A Warts-And-All Take On Female Anatomy and Beauty Issues

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

Gross Anatomy:
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

Amazon / Book Depository

31 thoughts on “A Warts-And-All Take On Female Anatomy and Beauty Issues

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  1. First of all, I highly recommend you read Therese Oneill’s UNMENTIONABLE. And, I”m not sure it’s in the current edition, but my name (or her name for me, was in the acknowledgments (Therese’s a friend). Her latest book, UNGOVERNABLE, is also a fun read about how the Victorians birthed and raised their children.

    It appears as if bodies are currently hot as I also want to read Bill Bryson’s THE BODY, which I hear is written in his usual light yet informative style, and THE VAGINA BIBLE by Jennifer Gunter (August pub), which at the risk of giving TMI, may have helped me diagnose a bladder issue I’ve been having.

    A few weeks ago I started the digital review copy of GROSS ANATOMY and laughed out loud a few times during the few first chapters. I decided to wait for the print version (for the graphics) which I got yesterday so I’ll read it soon. Yes, her style reminds me very much of Mary Roach, whom I love (have you read any of her books yet?). Altman’s talk about chin hair had me guffawing as for years I’ve maintained those of us without children should cultivate younger friends if only to pluck our facial hair while in the “home” lest we behave like Altman theorized.

    Now I want to read Altman’s THANKS FOR COMING, which I bought for my Kindle.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robin, you ARE a literary landmark!! I’ll have to read Unmentionable, I want to get it in hard copy because I think there must be a lot of images in that one. I didn’t know Jen Gunter had written a book, I recognize her name because she’s one of the first people the media goes to to debunk vagina…myths, I guess? Like whenever Gwyneth Paltrow comes up with something like vagina strengthening eggs or steaming for Goop, Dr. Gunter gets called up to explain why it’s bs. I like her a lot! I might have to read that one, especially if it helped you realize something like that. It almost sounds like one you can’t afford to miss.

      I’ve only read Spook of Mary Roach’s and thought it was fantastic, the only reason I haven’t tried anything else by her is that I can’t really get interested in the topics! I know they’ve gotten so much praise and I enjoyed her research and writing style, but I couldn’t find one that really sparked my interest. Maybe I just need to try one regardless.

      I’m glad this one made you laugh, too. It took me a little longer to get into it but once I did I just loved it. I saw she had some Kindle singles but I didn’t realize she had another full-length book, I’m interested! She really cracked me up but this felt so meaningful too.


      1. RE: Mary Roach – I would recommend you give either Grunt a try as you may be surprised at how interesting you find it. I really didn’t think a book on “war” stuff would beup my alley but I love her so much I decided to give it a try and found it absolutely fascinating. I also recommend you read her in print as her footnotes are a huge part of her appeal and lend a lot of light humor to some heavy topics. You might also find Bonk appealing as Roach is quite fearless in her quest to learn about her topic. Me, I loved Packing for Marcs and Stiff.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I wouldn’t think the war topic was all that appealing either, but I can see where she could pull it off. I have Spook as an ebook and the footnotes did drive me completely crazy so I’ll have to see what of hers I can get from the library and give it a try.


    1. I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one, I felt bad even admitting that! It’s the author’s own illustration, I think, it looks like other ones that are throughout the book but the others are less repellent, somehow. The cover is just off-putting.


  2. This sounds fab. Anything comparable to Mary Roach automatically gets a second look for me. Have you read Roach’s Gulp? Lots of weird human body facts + her sense of humor ends up w a fun read! 😃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, I haven’t read that one! I know she’s a big favorite and I loved Spook, but I’ve never picked up anything else by her because I can’t get excited by the topics. Actually I’m amazed she was even able to write a whole book on the alimentary canal but I do love some weird human body facts so maybe I need to try that one.


      1. Gulp is actually way more than just the al. Canal. You know how she loves tangents, the more random the better!! If you liked Spook, I’d bet you’d like any of the others… Gulp covers a lot of human body weirdness. 😃

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, I would buy anything he’s selling! Her sense of humor felt very similar to his, a lot of fun but still super-smart and sensitive. I hope you like the fainting chapter as much as I did! I’m still laughing about it every time I think of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to admit that I was put off by this one too! For me, I think it was just the word “gross” in the title, haha. I’m definitely more interested after your comparisons to Roach and Jonson though. I do love their writing styles 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really relieved I wasn’t alone in being put off by it at first, I felt shallow about the reasons I was avoiding it. “Gross” was a factor for me too! I’m squeamish and thought it might be a little TOO gross. But I ended up really liking it, she has that same style of intelligent humor as Roach and Ronson and is able to incorporate herself into stories as an example without being overbearing or annoying. I think you might like this one!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I clicked through and was off-put by that cover too! I think it’s the combination of a human figure in a cartoonish drawing – not so much the hairy legs as that they are drawn in a depersonalizing way. However hearing this compared to Mary Roach I’ll definitely be adding it to my TBR, I like that style of non-fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in being put off by it. It’s the author’s own illustration, she has quite a few throughout the book but none that were quite so unappealing as that one, in my opinion. And I didn’t like the cartoonishness or color of it, really. It’s kind of a shame because a cover really can influence your perception of a book, much as I’d like to think I don’t consider things like that! But it ended up being great and I think any Mary Roach fan would like it. Hope you do!

      Liked by 1 person

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