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BOOK REVIEW: Gross Anatomy – My Curious Relationship with the Female Body by Mara Altman

| 28 January 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Gross Anatomy – My Curious Relationship with the Female Body by Mara Altman

Harper Collins Publishers
August 2018
Paperback, $22.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Comedy & Humour

80% Rocking

Gross Anatomy could have been titled ‘Embarrassing body’ or ‘The Woman Stripped Bare’ because this memoir is about one writer’s curious relationship with her body. In a world where air-brushed photographs and unrealistic beauty standards proliferate, Mara Altman has taken the opposite road. In her book, her messages are of body positivity, inclusivity, and normalising topics that may have been taboo or off-limits for some people. While some of the content may not be for the squeamish or the faint-hearted, this is ultimately an important look at some harsh realities. It offers the truth about a real woman’s body, not a plastic Barbie doll or those unbelievable representations found in advertising.

To become a master at any one thing, it is said that one must practice it for 10,000 hours. I have been living in my body for 306,600 hours, yet I still feel like a novice at operating this bag of meat. As soon as I feel like I’ve got everything figured out, something changes–boobs spring out of my chest, I sprout a moustache, floaters homestead in my eyeballs–and I’m left shocked, bewildered, and yet ultimately quite curious. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve wondered, especially after a spicy meal, why evolution wasn’t smart enough to build us with buttholes made out of something more durable. Lead piping, perhaps?

Altman is a former staff writer at the Village Voice. She has also published a previous book on sex. The idea for her sophomore title, Gross Anatomy was thanks to the neuroses she felt on account of her facial hair. She describes a life-changing experience in a restaurant that left her with an indelible feeling of shame. She also mentions her feelings of apprehension when she decided to tell her fiancé, Dave, that she had a beard. For the record, this man couldn’t have cared less and dismissed it as “Just hair!”

I am writing this story for him, because I have something to tell him.
Dave, I have something to tell you.
I am a bearded lady…
You see, evolution played a cruel trick on the supposedly fairer sex. It involves chin hair, nipple hair, moustache hair, thigh hair, and–yes even toe hair. Dave, by God, it’s true–we have f**king toe hair! Just like you! But the difference is that we spend millions, no, make that billions, of dollars to have it waxed, lasered, shaved, and otherwise removed from our bodies so that when you see us naked, you won’t run screaming into the night.

Altman is an intrepid author who should be commended for her candid forthrightness. She ventures where few other women dare–at least those in polite company. She is self-deprecating, sarcastic, and offers up lots of colourful anecdotes. These feature alongside the findings from Altman’s research and interviews. The human body is a source of fascination for Altman, even with its foibles and faults. She should write a sequel about the male body because her curiosity is infectious and likely to flow onto the reader.

This book won’t cure a bad hair day or a yeast infection, or anything else for that matter, but it is my hope that by holding up a magnifying glass to our beliefs, practices, and nipples, this book might serve as a small step toward replacing self-flagellation with awe, shame with pride, and vag odor with, well, vag odor is kind of inevitable. But get this, PMS might actually be a superpower!

This work divides into two main sections to reflect the top and bottom halves of the body. Altman delivers a series of well-written essays for these two parts, tackling topics like sweat, warts, haemorrhoids, navels, nits, vaginal odour, and more. She interviews evolutionary biologists, scientists, anthropologists, researchers, and doctors. Their contributions make this work both informative and educational. It’s an excellent balance between Altman’s anecdotes, which are mostly personal and revelatory in nature.

When radiation, and more specially the X-ray, was discovered in 1896, scientists found that besides killing carcinomas, it also eradicated hair. X-ray epilation clinics opened up all over the United States.
By the early 1920s, there were already reports that exposure to radiation could be dangerous. Yet clinics continued to stay open and offer the hair-removal service…
By 1940, the procedure was outlawed, so these radiation salons began operating in back alleys, like illegal abortion clinics. Many women suffered gruesome disfigurement, scarring, ulceration, cancer, and death, all because of the extreme pressure to become hairless. The women who were adversely affected were dubbed the “North American Hiroshima Maidens,” named after the women who suffered radiation poisoning after the nuclear bombs hit Japan in World War II.
To some women, hairlessness has literally been worth dying for.

Readers will not look at their bodies in quite the same way after reading this. Altman’s book is a funny and unique blend of her private stories as well as facts and lessons from history. These will make us all appreciate that there is beauty to be found in our bodies, even in the less savoury elements. Altman’s message is clear, as women we shouldn’t feel shame for any aspect of ourselves. We should celebrate and nurture our bodies; and make peace with our neuroses because we all have them.

We slipped on our tennis shoes and went to the courts. With thirty-five extra pounds, I wasn’t tremendously agile, but I did my best, which mostly meant standing in one place while my mom ran around collecting balls that I couldn’t run and hit.
Before we left, I needed to do one more thing. I surreptitiously peeled off the orange sticker and handed my phone to my mom. I went deep and held up my racket as if about to hit a ball [posing while naked]. I wanted a photo to remind myself of everything–the hair, the sweat, the swollen ankles, the acne covering both face and chest and the massive ball of babies on my front–because in that moment, that’s who I was and there was no shame.

Gross Anatomy is a title that will resonate with readers because we all experience negative emotions about our bodies. This book is an amusing romp through our imperfections. Gross Anatomy proves that our anatomy is neither gross nor grey. It also serves as an important reminder that bodies are a bewildering mixed bag capable of great beauty and wonder. Hallelujah.

Category: News

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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