What was the biggest challenge or surprise you encountered when writing this book?
I set out wanting to take readers on a wonder-filled journey to the center of the female body — a Magic School Bus ride that would enthrall and empower people about their own biology. But I quickly learned that our knowledge about the female body was filled with holes, myths, and misconceptions. So instead, I had to write, in a way, a book about why we don’t know what we don’t know. That turned out to be a much more difficult challenge, but also much more rewarding.
I have seen only rave reviews (no doubt well-deserved!); I wonder if you have faced any pushback or criticism from any groups or regions, given the rise of banned books, the cultural divide in this country…and how you can respond to a parent or group uncomfortable with this subject?
There is always criticism! Initially, I got a few critical reviews out of the UK pushing back my decision to dedicate the last chapter of the book to the history of gender affirmation surgery. To me, this chapter is central to what the book is about: it reveals better than any other how medicine’s assumptions about gender and enforced ideals about the female body harm anyone who falls outside that standard, including intersex people, nonbinary people, and trans men and women. It shows how medicine has often historically been a force for gatekeeping womanhood, in ways that have harmed all of us.
A few comments also accused me of bringing feminist bias to the topic, particularly in the sections where I point out the deep similarities between all bodies and challenge the idea that male and female are opposite sides of a spectrum. I found that a bit ironic, because the book points out how so much scientific knowledge that has been considered objective and neutral has, in fact, been tinged with masculine and racial bias. I’m a science journalist, and my conclusions come from emerging science showing that similar processes of regeneration happen in male and female bodies; that our reproductive systems stem from the exact same structures in the womb; and that we all rely on the same hormones to power our brains and bodies.
Medicine has a particularly entrenched culture; in some ways, the process of going through medical school means absorbing the values of that culture and learning to look at patients and their bodies in one way. Because of that, you can be a woman and still ultimately become a doctor or researcher with the same, let’s just say masculinist, view. So I think it’s going to take researchers who are willing to challenge the actual paradigm of medicine, its paternalistic history, its historic devaluing of female pain, and the way it often decenters patients as experts on their own bodies. And that needs to be a concerted movement of patient advocates, doctors, and the public, not just a few individuals.
In places you invite your reader into the narrative, to imagine their body, their legs, and their vaginas. Can you talk about choosing to invoke your readers as people with vaginas?
In the past, when I read books and articles about this topic, I often had the sense that I was not the intended audience. Even if I was reading a women’s magazine, the “sex tips” and sexuality articles were always about some assumed, heterosexual male partner and his pleasure. My goal was to write the book I wished I had when I was younger and beginning to explore my body and my sexuality. And that meant writing for those who actually have this anatomy, and deal with the lived experience of having society often treat their bodies as shameful, broken, or as “medical mysteries.” It also meant invoking a sense of wonder and curiosity about the female body, which I felt was lacking. My intention was never to alienate readers who don’t have this anatomy, but to provide an alternative — I would say necessary — view of the female body as something resilient, dynamic, and powerful.
Were you surprised by how much the book seemed to strike a chord with readers?
I began writing this book at a time when reproductive rights were under siege and “fetal heartbeat” laws were sweeping the nation; I finished it shortly before the Dobbs decision. I think given this context, it was pretty clear why a book about the ways medicine has misunderstood and underestimated the female body was important. I looked to history to show how medicine viewed the female body as primarily a reproductive vessel, ignoring the ways in which these organs are also critical to our sexuality, immune system, and overall health. As it turns out, these are some of the same truths that are being overlooked today. So the book turned out to be unexpectedly timely, or untimely, depending on how you look at it.
Any future books in the works?
I’m honestly not quite ready to embark on the next book! But I am continuing to look at hidden biases within medicine, a theme that emerged from this book. I recently started a column for the New York Times‘ science section called “Body Language,” which looks at the origins and consequences of some of the more striking medical language doctors use, from “incompetent cervix” to diseases named after Nazi doctors. I’m really interested in the doctor-patient relationship and how it’s changing, and language is one way into that important question.
What do you like to read for pleasure?
I love fiction, and feel I learn so much about narrative structure and the art of evoking character by reading it. Most recently I read Holding Pattern, a punchy little novel about a second generation Chinese immigrant who pursues a PhD in the haptics of touch, but ends up becoming a professional cuddler. I also love sci fi and speculative fiction; I just blew through Mother Night, a World War II book about an American spy who “plays” a Nazi propagandist and finds the lines between his two identities blurring, by Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut.