Those of you keeping up with this blog regularly will know a couple of things about it: 1) that I am keeping it as part of my Master’s thesis research, and 2) that I am most driven by the question of how we got to the current state of the widespread normalization of pubic hair removal among young, North American women.
Obviously, that statement cuts a wide, generalizing swath: there are all kinds of variations among body hair practices in this part of the world, and they are all impacted by a huge number of forces, including things like (but not limited to) race, class and religion, as well as factors like exposure to pornography and the tendency to read fashion magazines.
But obviously, pubic hair removal is not a new phenomenon for women. Though now widely hailed in mainstream culture as the preferred manner for dealing with the pesky, pheromone-laden stuff stuff, pubic hair has come and gone from fashion over the years.
As Merran Toerien and Sue Wilkinson write in their 2003 article “Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman” (published in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 4) “accounts of women’s hair removal come from ancient times and diverse cultures, including ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the Tobriand Islands, Uganda, South America and Turkey.”
According to a 2009 article by Sarah Ramsey, Clare Sweeney, Michale Fraser and Gren Oades called “Pubic Hair and Sexuality: A Review” (published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2009) most of what we know about early pubic hair practices has been gleaned through art. In Ancient Egyptian art, women are depicted with “small triangles of pubic hair, with bronze razors placed in tombs for the afterlife.” They also write that “relics from Ancient Greece clearly illustrate body shaving of some form, and Sharia law advised the removal of all body hair.”
Female pubic hair doesn’t make an appearance in European art until the late 19th Century when the Spanish painter Goya added some discreet fuzz to his work “The Naked Maja.”
Francisco Goya, The Naked Maja c. 1800-1803
Before then, nudes tended to be completely hairless — though the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear. Art critic John Berger, however, does have some thoughts (which do seem to make sense).
In his book Ways of Seeing (first published in 1972 after a television series of the same name), Berger makes all kinds of (sort of obvious, but still relevant) statements about how “women are taught, from their earliest childhood, to survey themselves.”
“She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” (p. 46)
This, he reasons, then affects how women function in the world. Men, he suggests, “act” where women “appear.” “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. the surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
Ok- thanks Mr. Berger (I’m sure your saying to yourself). But what does this have to do with art — or pubic hair, for that matter?
Well as Berger explains (and certainly, he’s not the first or only) the nude women depicted in the vast majority of European paintings (the stuff we all growing up uncritically understanding to be ‘great art’ regardless of our gender) are “performing their nakedness” for an audience of male spectators. Citing art historian Kenneth Clark, Berger writes “nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”
The spectator (for whom the nude is on display) is presumed to be male (as female viewers, our looking is quite different). She may not have her clothes on, but her nakedness has nothing to do with her own sexuality. Instead, she is appealing to his sexuality. She is just a body, an object, a beautiful thing to behold.
And here’s where it comes back to pubic hair. As Berger writes:
“In the European traditional generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman’s body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion. the woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion.) Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.” (p.55)
Gustav Courbet, L'Origine du Monde, 1866
With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider this painting by Gustav Courbet. ‘L’Origine du monde’ (the Origin of the World) was painted in 1866. Hugely controversial at the time, it is largely considered to be the first portrayal of female pubic hair on an adult body in European painting.
Of course, while this body has hair, she has no head or other body parts. Rather than a coy look towards the viewer, she is reduced to her genitalia…