They say that the only things that are inevitable are death and taxes. This aphorism leaves out of a lot of other things that are inevitable, things that Mara Altman gleefully discusses in Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back) in squirmingly awkward detail. In this book, Altman bears it all (sometimes literally) to talk about body hair, sweating, breasts, weird feet, vaginal odor, and other things that most of us don’t want to talk about. I had a fun time with this book because a) Altman is hilarious and b) her experiences reassure me that I’m not the only one to wonder if I have the guts to stop shaving my armpits.
Other authors, like Mary Roach, would write more about the biology of our bodily functions. Altman is much more interested in the cultural history of why we find so much of our own body gross. She talks to historians, doctors, and a lot of evolutionary psychologists to answer these questions. For example, she traces the Western aversion to body hair on women to the early twentieth century. Changing fashion meant that women were baring their legs and armpits and companies like Gillette were happy to create ads telling women to get rid of their unsightly hair. Lysol and Summer’s Eve have been playing on women’s fears that they have an unpleasant vaginal odor (we don’t) for decades.
Altman blends her experiences with interviews with the experts. The essays can ricochet from her topless bike ride (with a group who want to desensitize people to the sight of the female nipple) to talking with scientists about why some sweaty is viewed as good (during workouts or sex, apparently) and when it is viewed as disgusting (every other time). Part of the fun of this book is spending time in Altman’s quirky brain and learning more about her life. After reading Gross Anatomy, I kind of want to be friends with her.
If there’s a thesis in this book, I think that it’s we as a culture are often our own worse enemies. We’ve told ourselves that we need to do a lot maintenance work to be presentable. One of the saddest parts of this book is when Altman asks people about the growing trends of vaginoplasties. An increasing number of women are having surgery to change one of their most intimate parts because they’re terrified of not conforming to some idea of “normal.” It would be nice to think that we can change, but I know some people who react viscerally to the mere mention of pit hair. A lot would have to change, at very fundamental levels, for us to be as free to just be ourselves, with all our random hairs, smells, and quirks. Altman manages to go a lot further than I would ever be able to go. The book ends with her trip (with her mother, while seven months pregnant with twins) to a nudist resort. She seems to have finally found peace with herself, warts (occasionally literal) and all.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.