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Writing the Body And Missing The Point: Mara Altman’s “Gross Anatomy”

by Katharine Coldiron

In Gross Anatomy (out Aug. 21), Mara Altman allows her curiosity and her sense of humor to lead her into many of the human body’s less appealing nooks and crannies. In fifteen essays, varying greatly in length and complexity, she covers everything from head lice to plantar warts. It’s a fun collection, using humor and Altman’s insatiable curiosity to drive the reader’s interest. But the book is only a short step down from the unrealistic standards and rhetoric of women’s glossy magazines. Altman asks every scientific expert she can find for insight into the less polite aspects of her body, but she rarely considers what her motivating disgust about her impolite body might mean.

Nor does she step outside of her own social or economic context in order to consider how her struggles relate to others’. In “My Cup Runneth Under,” for instance, Altman takes a nude bike ride through New York. She records her own insecurity about her breasts when compared to other women’s, how surprised she is about the variation in breast size and shape, and the public’s varying reactions to “mass” nudity (only about ten women are on the bike ride). But she does not once consider how a bi or lesbian woman participating in this event might think or feel. Her commentary never stretches outside being a hetero woman unused to being around other hetero women in the nude. Boobs, it is taken for granted, are strange and funny, instead of attractive or ordinary.

Altman’s subjectivity drains pleasure out of the reading experience for anyone who doesn’t resemble the author. So much of her humor and insight depend on a specific kind of white, heterosexual, New York-based, upper-middle-class lifestyle. A funny story about accidentally spreading lice all over Japan is not so funny when you consider how much trouble and expense her vacation caused the Japanese citizens who laid their heads on the same pillows and chair backs. Altman’s journey through hating, and attempting to rid herself of, her body hair entails spending thousands of dollars, the kind of money that can pay rent or buy meals for people on minimum wage. She also calls herself a “chubby-chaser” at the top of one chapter. Is it okay to use that term, even if referring to oneself?

But the most serious problem with Gross Anatomy is in its premise. I hoped that Altman would expose the beauty-industrial complex as an entrenched, amoral system that makes us irrationally hate completely normal aspects of our mammalian bodies. I hoped she would say that sweat and birthmarks don’t make us unattractive, but human; I hoped she would write that the shape of a woman’s breasts and the sounds she makes during sex are irrelevant to her worth. Instead, I found clues that although Altman consulted many experts about women’s bodies, she may never have read Simone de Beauvoir.

The most troubling essay is “The Eleventh Toe,” an essay about “camel toe.” (Let’s call it “visible outline of the vulva,” or “VOOV,” so I don’t have to use that term.) At first, Altman consults ordinary folks who condemn any VOOV as “no no no absolutely not ever no.” Next, she consults doctors who perform labiaplasty, and is almost persuaded that these doctors are doing a service to womankind by offering choices to women ashamed of their bodies. She even relays a story of a mother bringing her 12-year-old child in for the surgery—and the doctor proceeding to perform it. At long last, she consults a couple of women’s studies professors, who point what I’ve been thinking across the whole book—there is so much more to this than ill-fitting pants:

In essence, she was telling me that my own repulsion of camel toe went way beyond what I thought was simply a fashion faux pas; [it] has roots—gnarly, ugly ones—in our culture. When we snicker at a woman’s vulva outline, we are actually in some weird, fucked-up way condemning and constraining our own gender.

Yeah. Exactly. And that’s what a woman’s repulsion about her body hair, her vaginal odor, her sweaty pits, her too-small breasts and her weird face and her frizzy hair and her everything short of Hollywood perfection, is condemning and constraining: herself. Her gender. Self-repulsion is an effect of a system, one that would like nothing more than for women to be so caught up in superficial self-hatred that we don’t perceive our own power.

“I’m usually not all about the patriarchy keeping us down,” Altman writes. In context, I think she means that patriarchal oppression isn’t a precept she particularly believes in. If that’s the case, I’m confused about why she wrote this book. She moves toward understanding how women’s bodies are commodified and reshaped by the oppressive system in which we live, but she never grapples with how thoroughly she’s bought into this system, how ensconced in it she is at the starting point of each essay, and how far from the real finishing line she is at each essay’s end.

Only twice does she come close: at the end of “Face It,” she is “reminded, in those surroundings, of what it feels like to be inside a body, instead of what it feels like to look at one,” and in “My Cup Runneth Under,” she writes:

I hadn’t really dwelled on it before, but since my beginning, my breasts have always been for someone else. … Being topless is always a stop on the way to somewhere else—to a shower, to a breast exam, to sex—but is rarely the destination in and of itself. By exposing my breasts to everything and everyone…I finally got a taste of what it was like to relish them for myself.

That’s the real finishing line. We don’t exist for the gaze or the use of others. Beauty is not the purpose of a woman’s body; hating or removing the gross parts is a denial of what we carry around with us. “Pretty” or “gross” isn’t a real binary, because it isn’t the point. Altman never says this outright; I don’t think she’d even put it in those words. And it’s a needling commentary on our culture that Altman has written a whole book about her body and only nudged this truth a couple of times.

In the end, Gross Anatomy might help a woman who hates her body to step back a bit and contend with her incontrovertible mammalian qualities. But there is little of use here for well-read feminists, particularly intersectional feminists. Altman’s willingness to consult every possible expert to get her questions answered is admirable. But as a feminist, she has a long way to go.

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