Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier
Woman: An Intimate Geography really is just what it sounds like, written by a skilled science writer with a knack for gab. Natalie Angier tells us all sorts of fascinating things about female bodies we didn’t learn in health class, but without being essentialist or reductive about the categorical woman. Her introduction begins:
This book is a celebration of the female body–its anatomy, its chemistry, its evolution, and its laughter. It is a personal book, my attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling into the sludge of biological determinism. It is a book about things we traditionally associate with the image of woman–the womb, the egg, the breast, the blood, the almighty clitoris–and things that we don’t–movement, strength, aggression, and fury.
A woman is much more than the sum of her parts, whichever she may have, and Angier does a pretty good job of examining some of those parts with that in mind. Her tone is completely conversational and engaging. She writes almost poetically, sometimes so much so that it’s hard to read what she’s saying as real science–which may be just as well, as she also states in the introduction that she’s mostly tossing out theories and that
Some of the theories are woolier than others. Some theories I offer up because I stumbled on them in the course of research and found them fascinating, dazzling…
But WOW! The facts that I learned! For example, did you know that the womb produces “endorphins and dynorphines, two of the body’s natural opiates and chemical cousins to morphine and heroine” and “anandamide, a molecule almost identical to the active ingredient in marijuana” (p. 111)? That breast milk is basically highly enriched sweat? That sometimes the cells of fetuses can survive in mothers’ bodies for years after birth, even decades? I’ve been using this new knowledge to entertain at parties and informal get-togethers all week long.
Perhaps what’s most interesting, though, is how little we know about women’s bodies. There is incredibly little consensus in the scientific community about menstruation, for example: why it’s so much more regular and heavy in humans than in other primates and why it’s accompanied by so much blood. Or why, exactly, there is such wide variance in breast shape: if the flattest of us produce breast milk and suckle effectively, then why the large, rounded breast particular to humans? Are women really the “default sex”?
There were times, though, that Natalie Angier really bugged me. Despite her noblest of intentions, she is no stranger to sweeping generalizations. In her discussion of muscle and physical strength, she states that “Fat people are so cowed into self-loathing that they don’t realize the potential they carry” (p. 293). Really? This was disappointing. I did not expect that someone like Natalie Angier would fall prey to fatphobic propaganda’s insistence that all fat people are (or should be) self-loathing, that they don’t already realize their potential. And when contemplating the science of love, she says “The state of romantic passion is so overwhelming that we can be infatuated with only one person at a time” (p. 305). I’m sure that polyamorous folk would beg to differ.
I also really disliked the way she repeatedly referred to the reader as “gal” or “gals”. That’s just a matter of taste I suppose, but I found it obnoxious all the same.
Overall, though, I was completely engrossed by this book and couldn’t help but rush right through it. I’ve already begun recommending it to friends and promising to lend it out. It’s insightful, inspires genuine curiosity, and reveals how very cool women’s bodies are. And in the current global climate of women’s oppression, of sexist ideas that women’s bodies and processes are gross or just there for sex and impregnating by men, that’s downright revolutionary.
Edited to add: If you liked this book or if this book interests you, you might also like The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality, by Catherine Blackledge.