Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front
(and Back) by Mara Altman
Putnam, 2018; 312 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Look around around America today, and you’ll find a definition of feminine beauty so unattainable that most women don’t even try—or say that they don’t even try. Whether or not women know with their heads and their hearts that they can’t be Gal Gadot, however, only reveals the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that Mara Altman lifts out of the water and puts on funny and curious display in her collection of essays Gross Anatomy: Dispatches From the Front (and Back). Altman uses her personal experiences about and around the female body and common afflictions both sexes share to open up the discussions of what is acceptable in society (men sweating, for instance) and not acceptable in society (women sweating, for instance). She points out contradictions in what is acceptable in one part of the body versus unacceptable on a different part of the body (moving cleavage from a desirable top half of the body to the undesirable part of a lower half of the body), and what is controversial in blaming PMS for “bad” behavior.
Typically a book of this subject matter and approach would drift into a feminist manifesto, but Altman only touches on that aspect of the questions of appearance in these essays. Altman’s essays are funny in an innocent, why-does-it-have-to-be-this-way narrative, asking questions of experts in biology, psychology, and history for their input, and her voice never changes from that innocence, almost to the point where she gets some incredulous reactions from her experts. Altman’s questions are that of a creature from another planet landing on earth and wanting a primer for why she has to look a certain way to fit in; when the experts answer they seem confused that she doesn’t already know why. This consistency in voice not only gives the reader an easy path to follow through anecdotes to research and back, but it can make the reader wonder: why aren’t the experts approaching the subject like Altman did? By asking the basic why that we might have asked first, Altman is getting to the heart of perception, for both men and women, in appearances and behavior. At one point in an essay about how facial expressions look (no, she does not talk about how women are always asked to smile, but I thought about that request in this chapter quite a bit) she travels to upstate New York to see the inventor of the True Mirror, and asks behaviorists before her trip about why we see ourselves in a standard mirror the way that we do, instead of how others see us. One researcher, David White, says there is probably a rough draft of our own history holding us back from that insight:
(W)e have memories of our face, decades of different representations, which White believes muddle our ability to view ourselves clearly. “If you’ve been writing something for days, you become blind to the grammatical errors and typos,” he said, giving an analogy. “Your familiarity with the text impedes you from seeing it properly.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t like an essay—you can’t put your face in a drawer for a few weeks and come back to it fresh-eyed.
Much of Altman’s book is approaching a conflict of appearance as a person trying to set up their mask to make themselves acceptable to the public. Altman isn’t pressing for anything to be acceptable, but she does explore when each practice started to be in demand in society, and how it might be changed. This collection seems to be more of a balm for all the beautiful pictures we see every day of each other on social media, and how we measure ourselves against others in day-to-day interactions like going to a restaurant, traveling, participating in sports, and finding our comfort level. Without becoming too “woo-woo” as Altman likes to call it, this book helps us all see each other as human, warts and all.