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Gross Anatomy

Dispatches from the Front (and Back)

by Mara Altman

Hardcover, 312 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27 |


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Book Summary

A doodle-illustrated collection takes readers on an anecdotal tour of the female body that explores the social biases, self-maintenance practices, and aesthetic realities that shape how women view themselves.

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Courtesy of G. P. Putnam's Sons

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

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Gross Anatomy

Bearded Lady

It was the turn of the century. I was nineteen years old and a student at UCLA, a school bathed in milky young complexions and spicy Mexican food. I joined friends for dinner at a taco joint on Sepulveda Boulevard, where a dark and deeply handsome young waiter named Gustavo took considerable notice of my face. I will never forget that name, Gustavo. We flirted over the horchata and made googly eyes over the guacamole. My friends evaporated into the atmosphere until it seemed like there were only two of us left in the room. Every time he passed our table, he glanced furtively in my direction, and I returned his interest with the dividend of a smile and the promise of much, much more. It even seemed possible that, at some point in the evening's marathon mating dance, we would speak about more than the Thursday-night specials.

Finally, the check-and our moment-arrived. Gustavo placed the bill in front of my friends and leaned down to my expectant ear. I tingled with excitement about what he might whisper. A phone number . . . an address . . . a marriage proposal . . .

And then they came tumbling from his luscious lips, like poop from a pi–ata-five simple words that have seared themselves forever into my memory.

"I like your blond mustache," he said.

It is now eleven years later, and IÕm on the cusp of marriage to a wonderful man who is covered in hair. He not only makes me feel happy; he also makes me feel smooth. I am writing this story for him, because I have something to tell him.

Dave, I have something to tell you.

I am a bearded lady.

No, not like those women you see at the circus. More like those women you see on the street, in magazines, at the corner coffee shop. Yes, Dave, they're bearded, too. You don't realize it, though, because we are all (except for quite a few Southeast Asians; I'll get to that later) engaged in an endless process of removing the additional and unwanted hair we inexplicably, annoyingly came with.

You see, evolution played a cruel trick on the supposedly fairer sex. It involves chin hair, nipple hair, mustache hair, thigh hair, and-yes-even toe hair. Dave, by God, it's true-we have fucking toe hair! Just like you! But the difference is that we spend millions, no, make that billions, of dollars to have it waxed, lasered, shaved, and otherwise removed from our bodies so that when you see us naked, you won't run screaming into the night.

I'm telling you this now, before we get married, because I am, unfortunately, plagued with two parallel conditions: an inordinate amount of body hair and a genetic predisposition toward brutal honesty. These would seem to be contradictory forces, particularly since I've spent thousands of my own precious dollars in a futile attempt to look as though I'm not a hairy beast. I strapped myself to a wall in Spain and endured the pain of hot wax; I went for monthly laser treatments from a doctor in Bangkok who almost turned my face into a failed lab experiment; I own enough pink disposable razors to affect the quarterly income of Gillette. I've scraped, shaved, yanked, tweezed, and plucked nearly every visible surface of my body, not to mention certain sections I discuss only with my therapist.

I guess I'm telling you this also because I'm trying to figure out why I care. I know you love me no matter what. I realize no one-even you-will ever see the silky brunette strands that occasionally emerge from my nipple. I acknowledge that I'm not the victim of some cruel hormonal joke; I know that plenty of women have it worse than I do.

That raven-haired beauty in front of me at Vinyasa Yoga on Nineteenth Street, Thursdays at four p.m., sports actual muttonchops. But why, when I look in the mirror, do I see Roddy McDowall in Planet of the Apes? How can I rid myself of an obsession borne by women since the dawn of time? What weapon do I have to combat the societal standard that all women must be smooth, supple, hairless creatures? When will I be permitted to let my hair down? Not my head hair, but my armpit hair, my facial hair, my leg hair, that little "happy trail." And is that even what I want?

You love me for who I am, right? So why do I want to be somebody else?

I was in my eighth-grade physical education class in suburban San Diego when I learned that there was a really bad kind of body hair to have. And that I had it.

It began with a group of girls, sitting cross-legged on the grass. Our uniforms-maroon drawstring shorts and a gray T-shirt, not that I recall every single solitary detail of that day-revealed our different stages of development. My shirt had altman written out in black permanent marker just under the peeling, screen-printed figure of our mascot-a crusader. Again, you just kind of remember these things.

While the PE teacher went off to grab soccer balls, we just sat there doing nothing, the sun beating down on us. To pass the time, I was contentedly grabbing one fistful of grass after another and then ripping it out. Grass. Out. Grass. Out. Repeat ad what felt like infinitum.

Finally one of the girls, April, got up and put her hands on her hips. She looked me up and down, but mostly down. She then took a jump back and flung her arms in the air. "Ewww, you don't shave?" April shrieked. "That's SO gross!"

I let go of the grip of grass I had in my hand. The blades of grass fell to the ground, like so many hairs. The girls looked at my legs. I felt like Sissy Spacek at the end of Carrie. The hairs sparkled in the sun like beads of blood. Under that withering Southern California sun, they wouldn't stop making a spectacle of themselves.

Other girl legs were splayed around me. It was the dawning of a new era as my eyes scanned them, pair after pair: Shaved. Shaved. Shaved. Shaved. Shaved. Shaved. And then, finally, back to my furry gams, announcing themselves so brightly that they were probably inadvertently transmitting SOS signals to airplanes.

I'd known that women shaved, obviously. At least it had been absorbed by my subconscious. But it wasn't until that moment that I realized I was supposed to join the tradition. I was one of them-a girl-and I had to act accordingly, or be shunned like a leper. My hair apparently represented a possible contagion.

As my fur was inspected by the nearby contingent, a warm rouge attacked the back of my neck and then snuck hotly around to my cheeks. I could pull my legs into my chest and then stretch my shirt over them. I could run away. I could pretend that I didn't hear April and hope that she disappeared. I grabbed another handful of grass and pulled it out, wishing that at that moment each and every one of my leg hairs could be reallocated with such ease.

I was already a little behind. Wait, make that really behind. I was roughly a foot shorter than the average eighth grader and had not yet developed a sense of fashion, unless "fashion" could be described as five different colors of sweatpants.

When I was twelve, my mom asked me if I wanted jeans and I declined for practical reasons. "They are too stiff and cold in the morning," I explained. Going shopping was out of the question. I didn't fit into anything in the juniors' section so I had to go to the kids' sizes, where all they offered were variations on flower-print shirts and polka-dotted socks with lace.

Another issue was that I'd practiced gymnastics competitively for the past eight years, and as a result, what had developed were not my breasts, but my thighs. There was a group of guys who, when they spotted me at recess, would shout, "It's muscle girl. Flex!" Those were not the bulges I wanted them to notice.

I couldn't navigate my developmental abyss with conventional tools. So when I got home that day, I dug through the Everything Drawer in the kitchen and found the perfect implement: a battery-operated lint remover. I tucked it into my backpack and went to my room to begin my work.

For some reason I didn't feel like I could ask my mom or dad for a razor. I felt guilty even considering the request. I knew if I did so, I would be knocking their entire modus operandi. They saw the world through their late-1960s Berkeley-colored glasses and maintained a loyalty to All Things Natural-countering societal conventions like hair removal, and maybe having something to do with nostalgia for John Lennon's unkempt eyebrows. Meanwhile, my mom hadn't removed hair on any part of her body, ever.

And my dad professed to love it. "I've been very happy with this hairy little creature," Dad would say.

In addition to his shaving shibboleths, Dad often made the point that he did not like it when women wore makeup or perfume (yes, that includes deodorant). Basically, we were a hair-positive household that practiced a Don't Hide How You Came doctrine. But instead of feeling free to be who I was, sometimes this hairy-go-lucky attitude felt confining. Again, I have to bring up the White Musk. My dad wasn't cool with even a little spritz of White Musk, and who didn't like White Musk?

Apparently, the entire family had met secretly at some point without me and formed a pact against all forms of body enhancements and alterations.

Once, I'd put on some lipstick and my older brother asked, "Why are you wearing that stuff?" The question was so laced with condemnation that I felt like he'd found me shooting up heroin.

I pointed out to him that he was dating a girl who shaved and wore blush and concealer and lipstick and eye shadow and mascara and also some sort of raspberry scent that I felt certain I'd once also whiffed at the Body Shop. He said those weren't the parts he liked about her. But at thirteen I could connect the dots; he was attracted to girls who gussied up. Guys liked girls who gussied up. Still, I couldn't help feeling ashamed that I'd tried to change my innate lip shade in front of my makeup-mocking family.

When my brother went back to his homework, I looked in the mirror and rubbed off the fakery. I wanted to fit in.

But getting rid of my hair wasn't exactly about improving my looks. I didn't quite comprehend what a female leg should look like at that point anyway-and I wasn't trying to attract a guy yet. At thirteen, guys remained as untouchable as tropical fish in an aquarium. I admired their firm fins and bright colors as they passed, but we could never blow bubbles together. They didn't even notice my nose pressed up against the glass.

No, I had to remove hair for basic schoolyard survival, or risk permanent exile to the farthest reaches of the lunch area. I dreaded the idea of being called "gross" again. During that time of major pubescent shifts, April made it her job to strain out confusion-a self-appointed quality-control officer on the San Marcos Junior High School playground, barking at any girl who failed to maintain her proper place on the feminine side of the distinct gender line.

That meant no leg hair, ladies.

For the remaining hours of that school day it had felt like forty million sniper eyes were laser-focused on my legs. Even the slightest pupil flicker bound in my direction caught my attention. The embarrassment was vaguely equivalent to having toilet paper hanging from your shoe, but not really. You can't shake off leg hair. I know; I've tried that, too.

So I locked the door to my bedroom and pulled out the lint-remover contraption. I flipped on the switch. It started buzzing. I lowered it to my calf, feeling equal measures of shame for having hair and for buzzing it off with a machine. I cringed as it made calf contact, expecting excruciating pain. But it really only tickled, asserting itself as a machine manipulated for the wrong purpose.

Hair was not lint. I needed a plan B.

I couldn't steal a razor from my mom, like my girlfriends could from theirs, because she didn't have any. Although my father used blue Bic disposables for his cheeks, the commercials made it quite clear that legs needed pink.

After a week of wearing pants, I finally got the gall to ask my mom about shaving.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

To leave her ranks, I'd be a traitor. She'd be out a hairy compatriot. Me, her only daughter-her own flesh and blood-straying from the path.

But. I. Couldn't. Not. Do. It.

I nodded.

Mom bought me a disposable pink razor and some shaving cream and accompanied me to the master bathroom. She handed me the equipment and sat on the toilet seat, expectantly, as I planted my foot on the edge of the bathtub.

"Now what?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I guess you just slide it up your leg."

"You think that's all you have to do?"

"Try it," she said.

Clearly, she was clueless.

"Like this?" I said, moving the razor over my shin.

The razor left an empty path in its wake. Look, Ma-no hair!

I could now return to the schoolyard and show April my shiny, glamorous new gams.

By sophomore year, I was finally getting on track. Much to my pleasure, my pubes had sprouted. IÕd look at them in the shower and think, I made those! I remained in hair heaven for two entire anxiety-free years. If IÕd have known that theyÕd be the only two years of relative hair peace IÕd ever experience, I would have taken time to appreciate them more, maybe made a documentary. I was riding high, experiencing my first boyfriends. I discovered that boy pubes looked a lot like girl pubes.

Did I mention that I had pubes? I had pubes! We all had pubes!

But then, all of a sudden-late in my junior year of high school-an assemblage of keratin and protein had conspired beneath my skin to march out of a large number of tiny holes. And not just holes hidden where no one could see them. They were on my upper lip!

I'd noticed these little hairs on my upper lip before, but I'd ignored them-they were little blond wispy nothings. But now they were getting a little darker and a bit longer. If I caught myself in the right light in my bedroom, I could see a vague resemblance to Tom Selleck.