There are few things more overwhelming than your first period. I knew enough, thanks to health class at school, that it was “normal” and to be “expected” anywhere between the incredibly specific age range of 10-17. I also knew that I was 12 (almost 13, thank you very much)—and my period was nowhere to be seen.
Once a month, I would lie awake at night in bed and go over any pre-menstrual symptoms I thought I could have. At 12-almost-13, I was willing my period to come. I was a little more crabby than usual, I would think to myself… that’s DEFINITELY a sign. My stomach hurt a little today… I bet that’s cramps. And every month, the same outcome: no period. It was this elusive sign of womanhood I so desperately wanted, but feared. Bleeding? Every month? Forever?
So I waited. And as the story goes—you guessed it—I finally got my period. Except, by the time I got my period I had no one to ask. My mom had died and my dad was about as much help as my younger 8-year-old sister. After some serious sleuthing underneath the bathroom sink, I found some of my mom’s old tampons. Have you ever objectively looked at a tampon? A stick of cotton, with some plastic thing wrapped around it that you’re supposed to get up your vagina, but by some miracle take out the plastic while leaving the cotton up there? The dance of tampon insertion was almost too much to bear. After reading the incredibly unhelpful Tampax box instructions and wasting too many of the few precious tampons I found on unsuccessful insertions, I suddenly remembered the book I had stolen from my mom months prior.
Our Bodies, Ourselves had become my woman bible. It answered questions I didn’t even know I had and introduced me to concepts about my own body that filled me with wonder. That book became a surrogate mother in all-things-womanhood. Discharge? I had no idea such a thing existed, but there it was, staring me back on the page in black and white. It had to have something about a tampon in there.
I ran to grab my bible, and read up—and an hour later, I didn’t just have an idea of what the hell to do with that cotton stick—I “owned” my period. I was excited about it. It was like my period was a ticket to a secret women’s club I didn’t even know about.
That’s why, when I found out that Our Bodies, Ourselves would stop publishing—I was more than surprised. I was devastated.
After more than four million copies sold and nine editions (mine was the 1984 edition), the organization has decided to scale back and support other feminist organizations as opposed to publishing new, updated content.
A little bit of history…
In 1969, at the heart of the feminist movement, Emmanuel College in Boston held a women’s liberation conference. This conference unwittingly became the genesis of what would eventually become Our Bodies, Ourselves, but at the time was a space where 12 women met in a workshop on “Women and Their Bodies.” In this safe space, these women talked about personal experiences with their own doctors around taboo topics like birth control and abortion. It was so liberating to finally share their stories and ask questions (Did your doctor tell you this? Your doctor said what?!), that they formed the Doctor’s Group to continue these conversations and research. The Doctor’s Group eventually turned into the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which eventually changed to “Our Bodies, Ourselves”… thank goodness because “Boston Women’s Health Book Collective” is a mouth-full.
As you can imagine, these conversations were eye-opening, empowering, and any other juicy adjective you can associate with a room full of smart, powerful, and activated women. They decided these conversations weren’t enough. They wanted more women to have access to this knowledge, share it with their doctors, and be the change agents in how women receive medical care.
As an outsider, it makes sense why they would stop publishing. The Internet was not a thing when Our Bodies, Ourselves first published in 1970. (You can actually access the original, full PDF available here.) Questions that women had, or questions that young women didn’t know they had, were at the core of the original book. Masturbation, birth control, post-partum depression, abortion—these, among others, were topics that women didn’t talk about or were not allowed to talk about.
But I’m still devastated.
When I first got my period, this book was a voice of reason, when nothing else made sense. It was frank. It didn’t beat around the bush. When I was first thinking about having sex (age undisclosed because, “Hi Dad!”), this was the book I turned to. What is normal? Should I get on birth control? How the hell does birth control even work?
And let’s be honest, I had questions for this book. I was thinking about losing my virginity, but didn’t even know what an orgasm was (it’s part of your vagina, right?). My mom wasn’t there, but my woman bible was. So I looked it all up—totally unashamed. Just like that cotton stick, I learned what the hell to do with a condom. Not only that, but I figured out that an orgasm wasn’t a body part. I felt empowered and I owned my decision to have sex for the first time.
We’re in the age of information—but not all information is created equal
I worry that although the Internet gives ready access to information for young women (and all people), it can also be a source of incorrect or misleading information. We’re in the age of information—but not all information is created equal. Our Bodies, Ourselves was a source of relevant, truthful, and needed information. It was credible, peer-reviewed, and cited original sources. Even as a middle schooler I knew, intuitively, this book was helpful. It so parallels WomanLab. We’re here because women, even in the 21st century, still need access to evidence-based information so they can advocate for themselves with their provider.
The New York Times even asked, “How will we know our bodies are normal now?” When I first heard the news of Our Bodies, Ourselves closing up shop, I can’t lie—I thought the same thing. How the hell will I know what is normal? Without this pillar of truth, we need to be even more critical of the news and information we read. Scrutinize everything, because the reality is: it’s not just me! Women have questions. What is normal sexual function after cancer? Is there such thing as normal? Will I ever want to have sex again? WomanLab is the 21st century Our Bodies, Ourselves where questions like these can be answered and, just like my first period, “own” the answers.
I keep imaging what my life would have been like without this book—and I’m heartbroken that someone looking for answers won’t have this woman bible. I mean, who knows what kind of relationship I would have with tampons had it not been for this book (I’d strictly wear pads, thanks for asking). My anger and heartache, however, are substrate for WomanLab. This is why we exist. We combine the power of knowledge with the power of women, and until every woman knows what she needs to know to preserve and recover her sexual function, we will continue to be that frank voice that Our Bodies, Ourselves so bravely forged.
(Shameless plug: Hey, @oboshealth, let’s connect about WomanLab.)
Our Bodies, Ourselves deputized generations of women to advocate for themselves. It’s not the end. There are too many of us.
Edited by Chenab Navalkha