Commentary: ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ at 40

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It’s hard to imagine a time when “Our Bodies, Ourselves” didn’t take up space in bookstores and sex education classrooms and rankings on bestseller lists. The compendium of articles and essays on women’s reproductive health, sexuality and social issues has been a staple among feminists and their daughters for decades.

Four decades, in fact. And the 40th anniversary of “Bodies” has prompted release of a new edition. Much about this “OBOS” (as it’s known to many of the faithful) will seem familiar to longtime readers. But the changes in content are notable as well — more evidence that gender identity and sexual orientation are topics of increasing importance in the public dialogue.

Forty years ago, a copy of “OBOS” on the shelf signified you were a certain type of woman — curious, and unashamed of it. In control. You were not the high school junior who was clueless about sex and pregnancy and missed six months of classes due to “mono.”


The book, first published in 1971, was (and remains) a repository of frank descriptions and discussions about the human body, especially the sexual and reproductive organs. It was undoubtedly startling for some readers who felt squeamish about, say, a graphic anatomical illustration of genitalia.

The new edition addresses the squeamish from the outset: “Many of us have been made to feel that knowledge about our bodies — particularly those parts considered primarily sexual — is unnecessary, maybe even inappropriate or dirty,” an early passage reads. “We are often far less familiar with the appearance and function of our sexual and reproductive organs than we are with other parts of our bodies. This chapter aims to change this!”

A few pages later, there’s a photo of a nude woman holding a mirror, inspecting herself. Condom use is detailed with words and illustrations. The book includes passages on orgasm and masturbation.

Is all this necessary in the 21st century? “Much has changed in the United States since the first edition,” the introduction to “OBOS” acknowledges, “when abortion was illegal, birth control was not widely available and the few available texts on women’s health and sexuality — almost all written by men — discounted women’s experiences and perspectives.”

And it’s true that there’s a lot more information out there in 2011. On the other hand, the editorial team that assembled this revised edition believes that “far too often, corporate and pharmaceutical interests influence medical research, information, and care, and contribute to the unnecessary medicalization of women’s bodies and lives.”

The editors’ philosophy seems clear enough: Women need to take control of their lives and not allow the forces of marketing, pop culture and the medical-industrial complex to define them.


Thus, the book has sections on “navigating the health system” as well as “gender identity and sexual orientation” and “sexual pleasure and enthusiastic consent.” Another chapter focuses on body image — and in it, the cosmetic industry and mass media take a beating: “As the feminist activist Gail Dines, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston told the New Left Project: ‘If you just turn on the television, flick through a magazine or look at billboards, you will see that porn has now become a blueprint for how the media represents women’s bodies…Today there is almost no soft-core porn on the Internet, because most of it has migrated into pop culture.’ ”

Relationships — sexual relationships — receive a thorough, thoughtful treatment. “OBOS” pulled material from an online discussion among women that lasted several weeks. The participant biographies are telling of “OBOS’” all-encompassing approach:

• “I’m sixty-three years old, white, healthy, happy, married. I love men and I love women, and sex so far has been only with men.”

• “I’m a thirty-two-year-old black queer woman.”

• “I’m a twenty-five-year-old pre-operative transsexual lesbian.”

• “I am a thirty-one-year-old single heterosexual woman.”

• “I am a white, college-educated twenty-five-year-old asexual queer nonbinary trans person with disabilities.”

It’s a diverse crowd, but their responses to the question, “What are you looking for in a relationship?” elicited some amazingly similar themes. What do women want? Monogamy. Patience. Equality. Respect. Even the women who didn’t seem ready to commit to a long-term mate rallied around a term for a partner, albeit a somewhat nontraditional one: “co-conspirator.”

Sexual health and childbearing take up several chapters, and this version of “OBOS” concludes with a lengthy discussion of major forces affecting women’s sexual and reproductive health.


Of course, “OBOS” is much more than a regularly updated book for American women. It has inspired blogs and other books and essays and global initiatives. In 2007, Duke University Press published Kathy Davis’ “The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The book, Davis noted at the time, has sold more than 4 million copies and undergone six “major updates.”

“OBOS shaped how generations of women have felt about their bodies, their sexuality and relationships, and their reproduction and health,” Davis wrote. “[The book] has transformed the provision of health care, helped shape health care policies and stimulated research on women’s health in the United States ... from its inception OBOS has been taken up, translated, and adapted by local groups of feminist activists, scholars, health providers and health activists in different parts of the globe.”

“OBOS” continues to inspire praise but has been criticized as well: It’s too feminist, it’s too Western-centric. There isn’t enough about the medical-industrial complex. There isn’t enough material for nursing mothers.

But none of the criticism can diminish the influence of “OBOS” down the years. It’s an institution.

A couple of years ago, the high school student in my household brought home a copy, required reading for a class that included a unit on sex education. Recently, when I mentioned the new edition to her, she laughed and said, “Oh, I never read it.”

Squeamish? Know-it-all? Horrified? I’ll keep my copy on the bookshelf, just in case.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” is published by Touchstone.