Book review: Gross Anatomy: A Field Guide to Loving Your Body, Warts and All, by Mara Altman (Amazon / Book Depository)
Mara Altman’s Gross Anatomy, a loose memoir told through investigation of myths, practices, and biases around the female body, is a book I ignored on its original publication last August. It seemed guidebook-y or goofy, or just not something I felt all that interested in. Also, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I was so repelled by the US edition cover (which is actually the edition I have) that it solidified my not wanting to read it despite some shining reviews. If I’m that shallow about having to look at a hairy-legged cover, how shallow are we when considering this kind of imagery in relation to our own bodies? I’m glad the publisher gave review copies for the paperback release and I changed my mind, because the author gets deep into it all, and the result is delightful.
Mara Altman’s format in investigating a topic generally follows a pattern. She has a Mary Roach style of approach, in that she’s not an expert in the fields of biology or health that are primarily involved, just someone with an almost unhealthy level of curiosity about the quirks of the female body and why some weird things are the way they are. Her pattern involves researching what historical precedence exists for a preference or problem she’s had herself — hair removal, for example, and why it may have developed in the first place, like for evolutionary/reproductive reasons.
She guides the reader through her investigations, divided into “top half” and “bottom half” sections, in a snappy, comedic tone that belies the depth of the subject matter at times, but the messages come through strongly. Like in Roach’s work, the ideas or conclusions she comes to are run by a professional for their take — experts in scientific and medical fields explain why popular thinking is wrong or help to track the origin of certain beliefs, and debunk things like the alleged benefits of douching.
It took me awhile to get into the tone of it, but once I did I loved it. Altman’s sharp sense of humor worked well and made this laugh-out-loud funny in parts. It’s self-deprecating but not annoyingly so, it’s smart without losing the reader in scientific explanations, and the personal elements are refreshingly candid. Jon Ronson blurbed the UK edition and it’s easy to see why, there are echoes of his form and tone here too.
And it’s really more entertaining than it ought to be when warts or “vag smell” are involved. I learned a good bit although it wasn’t all revelatory — I have a feeling many women might’ve learned about at least a few of these topics in more depth at some point in life, but the perspective and attitude of acceptance is welcome.
Altman explores topics like facial and body hair removal, head lice, PMS, bellybuttons, camel toe, sex noises, anal bleaching, and embarks on a topless bike ride around New York with a group trying to de-sexualize breasts. The hair issue is a big one, as Altman recalls growing up with a mother who eschewed shaving and everything around hair removal has held a fascination for her since, especially considering the time, effort, and money she’s spent on her own.
My favorite chapter addresses fainting; or syncope, to use the medical term. Altman tells a story that made me laugh so hard I dropped the book on my face. She describes giving blood as being her (unusual) version of a happy place, until the day she spontaneously fainted and peed herself after donating. She couldn’t figure out why she lost consciousness that day and it scared her off donating for a long time. Her research leads to a doctor who manages to reference “Age of Aquarius” in explaining reasons for fainting, and it was a hilariously told and charming chapter.
I suspect any reader will find a topic that stands out like this among what’s here, but the whole thing is a fun, overwhelmingly positive and surprisingly uplifting exploration, and an informative celebration of all the wonderful weird parts of being a woman. 4/5
A Field Guide to Loving Your Body, Warts and All
by Mara Altman
published August 21, 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
I received an advance copy for unbiased review for the paperback release on August 6, 2019