Kitty Corner: ‘Gross Anatomy’ humorously breaks down female body taboos

Mara Altman’s “Gross Anatomy” asserts that women should never be ashamed when it comes to addressing societal taboos about women’s bodies. (Photo from Penguin Random House

There are only three certainties in life: dying, paying taxes and wondering if something is wrong with your body.

Fear not, because Mara Altman is here to reassure you that everything is perfectly normal — especially those parts you don’t want to talk about. Her book “Gross Anatomy” delves into the taboo, those unmentionable bits where, if an issue crops up, you only worry about it privately, or maybe confide it to a friend, or occasionally disclose it to a health professional. Dividing the book into “The Top Half” and “The Bottom Half,” Altman embarks on a head-to-toe tour of the human anatomy, confronting topics like chin hair, head lice, warts, belly buttons, camel toe, PMS and hemorrhoids.

In addition to describing her own experiences with such subjects, Altman also conducts interviews with experts including doctors, scientists, an Allure editor, a salon owner and a host of sociology, anthropology and gender studies professors. Though often bemused by her line of questioning, they do their best to shed some light on the matter.

Some of these problems aren’t exclusive to women, of course. But it’s undeniable that for women, copping to struggles with “gross” bodily functions is a big no-no. Such admittance would puncture the illusion of the fairer sex as mystical beings who effortlessly comply with societal beauty standards, never spending hours soaping, shaving and squeezing their bodies into submission. Why would women get hemorrhoids? They don’t even poop.

“Gross Anatomy” serves multiple purposes; it is Altman’s own reckoning with her physical imperfections while also a demystification of the female body that considers the array of factors conspiring to keep women insecure and ashamed of their natural selves. The book would be, I’m sure, a great source of relief and comfort for many women who are finally witnessing their truth brought to light. But for me, it served a slightly more insidious purpose: feeling vaguely superior to Altman and the women who relate to her.

It was hard for me to relate to Altman. I have minimal body hair: I don’t even grow underarm hair and my leg hair is light and wispy and barely discernible. I don’t experience PMS symptoms: often my period arrives without me noticing. The last time I sweated was while running the mile in ninth grade P.E. and I’ve never worn deodorant or antiperspirant.

OK, am I bragging here? You bet your ass I am. But can you blame me, when I’ve been told my whole life that performative femininity is the key to ascension and acceptance? For someone whose most ardent desire is to strip away her corporeal form like the peel off a banana, I sure do spend a lot of time in front of the mirror.

There’s also the fact that I’m only 20, with the taut body and youthful arrogance to prove it. But I have enough foresight (and enough living evidence surrounding me) to know that such assets do not last forever. The day will come when my body will resemble those that Altman encounters at the nudist resort she visits with her mother — thighs dimpled with cellulite, skin dripping from upper arms, stray patches of hair sprouting up in places I didn’t even know contained follicles.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t develop PMS in the future, or, God forbid, hemorrhoids. My feckless treatment of my sphincters may just come back to bite me in the ass (literally).

Altman’s perverse humor combined with her scientific inquiries make “Gross Anatomy” a fun, enjoyable read, one that may resonate at different frequencies for women of different ages. One book probably isn’t enough to undo years of social conditioning, but it’s a step toward destigmatizing these fleshly prisons, no matter what they look like or what weird things they do.  

Kitty Guo is a junior writing about contemporary literature. Her column, “Kitty Corner,” runs every other Wednesday.