Lauren Hossack reviews Sara Pascoe’s Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body and learns about the fascinating, complicated past and present of being a woman
What if everything we think about romance is wrong? Why do many women have such skewed relationships with their bodies? How does one navigate the sometimes murky waters of consent?
These are just some of the questions that have been bothering comedian and actor Sara Pascoe. So she went off and researched them all, and the result is Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body. It’s part autobiography, part history, part science – and all very funny.
Her refreshing, honest writing breaks down otherwise complex scientific studies and peppers them with anecdotes from her own life that elicit laughter, sympathy and self-reflection in equal measure.
A hybrid work, Animal tackles scientific theories of human behaviour along with medical and cultural history, making them easy for the lay person to understand. The problems and pressures cis women face are given the serious analysis they deserve, but there’s plenty of room for laughter too. It’s a highly entertaining and engaging read, full of facts you might be shocked to realise you didn’t know already.
For instance, did you know that the menstrual cycle can last anywhere from 20 to 60 days? If not, like Pascoe, you need no longer panic about not adhering to the oft-publicised 28-day cycle – turns out that’s just the average length.
Recollections of disastrous relationships, her first period and the abortion she had as a teenager serve as jumping-off points before these issues are explored in a wider context. Reflections include how the advice in teen magazines can leave you ill-equipped when it comes to relationships. Pascoe doesn’t let the media off lightly for what it teaches girls and women, or how it represents them. Animal is a sharp reminder not to believe everything you read, although, like the author, many of us have already learned the hard way.
In a similar vein, she notes how information about reproductive health can be poorly disseminated, meaning that many cis women know much less about their bodies than they could, or should. Time is also taken to examine some of the ways in which cultures around the world stigmatise menstruation, so while the majority of the book’s content is European-centric, some attempt is made to look beyond this limited context.
Pascoe acknowledges the heterocentricism of the ‘Love’ chapters admitting that what she writes doesn’t apply universally, though this is not addressed elsewhere. This may be due to the author’s own experience than any reluctance on her part to confront a broader range of relationships, though it does mean that LGBTQ+ identifying readers will find little in the way of content aimed at them.
In the ‘Body’ chapters Pascoe doesn’t shy away from exploring disordered eating and self-harm, both of which she details personal experience with. These don’t make for particularly light reading, but she explains her decision to write about them in quite a blunt way after her editor flagged the section for dealing with these issues “too lightly”. Some may find Pascoe’s tone and the subject matter triggering, but for those who feel able to read it it’s one of the book’s strongest points.
She chalks up her experiences with these particular issues to a flawed assumption that this behaviour was a normal way to treat her body, a message she absorbed from an environment pressuring girls and women to have ‘perfect’ bodies. The reason it felt so normal, she writes, is because several of her peers were doing similar things.
On the surface, the scientific progress of past centuries has led to great advances in women’s health, but Pascoe doesn’t hold back on naming and shaming those whose contributions have been more questionable.
She writes of J. Marion Sims, whose medical breakthrough came at the expense of the black women he used for his experiments. We also hear of a 1920s doctor who used dying plants to ‘prove’ women were literally poisonous during their period. Such theories and lack of ethics might seem shocking, but in discussing modern procedures like cosmetic surgery, Pascoe asks, how much has changed?
Considering it’s written by a comedian and has a broad focus on what being a woman means today, one might be tempted to place Animal alongside the likes of Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, or Bridget Christie’s A Book for Her. But Animal’s particular focus on the scientific theories that have affected women makes it stand out among these.
The book achieves that difficult feat of imparting knowledge in an engaging way, without making you feel like you’re doing the intellectual grunt work. In researching it all, Pascoe has already done that work for us, and the way she explains it makes it feel like you’re listening to a wise friend.
She’s succeeded in writing a highly accessible, highly educational book (look out for the vulva diagram!) tackling the sometimes tricky scientific and cultural reasons behind several of the issues modern women struggle with. It exposes some of the bullshit that women have to wade through in order to live in the world. Thanks to Pascoe and to Animal we can learn a little along the way and laugh at how ridiculous it all is.
Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe is out now.
Both images are courtesy of Faber.
The first image shows Sara Pascoe looking directly at the camera. She has blonde hair swept over her head and a black and white jumper that’s falling off her left shoulder. Credit: Dave Brown.
The second image is the book cover. It shows Sara Pascoe against a pink background, she has an animal’s tail sticking out from the edge of her black and white striped jumper. Pascoe is on the right of the cover, looking to the left. On the right of the book jacket it says “Sara Pascoe / Animal / The Autobiography of a Female Body.”