‘Gross Anatomy,’ a collection of essays by Mara Altman, seeks to liberate us from the shame we feel over our natural bodies.
This book could be hairy women’s shaving grace.
Author Mara Altman has waged war on her own chin hair for years, engaging in various depilatory feats to keep her “inordinate amount of body hair” at bay. Plucking from personal experience and interviewing experts and fellow women, Altman waxed honest in a best-selling 2012 Kindle Single (“Bearded Lady”) about the societal and cultural shame surrounding women’s body hair. That deep dive became the first chapter of “Gross Anatomy,” her just-released essay collection that unpacks equally torturous topics including warts, sweat, hemorrhoids, PMS and “sex noises.”
“It had a lot to do with having a lot of body hair … from there, it was realizing that there’s so many natural and even essential parts of our bodies that we have a lot of shame around,” Altman, 36, told Moneyish of the impetus for her book. “I just wanted to figure out where those feelings came from, and the context that created them.”
Altman, who lives in San Diego with her husband and their twin 1-year-olds, is a former staff writer for the Village Voice with bylines in the New York Times and New York magazine; she holds a journalism master’s degree from Columbia University. As such, she consulted scientists, historians, doctors, anthropologists and sociologists to learn how and why we’ve long deemed certain aspects of the female body — camel toe and vaginal odor, for example — unforgivably disgusting.
The results of her research proved fascinating. She learned, for example, about the societal forces that drive women to purse their lips and contort their mugs into “mirror face” — “unconsciously (voguing) at themselves” — and then ridicule them for their vanity. “We’re ashamed because we’ve been caught performing being beautiful,” she explains in the book, “when the world just expects us to be beautiful.” (Altman narrates this excerpt in a video for Moneyish.)
She also learned that PMS, the monthly bane of many period-havers’ existence, could actually be viewed through an “empowering” lens. And she learned that if a louse dies during sex, the pair is unable to separate, leaving the surviving louse to carry its dead mate’s body around for the rest of its life. “I think it’s either super romantic,” she said, “or the most unromantic thing ever.”
“I think writing a book about (these topics) gives you such a great reason to call people and ask questions like that,” she added. “I want to know about my hemorrhoids, but would I call a doctor that’s written 90 papers about defecation and think I could have some of his time if I wasn’t writing a book? Probably not.”
Altman hopes that in understanding the context around these feelings of shame, women will feel “a little bit relieved of the pressure or stigma that they feel,” she said. “Not to make them feel like they need to stop doing anything that they enjoy doing,” she said, “but maybe understanding why they do it, and to just have a little bit more appreciation for the body and the things it does for us.”
Having dissected the angsts of the female anatomy, Altman says she still more or less prescribes to conventional beauty norms — but “less out of fear and anxiety, and a sense of hiding and horror that someone will find me out.” “I don’t feel like I’m hiding anything, and that’s a very big sense of relief,” she said. “I still don’t love my chin hair. … I’m OK that it exists, though, and that I have it.”
Since having her twin son and daughter, Altman added, she has also come to accept her stretch marks — even if she’s not crazy about them. “You don’t have to have this whole ‘I embrace everything; I’m amazing’ (attitude), because maybe you don’t feel that way … I started feeling some guilt that I didn’t feel that about my stretch marks, because people were telling me that I should,” she said. “I think it’s really just about feeling whatever you feel. … I don’t think I’ll learn to love them, but I’ll be OK that they’re there.”
Ultimately, Altman said, she hopes her book can help people realize they’re not alone — and that “whatever they are is normal, whether they have inner labia that are tiny or labia that are five inches long.” One study she encountered in her research, for instance, found that young women in the Netherlands who were exposed to pictures of a variety of natural vulvas came away with a more positive “genital self-image.”
“I hope that the book shows a variation of what’s normal, and that everyone’s normal,” she said. “And that they can reflect back on themselves and be like, ‘Huh. I’m OK.’”
The video excerpt is adapted from “Gross Anatomy” by Mara Altman, to be published on Aug. 21, by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Mara Altman.
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