Our Changing Sense of Self

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Our Changing Sense of Self

Book excerpt

By: Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Date: 1971

Source: "Our Changing Sense of Self," from Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, New England Free Press, 1971.

About the Author: The Boston Women's Health Book Collective is an association of feminist women centered in Boston, MA. The group has been publishing updated editions of the book since 1971, most recently in 2005.


Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) is a basic text of modern feminism. It has been adapted or translated into over twenty languages and sold over four million copies. The eighth edition, greatly expanded, appeared in 2005; the excerpt given here is from the first edition (1971).

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective was founded in 1969, when twelve women met at a workshop on "women and their bodies" at a feminist conference in Boston. As a followup to the workshop, the women decided that they would each research a women's health topic; the essays were meant to empower women to learn about their bodies, be active in guiding their own medical treatment rather than passively submitting to the authority of doctors, and, in the words of the Collective, "challenge the medical establishment to change and improve the care that women receive." One revolutionary feature of the book was that none of its authors were doctors or nurses.

In 1970, the collection of essays was issued as a 193-page booklet, Women and Their Bodies, printed on newsprint, stapled, and sold for thirty cents a copy. In 1971, the title was revised to be more emphatic—Our Bodies, Ourselves—and the essays were printed as a bound book. Around 1980, the informal, consensus-governed "collective" structure of the original group was replaced as the group became a non-profit group. Today, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (still its official name) states that it is "a nonprofit, public interest women's health education, advocacy, and consulting organization."

For a non-medical textbook, Our Bodies, Ourselves was and remains unusually frank about women's sexuality. For example, it contains photographs and drawings of female genitalia, instructs users on how to become familiar with the appearance of their own genitalia by using mirrors, and (in early editions) offered sketches of six different types of hymens. Its most controversial photograph, which showed the naked corpse of a woman who bled to death in a hotel room after an attempted illegal abortion, has been retained in all editions. Frankness about anatomic and social realities was the book's original goal: it sought to demystify women's bodies and to enable them to make informed decisions about health and behavior. This goal remains unchanged: in 2005, a board member of the organization explained that "Our aim is to empower women with accurate information about health, sexuality, and reproduction."


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Our Bodies, Ourselves, although occasionally denounced for its feminist attitude—or, more recently, for not being feminist enough, or not feminist in the right way—has apparently never been accused of medical inaccuracy. Controversy has arisen, rather, around its attitudes. It is passionately pro-abortion, pro-sex education, and pro-birth control and openly discusses and illustrates terms such as clitoris, menstruation, hymen, menopause, and orgasm. A number of public and high school libraries have banned the book, and the fundamentalist Baptist minister Jerry Falwell denounced it as "obscene trash" during an interview with the Seattle Times in May 2005.

Our Bodies, Ourselves claims credit for having started the women's health movement, the push by women for health care that responds to their desires, cares competently for health problems particular to women, does not treat childbirth, menstruation, or menopause as disease processes, and does not implicitly consider the male body the default or normal "human" body. At the time Our Bodies, Ourselves was conceived, breast-feeding was abnormal in the United States, fathers were generally not permitted in delivery rooms, the administration of drugs was standard during birth rather than optional, and babies were usually separated from their mothers immediately after birth. Today, new standards of care have replaced these older approaches.

Yet controversy continues about other Our Bodies, Ourselves subjects—abortion, birth control, sex education, and what the 2005 edition calls "the beauty culture," the system of assumptions about female bodies, beauty, desirability, and sexuality that circulates throughout the advertising, clothing, "beauty," and entertainment industries. The first chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves 2005 begins, "For women, life can often seem like a beauty pageant. Throughout every phase of our lives, from childhood to maturity, our appearance is judged and critiqued. Our looks are compared to those of our peers, our sisters, the women in the media, or imaginary ideals. We're rated pretty, ugly, plain—or just plain average. No one has ever asked us if we want to compete in this lifelong beauty contest. Being born female automatically makes us contestants, whether we like it or not."

Recently, Our Bodies, Ourselves has been criticized for these views. A major review of the book in the Atlantic by a self-identified feminist complained that "this women's health classic has become a compendium of the curses and clichées that feminism must discard or else render itself obsolete…. That women's interest in their appearance lies largely in wanting to please men is a myth, and one that should be retired without further ceremony." Most other reviews were more positive.



Jacobs, Alexandra. "A Feminist Classic Gets a Makoever.". New York Times. July 17, 2005. Available at 〈http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/17/books/review/〉 (accessed March 26, 2006).

Song, Kung M. "New edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves updates the groundbreaking feminist book.". Seattle Times. May 4, 2005.


Boston Women's Collective. Our Bodies Ourselves Companion Website. 〈http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/default.asp〉 (accessed March 26, 2006).

London, Sarai. "I (Heart) Book Critics." International Journal of Psychosomatic Disorders. Nov. 18, 2005. Response by associate and photo editor of 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves to critical reviews in The New York Times and The Atlantic〈http://anglofille.blogspot.com/2005/11/i-heart-book-critics.html〉 (accessed March 26, 2006).

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