I'm thrilled to be interviewing Mara Altman today. Today is the publication day of her book, Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back). The former staff writer for The Village Voice, Mara has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, Salon and New York Magazine, plus daily newspapers in India and Thailand. A graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Mara wrote her first book in 2009 called Thanks for Coming, which was translated into three languages. She has also penned eight bestselling Kindle singles. Mara lives in San Diego, California, with her husband and young twins.
Mara Altman: Hi, Zibby.
Zibby: How are you?
Mara: I'm good. How are you?
Zibby: I'm good. Thanks so much for doing this.
Mara: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Congratulations on your publication day. That's super exciting.
Mara: Thank you.
Zibby: Looks like you're in Providence from your Instagram. Is that right?
Mara: Yeah, I am. We've been following each other. Where have you been? It’s been amazing. Oh, my goodness.
Zibby: Oh, where have I been? I was in Mykonos. It was amazing. It was really fun. Anyway, back in New York City.
I loved your book, so funny. How did you even decide to write this book where you do a deep dive into every female anatomical issue we could possibly have as women?
Mara: It started with the body hair, mustache, chin hair situation. I wanted to tell my fiancé before I got married that I had chin hair because it was a thing I’d been hiding from him. I would tear up my laser cards and pluck in the bathroom and all these things. I wanted to get it off my chest so I didn't have to have anxiety of him finding out in the sunlight or something that I had chin hairs. I also had this moment where I was like, “To be a complete woman, it feels like I have to get rid of a piece of myself.” I did this whole investigation of why.
Why do we have these feelings about body hair? I finally ended up telling him about the chin hair. Of course after months of talking to all these anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, sociologists, whatever, he’s just like, “Okay. It’s just hair.” It was no big deal to him. When it came out, it really spoke to a ton of people. I had a lot of emails. People felt so much relief knowing that they weren’t alone in their fear of their goatees or stuff like that. When I realized that there were so many other parts of the body that felt exactly the same, that I had shame around and wondered if other people did, and felt like if I could find the context that shame developed in by looking at its history and the science around it, then maybe I could also destigmatize it and make us all feel a little better.
Zibby: Thank you on behalf of everyone. [laughs] It was really fantastic. How did you dig up all the experts? The guy with the mirror in the cement-making town, he was hilarious. One of your waxing ladies who was spitting out and showing you how men might feel about your body, some of people were so funny and unique. How did you find everyone?
Mara: Some of them, like the waxing, were just getting waxed like normal. That was recounting this story from life, an unfortunate event where I was told that I was way too hairy and that men don't like to get pubes in their mouth. She's like, “[spitting sounds].” The scientists I talked to, professors, it was just doing a lot of research, reading other people's work, reaching out, being persuasive about how great it would be to chat about defecation, hemorrhoids, and vaginal scents and then having people generous enough to share their expertise and time.
Zibby: That's awesome. In the book when you talked about laser hair removal, you said something funny. You won't pay ten bucks for a sandwich -- you say six dollars is your top price for a sandwich -- but you could rationalize spending thousands of dollars for someone to fry your face. Can you talk about why you think that is?
Mara: I'm just so desperate to feel better and not feel as hairy. It makes no logical sense whatsoever. I also go back to the fact that I do have all the research. There's this woman, Rebecca Herzig, who wrote a paper -- she's a professor at Bates College -- about the North American Hiroshima Maidens. These were women who knew that x-ray was bad for the body. This is what they used for hair removal in the early 1900s. They would go forth after it had already been outlawed for hair removal and go get it anyway because they were so desperate to be hairless that they were willing to risk bleed and cancer and death. I think I was in that group. Just give me the laser. I’ll laser. I’ll spend a thousand, sure.
Zibby: You did so much research and spent a lot of time thinking about all these issues. Where do you come out on this whole subject? Is it a cultural thing? Is it evolutionary? What is it that you think there makes be so much shame around body hair? Do you feel now you’ve accepted it and moved on with it now that you've analyzed it so well?
Mara: It’s really hard to find out exactly where it came from. While there's been advertisers that have really done a job on us, telling us how horrible we are or we’re hairy, there was also ancient Greek and Romans who removed hair. I talked to the evolutionary theorists or anthropologists who said that women are more attractive sometimes to men when they look younger. Removing your mustache and your chin hair makes you look younger because you're not looking kind of menopausal look, she said, to have the mustache. Oh, thank you. Great.
For me, investigating it, also finding that so many other women felt the same way, made me feel a ton better. Just putting it out there too, I don't have the shame, anxiety. I'm not hiding anymore. Those feelings really take a lot of energy. I do the same things. I still trim my chin hairs and I shave my legs, but it’s with a different feeling behind the practice, if you know what I mean. It’s how I want to present myself to the world. I don't feel like I'm hiding this big secret. I'm not afraid to be in sunlight and someone be like, “Oh, my gosh. She's a ruined woman. She's got a chin hair. What is that?” For me, having a chin hair when I first discovered it and didn’t realize that so many women had it, I didn't even know if I could be a woman and have a chin hair. I was so befuddled by it.
Zibby: You did such a good job of having us in the room with you as you go through this, all your emotions and how you felt and how so loaded a particular hair on your body could be. It was moving and funny at the same time. I would say also, it’s not that you're not hiding, but you rode topless on a bike ride. You went to a nudist colony with your mom, which was the funniest chapter ever. You're overcompensating now. You're like, “Look at me. Watch out.”
Mara: It’s also great to explore these things having the excuse of a book behind it. A lot of that information could be a little crazy. I am very comfortable now. It’s also like, “I'm investigating. That's why I'm getting [indiscernible] of my [indiscernible].” They go hand in hand. I'm douching for womankind so that we know about what vag scents do for us.
Zibby: It’s a mitzvah. [laughs] You also had this really funny chapter about lice in the beginning, one of the funniest chapters, called “Some Nits Picked,” when you worried you contracted lice from your brother-in-law’s kids. You set the scene at a restaurant by saying, “The place was lit in that wonderful New York way where you can barely make out who was sitting next to you. I could mistake a Pilates ball decorated with a beard and curly hair for my husband.” I thought it was so funny. I laughed out loud.
Then you go on to talk about your feelings about having kids, which you had a lot of ambivalence about. You said, “I do not often interact with kids. They scare me because they’ll look at you and say things like, ‘Why is your nose crooked?’ Or they will smile, stare straight into your soul, and then say something creepy like, ‘You're going to be dead.’” It’s so true. You never know what you're going to get. Now, you have twins who are about one year old. Is that right?
Mara: Yes. They're not talking and saying creepy things yet.
Zibby: Not yet.
Mara: Not yet. I was really in the midland about having kids. It turns out I really like it. I had very low expectations about it. I think that worked in my favor.
Zibby: I think that's the key to everything in life, low expectations. You had low expectations about having kids. How has it exceeded those low expectations?
Mara: In every way because they were so low. They're also so great. The twin thing, it threw me for a loop. I was thirty-four, almost thirty-five when I got pregnant. It was that, “Well, it’s now or never. I guess we’ll see what this is like. Okay.” Then seven weeks into being pregnant, I bled a lot. I was like, “There it went. Miscarriage.” I was sad, which was surprising too. I was like, “Oh, I guess I did want to have --” It was kind of informative. Then I went to the hospital because they were making sure it’s not ectopic. They were like, “You're having twins.” I was like, “What?” I said, “I heard that sometimes one can eat the other in the womb or it gets absorbed. Is that true?” They were like, “Uh oh. She probably needs some counseling.” It was so scary to think I was going to have two babies in there.
After I got with the program, I got excited. I felt super calm. During the pregnancy after I got over the whole having-two-at-once thing, I really got calm in a way that I hadn’t before, calm about my work, calm about my writing. I usually have a lot of anxiety about it. I was chill. It’s kind of stuck, the new mood. That's been really nice. The babies themselves -- it’s cool to see your body do such crazy stuff -- they're actually really great people. I like being around them. They're cute. I don't mind changing the diapers. It’s kind of crazy. I’m like, “I like you a lot.”
Zibby: That's convenient. Phew. That's funny. Now, you have to write another book on what it’s like before and after you have kids for your body and all the crazy stuff that goes into having children, especially having twins.
Zibby: I have twins too. I can relate.
Mara: Oh, you do?
Zibby: I do. They're eleven now, but I'm still recovering. [laughs]
Mara: What's that like?
Zibby: It’s crazy. I also have two other kids who are younger, but they're seventeen months apart. People used to say to me, “My kids are really close in age. I think it’s harder because I have to juggle two different schedules.” I was thinking, “No way.” It is hard having twins, not to minimize anyone's experience. It’s all hard. Parenting is hard and rewarding and amazing, but hard. Twins, it never ends, the competition and dealing with everything for the first time in surround sound, basically. If you ever need any sort of advice going down the path since I'm a decade ahead of you, let me know.
Mara: Thank you. And you have a podcast with four kids, and you write. That's amazing.
Zibby: Well, I'm divorced and remarried so I have some time off to get anything done, otherwise I would get nothing done. Enough about me.
When you were checking your head for lice compulsively during that scene, you wrote something else funny. “During that time I got so invested in looking for lice that I forgot about my usual terror of tumors. In some ways, it was kind of nice to mix up my concerns. Tumor hunting gets very one-note after a while.” I'm totally with you on this. I'm always convinced that any little thing is a tumor or everything is the biggest thing. What do you think that is? Why do we do this? Is it just generalized anxiety or society? What do you think?
Mara: It probably really depends on the person. It’s probably something that a therapist could help diagnose the best. For me, it’s where I put my stress. The run up to this book tour, the book coming out, somehow everything started being a tumor. I had a cold sore because I got sick right before. I was like, to my husband, “Oh, no. I think this is a tumor for sure this time.” He was like, “That's a cold sore.” It’s a channel, for me, for stress. It’s a way to control it in some way. I don't know for everyone else. It’s probably an individual thing. It’s another kind of stress. You're carrying the stress of this thing when you're stressed about that thing. Maybe then you can go to the doctor and be like, “Am I dying?” They’re like, “It’s like a cold sore.” Then, “Oh, okay.” They just relived your stress for you. Who knows?
Zibby: Maybe it’s taking something that you can't control and putting the stress on something that you can do something about.
Mara: I like that.
Zibby: Me too. I'm glad I majored in psychology decades and decades ago. I'm kidding.
How do you feel about the book coming out? Obviously, some sort of stress with the cold sore and everything. Are you excited? Do you have any worries? Is there anyone out there, like an old teacher or somebody, that you're like, “Oh, my gosh. I can't believe this person might be reading my innermost thoughts on this?”
Mara: I'm really excited. Mostly, to be honest, interviews and stuff, I get a little nervous before. I'm feeling really good right now. You're making sure that I'm comfortable. I would love people to read it. That’s why I wrote it. I want to share this research and the things I learned. My fear, more, would come from nobody reading it. I'm feeling very good. I'm really excited about -- I have seven readings coming up, all consecutive, every day. You wait for a year, basically, after you finish it. I turned in my book the day before I had my c-section. The babies are a year old now. It’s been a process. I'm excited that it’s back and it’s happening.
Zibby: How long did it take you to write the book? After you wrote it, what happened after that in the intervening year?
Mara: It took about a year and three quarters to write. That includes about three months writing nothing and throwing up a lot. During the year, it’s been a really cool year because I've found a perfect time to find newborn friends. I turned it in. I've basically been with the babies and preparing for this by writing essays and doing interviews and stuff like that.
Zibby: What do you want to happen next? Do you want to write more? Do you want to write more about your body? Want to take it in a whole new direction?
Your essay, by the way, about your dog was so funny. I forgot to write down the exact title of the essay, the piece in The New York Times, which I actually told my kids about yesterday. I said, “The writer that I'm talking to tomorrow, when she had a dog, the dog pooped once in the bathtub. They decided, “You know what? Let's just keep the dog pooping in the bathtub.’” My daughter, who’s five, is like, “What happens when her kids want to take a bath?” I was like, “She didn't have kids when she had the dog for the first time, but now she does.” They wanted me to ask you what happened? Does the dog still poop in the tub? How do you bathe your babies? [laughs]
Mara: Good question. That was called “A Puppy as a Starter Kid.” It was about how we ruined our dog by not training it well. Everything she did was so cute, so we let her sleep in the bed. When she went to the bathroom in the tub, we were like, “She's a genius. She wants to go on porcelain too. She gets it.” We have done a little bit of a better job as of late. We just moved houses. We’re trying to set new rules and hoping that, in a new place, it sticks. If any accident happens, we clean it before babies take a baby. You can tell your daughter they are not taking baths in my dog’s poop.
Zibby: Great. She’ll feel much better. I had a puppy a year before I had my twins too. We have so many similarities. I'm not even going to them all. I had a bulldog who I trained so badly. She wouldn’t even walk. I had to get a stroller and push her down the street. Then I started worrying, “Oh, my gosh. Am I going to ruin my kids too? Is this the best I have to offer in my parenting [indiscernible-laughter]?” Like you, once the kids came, it was much more natural for me to interact with them than it was for me to interact with my puppy. Somehow keeping them in a crib was much easier for me than keeping my dog in a crate.
Mara: It’s very inspiring. I could not live a life where I have three beings that are like this. I can only handle one other animal in the bed. I got us going on a good track. I feel a little bad for my dog. She gets screechy. She needs a lot of human contact. We give it to her. We love that doggy, our firstborn.
Zibby: You also talk a lot in the book about your relationship with your mom, which was also so great and so relatable. Your last chapter at the nudist colony, which I mentioned already, speaks to her willingness to do -- she's up for anything. I see you guys posing in pictures together. You're so cute. What has this book done for your relationship with her?
Mara: It’s been so sweet. So many things. They all try and come out of my mouth at once. She would read over a lot of the chapters first before I gave them to my editor. That was a really close thing to do. She’d comment. She's my worst critic but also my biggest fan. I can get mad too. She has really good insight. She's actually in the room with me right now.
Zibby: Hi, Mom.
Mara: “Hi, Zibby.”
She's a painter. I think she is sketching me on the phone. It’s very cute. It was also very informative to see where she really had revelations as well from the reporting, like the chapter about “Face It.” What do you truly look like? Can you pinpoint your actual face? Now, with the phones too, you take twenty selfies. Which one’s me? I think the hottest one is me. What about the other ones? Are they not you? When someone shows you a picture of you, “Oh, my god. This is the best picture of you. I totally captured you.” You're like, “Oh, my god. Please tell me I don't look like that.” She said that was a very liberating chapter for her, as well as the PMS chapter about how we might tend to scapegoat our emotions into PMS. It made her reflect back on her own experiences with PMS with a different lens. That's been really cool, seeing what subject matter captured her attention and to share the journey too, to go to the nudist resort with her. I also during this time, because I had the pregnancy and I was living in New York, I moved out to California where she is in San Diego. Now, she's on the freakin’ book tour with me. It’s been so fun. I feel so lucky.
Zibby: I love how you started the book off with your body, and your thoughts on your body were almost a reaction to her. Being a hippy wasn’t being a hippy enough for her, the lack of shaving and the arm hair and how that really started you off on this exploration of yourself. By the end of the book you point out to her, “If you're so self-accepting, then why do you bleach your mustache? What's that about, Mom?” You put her on the spot and made her really have to think about it as well.
Mara: Definitely. She has a revelation herself. She also wants to present herself in the way that feels good. That meant having hairy legs and hairy armpits but bleaching her mustache. We also find out in the chapter that it doesn't make the mustache invisible. It makes it blonde.
Zibby: That was such a movie scene, the scene with you and the guy in the Mexican restaurant, the waiter leaning down and looking at you and asking… [laughs] It’s so visual. It’s so awesome the way you write. I'm watching it on the movie in my head.
Mara: Thank you. That was a low moment in my life. It was good fodder.
Zibby: It’s all material. Who wrote that? Is it Nora Ephron or somebody said, “Everything is copy?”
Mara: I don't know, but it’s a good one.
Zibby: I think so. I think it was her. Those are really all my questions. I am so excited to have talked to you today. I'm so rooting for you, for the success of this book. I feel like it’s going to be insulting though if I give it to someone. They're going to think that I think they're really hairy or they have problems. Do you know what I mean? “Here, you need this book.” [laughs]
Mara: I think it should be in the spirit of --
Zibby: -- I'm kidding.
Mara: Everyone is hairy and smelly. That's the thing. This is all the things we hide that we all are. We’re all doing it behind closed doors, so people don't realize that everyone's the same.
Zibby: Anyone out there who I give this book to, it’s nothing personal. I'm going to give it to lots of people.
Mara: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. Thanks for taking interest in the book.
Zibby: Of course. Good luck. Keep me posted on the twin stuff, if you need anything.
Mara: It’s cool that you have twins. I’ll definitely reach out.
Zibby: Thanks so much. Best of luck. Take care.
Mara: Thank you.