There comes a time in every woman’s life when she realises it sucks to be female. For Mara Altman, a New York City journalist and stand-up comedian, it might have been when the other girls in her eighth-grade P.E. class expressed disgust at her unshaven legs. Or maybe it was when the cute waiter at a Mexican restaurant complimented her on her moustache, or a homeless man commented loudly on her camel toe.
The female body has been a source of deep embarrassment for Altman, but in her new book, Gross Anatomy, she swaps shame for self-deprecating silliness and cringing for chuckling. I’ve been a freelance writer for five years now and have started to experience the downsides of desk work – like a loss of muscle tone and off-and-on haemorrhoids from all the sitting – so I looked to Altman as a kindred spirit, one who understands that it’s often more comfortable to live in our minds than in these flawed bodies.
Through a snappy blend of personal anecdotes and intensive research, she exposes the cultural expectations that make us dislike our bodies, suggesting that a better knowledge of anatomy might help us feel normal. This book arose out of a successful Kindle single, “Bearded Lady.” Altman has long been ashamed of having body hair, and of going to great lengths to remove it. For years she underwent expensive, and ultimately futile, laser treatments for facial hair. A gynaecologist reassured her that her hairiness wasn’t unusual given her Eastern European Jewish ancestry.