s difficult knowing where to start in reflecting on the impact of this ground-breaking publication,” Fred Wyand, director of communications at the American Sexual Health Association, tells SELF.
“The title itself gives insight into the value, and Our Bodies, Ourselves is much more than a book, it’s a vision of empowerment and ownership in a world where women still often struggle for basic rights. Proclaiming ‘our bodies’ makes it clear that this ownership is fundamental to good health and reproductive justice. It is an honor to be associated with Our Bodies, Ourselves and we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.”
Having accurate knowledge about our bodies is the first step toward advocating for our health.
“Learning that Our Bodies, Ourselves will no longer be published struck me with a pang of grief,” Michelle Nichols, M.D., a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells SELF. “This iconic book of the women’s liberation movement was born from a brave group of women’s desires to empower other women through education.”
“By learning about the anatomy, functionality, and health of female bodies, it emboldened a generation of women to advocate for themselves both in health care as well as in society at large.”
And that’s something we can’t let ourselves lose sight of.