'Gross Anatomy' Turns Humor On Taboos About The Female Body

Aug 30, 2018
Originally published on August 30, 2018 7:37 pm

When humorist and writer Mara Altman was 19 and attending college at UCLA, she learned something about herself which, she says, felt devastating at the time.

It happened while she was flirting with a server at a Mexican restaurant one evening. His name was Gustavo and he said five simple words: "I like your blonde mustache."

Now, she knew about this blonde mustache. But she had been bleaching it for years in the hopes that no one else would notice it.

Altman's latest book, Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (And Back), is a personal, darkly witty investigation into the human body — how we think about it and how it works. In a mix of personal anecdotes, science and cultural reporting and interviews, Altman explores pressing questions like, is PMS real? How come some people sweat so much? And who decided women shouldn't have body hair, anyway?

In an interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang, Altman says she began the book with her fuzzy lip story because she wanted to reframe the shame she and the rest of us often feel about our physical selves — and lighten the taboo. She decided to face the facts — starting with a confession to her now-husband, Dave, that she does everything she can to rid herself of facial hair.

"I needed him to know that he was marrying a woman with a goatee," she says with a laugh. "I just didn't want (1) to have him find out later and be upset, and (2) to just have to hide it anymore. I was just so tired."

Her husband's response when Altman told him? "It's just hair!" She says he couldn't have cared less.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On where the idea that women should be mostly hairless comes from

[Women in] the United States in the early 1900s — they were fine being hairy. But then ... advertisers came on strong in the 1930s. They said that having armpit hair was dirty and gross; being clean-shaven was respectable, feminine. And then you also look at another kind of theory that we are all so afraid of our mortality; that we cover up anything that kind of hints at us being beasts, or animals. We put on perfumes, we cover up our holes — anything that excretes or is moist we don't want anything to do with.

On what it was like to grow up in a family that encouraged 'going natural'

I still had the experiences at school where I didn't feel like I totally fit in. I was trying so hard to be natural, to be authentic like my parents said. But you still have the friends on the schoolyard who are like, 'Ah, she's hairy — gross!' ... I was in junior high and I was in PE class just getting ready to play dodgeball or something. And a girl pointed at my legs and said, 'Ew, gross, you're hairy!' And I just felt totally seen and ashamed and wanted nothing more than to rip out every single hair on my body. And yet that went against everything in our household about being natural. And then I had to confront my mom about it, and finally ask her if I could shave.

On what a psychology professor said when she asked whether premenstrual syndrome is real

She said that when we say that PMS made us do something, that we're using it as a scapegoat — and kind of discount it. And she also said that hormones don't create moods, but they can exacerbate moods. [Those feelings are] very legitimate; we should pay attention to them. Every time we say that PMS made us do it a misogynist gets his wings! It feeds into this idea that we're angry; that we don't know what we're doing. But really — like a woman who just feels really strong feelings and in another society would be extremely respected.

On how she found out sweat is awesome

The sweat researcher that I talked to said that if we were overheating and we couldn't sweat, we'd basically die in, like, 20 to 30 minutes. So when I see my own sweat stains now on my pits, which is probably daily, I try to appreciate that that's where we come from. That's how we're human. And I think that researching or learning about our bodies can also lessen the shame around it.

On being at a nudist resort while pregnant with twins — for research

You know, I wrote this book to kind of investigate why we feel the way we feel about our bodies. But a wonderful bonus was kind of realizing that we all have such a big variation. ... I was like, 'Oh my gosh! All these people. So many various sizes [and] shapes don't fit into any of the beauty standards we typically talk about or see. There are rolls! There's cottage cheese! There are hairy moles!' ... And they're walking around indulging in life. And you're like, OK, you know what? We're just lucky we have bodies. That we get to do all this cool stuff in our bodies.

Alyssa Edes and Renita Jablonksi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Alyssa Edes adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When writer Mara Altman was 19, attending college at UCLA, she learned something about herself. It happened one night while she was flirting with a server at a Mexican restaurant. His name was Gustavo. She says he said five words she will never forget.

MARA ALTMAN: I like your blond mustache.

CHANG: Now, she knew about this blond mustache all too well, but she didn't know the world could actually see this blond mustache. This story begins the first chapter of her new book, "Gross Anatomy." It's an honest, often hilarious look at women's bodies, how we think of them, our practices, questions, embarrassments. It's all on display, and Mara Altman is not shy about any of it. So there's your warning. We are going to talk about the female body for the next several minutes with Mara. Welcome.

ALTMAN: Hey, great to be here.

CHANG: So you could have started this book off with any number of regions of the body. But why did you start where you did with your upper lip?

ALTMAN: I mean, that was pretty traumatic. Come on.

(LAUGHTER)

ALTMAN: It was a bad moment for me.

CHANG: I felt for you. I really did in that moment. You thought he was about to, like, ask for your number or something.

ALTMAN: I know. I was really excited for a great, hot night but no, no.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ALTMAN: It just, like, awoke this gigantic bit of shame in me. But it also really fed into all my body hair and especially, as of late, my chin hair issues I've had with Dave, my husband. And before we got married, I really wanted to come out as a chin hair-er (ph), like, that I had a goatee.

CHANG: (Laughter) Like, you needed him to know the truth.

ALTMAN: I needed him to know that I had a goatee, that he was marrying a woman with a goatee. I just didn't want him, one, to find out later and be upset and, two, to just have to hide it anymore. I was just so tired.

CHANG: So how did that go when you confessed?

ALTMAN: It was crazy. You know, after all this angst and all this stuff, which I needed to go through and I'm so glad I did because, you know, I got to - I wrote this great thing that I can share with people. But we were sitting there watching "SVU" - Victims Unit.

CHANG: The perfect time to bring up anything painfully truthful.

ALTMAN: Yeah. Like, I told him - I said, you know, I have chin hair. And I told him all the stuff that I do to try and get rid of it. And then he just, like, looked at me like I was nuts. He went, it's just hair. And then he just stopped and he, like, went back to watching the TV.

CHANG: He couldn't have cared less.

ALTMAN: He could not have cared less.

CHANG: I mean, this was a deep, dark secret you had for most of your adult life. And I'm curious. How did this self-consciousness about what you look like - how did it develop? Because, you know, that seems like no-duh question, but in your case, you had two parents who really tried hard to free you of having any hang-ups about your appearance.

ALTMAN: Yeah. Because I still had the experiences of - at school where I didn't feel like I totally fit in. I was trying so hard to be authentic, to be natural like my parents said. But you still have the friends on the schoolyard that are like, oh, she's hairy, gross. So I found myself in a place where I didn't fit into either world and finally just trying to figure out why. Why do we have to behave in this certain way on either side?

CHANG: Can you tell me about that time when other girls at school pointed out the hair on your legs? You were in eighth grade, right?

ALTMAN: Yeah. I was in junior high, and I was in PE class just, you know, getting ready to play dodgeball or something. And a girl just pointed at my legs, and she's like, ew, gross, you're hairy. And I just felt totally seen and ashamed and wanted nothing more than to just rip out every single hair on my body. And yet that went against everything in our household kind of about being natural. And then I actually had to confront my mom about it and finally ask her if I could shave.

CHANG: And where did this pressure come from, this idea that women should not have hair anywhere except their heads and maybe their arms?

ALTMAN: There's a lot of different ways to look at it. So, you know, we know that ancient Romans and Grecians removed hair and why exactly it's hard to tell. Then when women came to the United States in the early 1900s, they were fine being hairy. But then I talked to this professor, Jennifer Scanlon, who said that advertisers came on strong in, like, the 1930s. They said that having armpit hair was dirty and gross, being clean-shaven was respectable, feminine. And then you also look at another kind of theory that we are all so afraid of our mortality that we cover up anything that kind of hints us being beasts or animals. You know, we put on perfumes. We cover up our holes. Anything that excretes or is moist, we really don't want to have anything to do with. That also is, like, sweat, you know?

CHANG: All the natural repercussions of being human, of being mortal, we try to erase.

ALTMAN: Exactly.

CHANG: Yeah, on that idea of trying to repress or erase the human stuff that's happening beneath the surface, I want to talk about your chapter on PMS. You take this on fully in the book. You even called up a psychology professor and you asked her whether PMS is a real thing. Tell me what she told you.

ALTMAN: Yeah. She told me it was so interesting because she really just turned the whole thing on its head. She said that when we say that PMS made us do something, that we're using it as a scapegoat and kind of discount it.

CHANG: Totally.

ALTMAN: And she also said, you know, hormones don't create moods, but they can exacerbate moods. And she had this very funny thing. She said, you know, I have all this PMS paraphernalia in my office, and one thing says I'm afraid that PMS doesn't exist because that means this is actually who I am.

CHANG: (Laughter) Right. Her version is that maybe PMS exaggerates how we express those feelings, but those feelings are genuinely happening.

ALTMAN: Exactly. They're very legitimate. We should pay attention to them, not only pay attention to them, but I've talked to other women who think we should pay attention to them even more, that we don't have the buffer to kind of be like everything's fine, you know, duh, duh, duh (ph). But we're really feeling things, and these things can be a headlight to show us what's going on in our lives.

CHANG: Yeah. So you meander through so many topics and neuroses that women have about their bodies from, like, body hair to sweat to sounds we make during sex to vaginal odor to the shape of our vaginas. And I'm just curious. After writing this entire book, what surprised you the most about how women think about their bodies?

ALTMAN: I think it's just how much anxiety we all have about such wonderful working parts and functions of our bodies. I mean, it shouldn't be surprising because I feel the same way, but it's just really shared, you know?

CHANG: That we could have so much shame for things that happen naturally to the body.

ALTMAN: Yeah. Like, when you just really look at it, you're like, you know, these things are also helpful to us. And if we can kind of reframe it in that way - you see sweat and the sweat researcher that I talked to said that if we were overheating and we couldn't sweat, we'd basically die in, like, 20 to 30 minutes. So when I see my own sweat stains now on my pits, which is probably daily...

(LAUGHTER)

ALTMAN: ...I try to appreciate that that's where we've come from. That's how we're human.

CHANG: That's my body working hard to keep me alive.

ALTMAN: Yeah. And I think that researching or learning about our bodies can also lessen the shame around it.

CHANG: Mara Altman is author of the new book "Gross Anatomy: Dispatches From The Front (And Back)." Thank you very much. This was a lot of fun.

ALTMAN: Thank you so much. It was wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRISTOPHER BOWERS' "CULTURAL IMPORTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.