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Looking Back At 40 Years Of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves'

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“Our main purpose was getting information about health out to ... as many women as possible.” This is how Paula Doress-Worters describes the goals of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” one of the most widely recognized women’s health resources from the past century. (Just check out the pilot episode of “The Wonder Years” to see a young Kevin Arnold “preparing” for junior high with his friend Paul by flipping through a copy.)

First published as a book by the New England Free Press in 1971 (it had previously been a collection of papers entitled “Women and Their Bodies”), “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (OBOS) has gone through nine U.S. editions. 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the tome, with a newly updated edition being released on Oct. 4. The Huffington Post caught up with some of the women who were involved in the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” project from the beginning to discuss the book’s origins, its evolution and its impact.

In the Beginning

“We didn’t even know we were starting anything,” said Doress-Worters, one of the original co-authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The Boston Women’s Health Collective -- the group of women behind the book -- was born out of a workshop held at Emmanuel College in 1969 called “Women In Control of Our Bodies.”

"I was really excited by the conversation,” Doress-Worters said. “A lot of it came down to [the fact that] not only did we not have answers -- we didn’t know the questions to ask.” From these informal discussions, a collective vision was born.

Putting together the first edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” also had a profound effect on the personal development of Doress-Worters and Joan Ditzion, a clinical social worker and founding co-author of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." “[OBOS] just opened up doors for me,” Ditzion said. “We didn’t have our own notion of what female sexuality was [before].”

After the surprising success of the New England Free Press edition -- the publishers had initially been skeptical that anyone would pay 75 cents for a book on women's health -- the authors began getting offers from commercial publishers. In 1973, Simon & Schuster published the first commercial edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The rest is history.

Growing Up

“I feel like I’ve grown up with the book,” Ditzion said, and the content has likewise grown up with her and the rest of the founders. It's not surprising that as they aged, one of the first sections they added dealt with menopause.

Readers also influenced subsequent editions of the book. “People wrote to us, pointed out the gaps. We began to work with people in different communities and included material that came up,” Doress-Worters said. In addition to aging, the OBOS readership wanted coverage of women with disabilities, more information on same-sex relationships and sexuality, and a discussion of transgender issues.

Though the book has accumulated legions of fans over the years, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has faced its fair share of critics, too, on both ends of the political spectrum. Doress-Worters spoke extensively about what she called the attempted censorship of the book.

“We began to get a lot of hostile press [from] the radical right that was developing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s …. They would send out pages copied from our book and cross out words they considered obscene with black magic marker.” In 2005, OBOS was named one of the “50 Worst Books of the 20th Century” by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative educational organization.

But it’s not just conservatives who have expressed issues with updated editions of the health resource. After the last edition was released in 2005, The New York Times published an essay critiquing the updated version for its glossy, pink cover and celebrity influence:

The old ''Our Bodies, Ourselves'' celebrated the average and anonymous. The new one submits to glitz, with endorsements from the actress Julianne Moore and Eve Ensler, creator of ''The Vagina Monologues'' -- a pet piece of performance art among Hollywood stars.

Looking Forward
The 2011 edition includes a host of new material, including a new section discussing the ways in which the recent health care reform impacts women. Kiki Zeldes, the senior editor of the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” revision project, said that the new edition promotes even greater inclusivity. “Some women feel judged by feminism. We worked really hard on this edition to … focus on the big … and subtle pressures that are surrounding us … There is room within feminism for all kinds of things.”


Click through to see the evolution of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" over the years.

40 Years Of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves'
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