‘Our Bodies, Ourselves' continues to strike a cord with women

2005-08-27T19:00:00Z ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves' continues to strike a cord with womenKATHRYN CATES MOORE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Susan Powers-Alexander remembers seeing the book her freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

There were copies  in the Women’s Resource Center and “it sparked discussion,” Powers-Alexander recalled.

That was back in 1974.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves,” published for the first time in 1970, contained “a whole compendium of information,”  she said. “The index itself was an eye opener.”

Powers-Alexander wasn’t the only young woman who found the book a real page-turner.

Although the original publication was a 193-page course booklet on stapled newsprint, the 1971 edition was an underground success. Publicized mostly by word of mouth, it sold 250,000 copies.

Over the years, more than 4 million copies of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” have been sold. The newest edition came out this summer.

It isn’t that the information contained in the book was new. But for many, it was the first time that information was available, said Powers-Alexander, now the vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood. “It empowered women to know these things,” she said.

Thirty-five years ago, the topics in “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” were groundbreaking, said Judy Norsigian, executive director and co-founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. “The topics were invisible,” she said in a phone interview. “Now they are not so invisible, but the latest edition still speaks to women. The political atmosphere is different.”

 What were the topics that began women’s health conversations over three decades ago? 

Women’s health and sexuality. Frank discussions and photos of medical issues like pelvic exams, anatomy, pregnancy and childbirth. Women and the medical system. “It was simple basics — how does my body work,” Norsigian said.

The book was written from a feminist perspective — it had, after all, come from a workshop of 12 women meeting at a women’s liberation workshop in Boston.

Topics like abortion, which was not legal in every state at the time, birth control options, same-sex relationships and sexually transmitted diseases were discussed in a what Norsigian calls “a well-written and clear way.”

Over the years, there have been many updates and revisions, with the addition of current topics relevant to women’s health care and social change.

The latest edition (Simon & Schuster, $24.95) has at least 50 percent new material and new photos, Norsigian said. It is the most significant rewrite since 1984. 

The authors hope they are still in the forefront of providing health care information and speak to social change.

There are some changes. Most noticeable is the size of the book. In the past, it was slightly oversized. Scaling  down the height and width was merely to accommodate bookstore shelves, Norsigian said. With the index there are more than 800 pages, a far cry from the 193-page original.

Some of the issues are the same — good, basic information about women’s health is still the backbone of the book. And the book is still peppered with first-person narratives with women telling their own stories.

New topics relevant to today’s women — young and old — include more information about body image and eating disorders, gender identity, HIV and AIDS, reproductive choices, growing older and navigating the current health care system.

But “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is still about “consciousness raising,” Norsigian said. “We speak to that. We can’t ignore it.”

Powers-Alexander believes health care consumerism is one of today’s major issues.

Even 35 years ago, the book had a wide spectrum of information. “You didn’t see yourself in every chapter,” Powers Alexander said. “And that’s OK.”

Powers-Alexander, who has a doctorate in psychology, has taught  a human sexuality and a women’s health class at UNL and finds the book a good guide for both young adults and older women. 

The Internet may have opened gates to health issues, she said, but some people still like to keep the updated reference book on the bookshelf.

Reach Kathryn Cates Moore at 473-7214 or kmoore@journalstar.com.

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