Fascinating Tidbits about Female Bodies from GROSS ANATOMY

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Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

Women are socialized into having a fraught relationship with our bodies: forever scrutinizing, shaming, and sucking it in (or sticking it out). What makes a spate of new nonfiction books so refreshing is the gleeful way they lean into the female body’s complexity, warts and all. The emphasis is in fact on the warts in these entertaining books:

Cover of Gross Anatomy by Mara AltmanThen there’s Mara Altman’s Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back). Gross Anatomy is a breezy text stuffed with jokes, personal anecdotes, and fascinating facts. This memoir-esque approach is endearing but has its problems, as it narrows the perspective. For instance, the chapter on sex noises is distractingly heteronormative. It doesn’t express any curiosity about non–penis-in-vagina sex (or even why there would be such a gendered difference in the “copulatory vocalizations” American women are socialized into making, yet American men are socialized into suppressing).

The book is also extremely western-focused. It talks about menstruation, for instance, as a culturally defined problem in European and European-descended cultures. But menstruation remains a more extreme taboo in certain non-western traditions, sometimes mandating the physical isolation of a woman on her period. Gross Anatomy is full of an appealing curiosity, but this curiosity generally only extends as far as Altman’s own environment.

Even with these quibbles, the book is chock-full of interesting information and quotes from an impressive number of researchers. Here are some of Gross Anatomy’s more WTF moments:

  • American women in the first half of the 20th century went to X-ray epilation clinics to remove their body hair, even after this practice was banned in 1940. Altman writes, “Many women suffered gruesome disfigurement, scarring, ulceration, cancer, and death, all because of the extreme pressure to become hairless. The women who were adversely affected were dubbed the ‘North American Hiroshima Maidens,’ named after the women who suffered radiation poisoning after the nuclear bombs hit Japan in World War II.”
  • Since 2000, the popularity of Brazilian waxes and smooth genitals among women has led to a massive reduction in pubic lice. Pubic hairs are the homes and transport systems of pubic lice, better known as crabs, in their two- to three-week lives.
  • We humans find it really hard to see ourselves accurately. One study by a University of Chicago researcher involved taking photos of people and changing them into more attractive and less attractive versions. When the research subjects looked at the photos of themselves, most thought that the altered-to-be-hotter photos were the genuine ones.
  • The Kama Sutra contains this gem of a sentence: “Cries like those of doves, cuckoos, green pigeons, parrots, bees, moorhens, geese, ducks, and quails are important options for use in moaning.” This is quoted in a chapter of Gross Anatomy on sex noises, which also notes that yellow baboons make the exact same noises during sex as they do during defecation.
  • Altman writes: “When I feel bad about something – like the woes of having a large belly button – I often think about Demodex folliculorum, a type of mite that lives on our foreheads. At night, it has sex on our faces. The microscopic beasts don’t have an anus, so when they fill up to capacity, they explode. Your face is a literal shitstorm. Somehow that puts whatever issue I’m having back into perspective.”
  • Ancient Greeks believed that menstruation was a crucial means of releasing blood, and that women would die without this release. So late periods were a concern. One way to kickstart some healthy bleeding was removing the toxic parts of poisonous beetles, stuffing them in wool, and sticking them into the vaginal canal, which would make a woman scratch until she bled.