The book made you blush. Explicit, illustrated and in plain English, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” burst into bookstores and bedrooms nearly 40 years ago, unveiling the female body for a generation of Americans.

It answered questions few women dared ask, about ovaries and orgasms, breasts and birth control, abortion and abuse. It was a frank, communal narrative starting with the pronoun “we.”

Did we mention the illustrations?

“We were college-educated women, and we didn’t know anything about our bodies,” says co-author Judy Norsigian. Her 12 co-founders were mostly married women with no background in health care who met around their New England kitchen tables to plot their research. But in the years before sex education, widespread contraception and Roe v. Wade, their work – with hard science, graphic diagrams and real women’s stories – was an instant and, it turned out, lasting success.

Four-and-a-half million copies and eight best-selling editions later, Norsigian and the nonprofit women’s health resource center she directs are still talking about obstacles to health and sexual happiness. A major one, ironically – too much information.

“We are bombarded,” Norsigian says. Faced with direct advertising of drugs, industry-funded studies and a plethora of high-cost technology, most people have a hard time knowing what is accurate or trustworthy. Women face what she calls “the excessive medicalization” of their lives, in which normal events like childbirth and menopause are subject to drugs and technologies that can have harmful effects.

Norsigian is a 59-year-old widow with a grown daughter who teaches in Boston. But she seems busier than ever, lecturing widely and heading the nonprofit information and advocacy center now called Our Bodies Ourselves. She returned calls from Austin, Texas, and Boston, en route to Philadelphia and Vancouver, B.C., before hitting Portland, Ore.

She tackles many of her fellow boomers’ concerns, pointing out the unintended consequences that studies have revealed about treatments for osteoporosis, breast implants to lift sagging flesh and cholesterol-lowering statins. But her message is the same.

“We’re on the side of people making choices, but they should be able to make safe choices and get balanced, accurate information about risks,” she says.

Nonetheless, the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” franchise isn’t quite as sexy, drawing fewer calls from national media. But it now appears in 21 languages, and women in India, Russia, Nigeria, Nepal, Turkey and Israel are producing, with the center’s assistance, their own versions.

The 2008 “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth” is being embraced as the lone prenatal information some hospitals distribute.

And, she says, the letters – now e-mails – keep coming.

“People credit the book with saving their life or their marriage,” Norsigian says. “When you get that kind of reinforcement, despite very little money and long hours, the rewards are extraordinary.”

Author’s better health tips

• When seeking health information on the Internet, find who finances the Web sites and whether there are potential conflicts of interest. Many companies create Web sites that are misleading and primarily geared to selling more of their products.

• Obtain health information from more than one source.

• If you find it difficult to eat well, exercise and also find time for activities that bring you pleasure, gather a few friends to find creative ways to do this. For example, rather than chatting over a cup of tea, talk while you go for a brisk walk.

• Remember that many physicians now work under difficult circumstances with patient loads that preclude adequate time to assess a particular person’s medical problems. Do research yourself, if possible, and seek other opinions if in doubt about proposed drugs or surgical procedures.


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