Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe
Pascoe argues that we women are merely animals with very large 40,000 year old brains. The fat on our bottoms has evolved for pleasing males so why, she asks, do we hate it so?
This is a book that Irish Examiner columnist Louise O’Neill will probably love. Both she and Pascoe are in their thirties. Both are largely defined by their feminism. Both are funny. Louise is from Clonakilty in West Cork and Sara from Dagenham in Essex; neither of which locations shout London! or Dublin! or even Cork!
Intelligent women who are lovely to look at have a real dilemma. How do they reconcile their rational ideas with their longing to look pretty? How can they justify an interest in fashion with the need to be judged for their work? What if they actually like being loved and cuddled, by a man, at the same time as being entirely independent financially? It’s tricky.
This is how Pascoe begins. She challenges the way she is introduced in comedy venues. I imagine that she might ask why Dara Ó’Briain is not announced as male? Her name is Sara Pascoe and audiences might expect a woman. But no, they must be told that she is female. Sometimes she is described as a comedienne. And, that’s a strange word, isn’t it? Why not just call Pascoe a stand-up comedian? What is the difference? How does her gender come into focus?
Pascoe addresses these problems, and more serious ones, in her particular way. First she read loads (more than two anyway – her joke) of scientific books about evolution, genetics, environment and chemistry. Then she filters what she learns through her humour.
Pascoe explores, and then communicates in her indomitable way, what most of us sort of know. We have big brains. Our heads are so big that we must be born before they are fully formed. We must be nurtured very carefully for many years. We need a mother to feed us and, what Pascoe describes as a boy-mother, otherwise known as a father, to provide for and protect us. The other women and the other men in the tribe, who are also pair bonded, can help out too and we can support them. It all works well on the Savannah, she says.
It’s not like that anymore. Women can work and bring up children without men. They do not even have to have sex.
The modern woman, however, is tied to her ancestors who lived and bred millennia ago. When we lifted ourselves from four to two feet we survived better, and thus passed on our genes, if we bonded by having sex face to face. Women with fat on their chests (aka as breasts) emulating buttock fat, were preferred. The Page 3 girls were on their way.
Pascoe’s style is very attractive. There are jokes on every page. Laughing out loud is frequent, if dangerous, like incontinence. At the same time there are almost unbearable revelations about aspects of her life. I suppose her experience has been no more full of suffering than anyone else’s. Maybe she is just more honest. Or maybe, because of her vocation, she is prepared to share with everyone.
Pascoe’s publisher was shocked when she referred to an incident when she cut her thigh with a razor blade. She riposted: this is normal for girls. The incident remains in the book. There are also detailed descriptions of her early life which might be heart breaking were it not that they are laced with humour. Pascoe tells us about her failed love affairs and her struggles with eating disorders. Some things are harrowing but we have all been through similar times and we, like her, have survived. And she is self-deprecating in such a funny way.
Now that this review is written I am going to send the volume, disguised in a wrapping of brown paper, into the Examiner office, marked ‘Louise O’Neill, woman columnist’. No, cut the word woman. She is a columnist. The book should reach her, whether she is gendered or not, and I think she will like it.
Pascoe, Sara. Animal: the Autobiography of the Female Body. Faber. 2016
A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on page 37 of the Weekend section, 15 Apr. 2017.