'Bodies' revolutionized women's health

September 29, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Jane Boyd was in her mid-20s two decades ago when she saw the first edition of an extraordinary book called "Our Bodies, Ourselves."

It had pictures of naked women and talked honestly about sex, men and health. "I thought it was startling at first," says Ms. Boyd, now 46 and a lecturer in women's studies at San Jose (Calif.) State University. "This was stuff I was told not to know."

Three editions and 3 million copies later, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" is still raising eyebrows. The fourth and most recent edition, "The New Our Bodies, Ourselves," (Simon & Schuster, $20) will go on sale in bookstores across the nation this week.

For many women like Ms. Boyd, the book was a watershed. It presented information about their bodies, their sexuality and their health in a way that nothing had before. Many women found it changed their attitudes forever, banishing the notion that "nice girls" shouldn't know too much about taboo topics like orgasm and masturbation as well as celibacy and the right to say "no."

Most unusual of all was the fact that the information came not from doctors or professors, but from a bunch of upstart women -- who later became known as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

"This was revolutionary," says Dr. Felicia Stewart, a Sacramento, Calif., physician who was studying medicine at Harvard when she encountered an early mimeographed version of the book. "It was an important part of the women's health movement."

The book has come a long way since a dozen Boston women convinced a small "movement" press in New England to issue the first printing -- a 112-page newsprint edition, held together by staples, that sold for 35 cents. It has changed publishers and gone through four revisions, each one larger than the one before, and been printed in 14 different languages. The 1992 edition is considerably heftier at 751 pages, has a glossy cover and the benefit of a nationwide publicity blitz.

But one thing about the book has remained the same: its sassy, pugnacious attitude that women know best -- especially when it comes to their own bodies.

And most of the dozen feminist women who labored over the first edition in 1970 -- and then incorporated as a collective -- still had a hand in the latest edition. They hope the book will appeal to a new generation of young women.

Collective members say the book continues to spark interest in young college women who are reading it for the first time.

"Some of the women are actually bowled over by the book," says 44-year-old Judy Norsigian of Somerville, Mass., who joined the collective in 1971 at age 22 and remains on its board of directors. Although today's college students are typically more informed about sexual matters than previous generations, they are not always prepared to deal with them on a personal basis.

Because it is intended to serve the specialized needs of women, the book devotes much space to reproductive issues of sexuality, fertility, childbearing and menopause. But it still has thick sections on body image and eating disorders, nutrition, exercise, workplace health, cancer and other general health issues.

The 1992 edition, the first revision since 1984, includes new sections on Norplant, the contraceptive implant; the female condom; AIDS and HIV infection; RU-486, the abortion pill; breast reconstruction after mastectomy; chronic fatigue syndrome; and environmental illness.

The book includes material on non-traditional therapies likely to draw skepticism from some conventional medical professionals. Its chapter on holistic health describes benefits to be gained from acupuncture, massage, herbal medicines, meditation and chiropractic. It describes homeopathy, a system of herbal remedies, as "highly effective" for treating infectious disease, allergies and a host of other problems.

The only qualification to this apparent endorsement is the statement, "Sometimes alternatives provide no more help than [traditional] biomedicine. They can also be harmful and outright dangerous when practiced by 'quacks.' "

But perhaps the section most likely to draw attention is the chapter on sexuality, which gives about as much space to lesbian love as to heterosexual relationships. The latest edition has toned down some of the sloganeering in earlier editions.

An essential part of the book's basic message -- that women can become active, informed partners with their doctors in deciding what medical services they require -- was a pioneering attitude in that has since become a cornerstone of medical practice.

"[The book] was part of a whole change in the way we think about medical care," says Dr. Stewart.

It was not until 1972 that the concept of "informed consent" began to take hold among doctors, she says. "It was a brand new idea."

"It was an important part of the women's health movement," she says, "but it's of great benefit to both men and women."

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