If you've ever cursed the depilatory gods for why you feel you must shave your pits for summertime or wax your entire pubic area so that no man should tremble asunder at the sight of one errant hair, you've probably reached into the typical goody bag of suspects in search of a guilty party: pop culture, lady mags, Brazil, porn. Those are all good ones, and I say let's keep them in our sights evermore, because they are definitely up to something. But it appears — says Jill Burke, lecturer in Italian renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh — that all this obsessive hair eradication goes back a lot further back than a few decades of porn-induced frenzy, and that we may simply add "all history forever" to our list of female hair fascists. Or at least half a century.
Burke's fascinating post on the subject (and her blog is chock full of goodness) begins all the way back in 1848 on the famous wedding night of Indisputably Great Thinker/Critic John Ruskin and his bride, the reportedly attractive Effie Gray. All was swell until it was time to do the deed, when Ruskin — a grown man, and not a boychild — was apparently so grossed out by "her person" that he gave her the Heisman and could not consummate the marriage.
Apparently this brilliant critic, ironically enough, known for emphasizing the connection between art and nature, could not spare even his beloved the wrath of his critical eye when he gazed upon her pubic hair. (Aside: Was it gross? Was it unruly? Did it harbor rodents? Was she menstruating? Was she a hermaphrodite? Is he a dick? Recent Ruskin biographers seem to think the idea he didn't know what a woman looked like is absurd, and yet, no other explanation is offered.)
But Burke poses this question:
For an English male art historian of the nineteenth century, steeped in the classical tradition and Italian Renaissance art, the expected female body would surely have been completely hairless. But how did these pictures interact with the way women treated their own bodies? Did the reinvention of the female nude in renaissance Italy go hand in hand with a vogue for body hair removal?
In other words, are those pictures just "representations" of the female form of the time, or is that what women really looked like? Like most of us, Burke, too assumed the recent trend of extreme hair removal was just that — recent. She cites a study of UK women from 2005 that found some 90% of lasses mowed off the hair from underarms and legs, while 80% tamed their brows and bushes, figures which mimic those of the U.S. and Australia. Femininity, as any woman can tell you, involves doing a shit-fuck-ton of alterations to the natural to arrive at this softer, less hairy, and therefore more alluring, self, a paradox feminists have typically argued is a distinctly modern problem. Or is it?
If you look more closely at the premodern period, however, these assumptions are hard to sustain. It is a commonplace in today's psychological literature that body image and the desire for body modification of all kinds is profoundly affected by an unconscious assimilation of images taken from a variety of media sources. It is impossible to conduct psychological experiments, of course, on long-dead subjects, but my question is – can the proliferation of images of the female nude from the early sixteenth century onwards have affected women's notions of their own bodies?
Burke cites research that found an "explosion in treatments for facial appearance" in the 16th century. "Books of secrets" — which sound like an awesome thing I wish I had under my bed right now — contained what I can only imagine to be a Martha Stewart-style compendium of helpful stain removers and rash treatments, but also included recipes for what Burke says we'd consider cosmetic use. They range from making the skin smooth and shiny to removing every blemish. Also, there are "waters to make one look twenty or twenty-five years old." Those are some very specific waters. What if I'm aiming to look exactly 26?
And more importantly, they contain recipes for how to remove hair from every part of the body, with old-fashioned versions of Veet that melt hair from the skin's surface, a paste that has been found in recipes as far back as 3000 BC in Turkey and again in the 12th century.
Here, give it a whirl this Saturday night if you want, just make you sure you don't boil your own flesh off or whatever.
How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body
Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn't come off.
Burke found similar variations of the same concept in her research — one book contained nine different recipes alone. I don't know about you, but the ingredients sound totes more fun than thioglycolate salts: pig lard, mustard, juniper, a (WTF?) distillation of swallows. All this to remove "unsightly hairs."
Oh you women and your hairs which are literally not good to look at. But it's not just aesthetic, Burke reminds us. (Thanks, Burke. As if we didn't feel bad enough already now.) Hair was thought to be dirty and filthy and too much of it was basically a storage system for vermin and filth. But you know, just for women. Burke also says the humoral system, popular at the time, dictated that women were "cold and wet" by nature and men were "hot and dry" and that lots of hair means a hotter, dryer situation all up in your hair parts. Women are clammy fish; men are arid deserts.
Look, it's medicine, ok? A Spanish physician of the time explained:
…the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems.
I don't know, mister, that doesn't sound like the type of gal you'd want to bone on your wedding night. If, right now, you have any inkling this is all just humoral coincidence or not quite the indictment of hair-hatred-for-all-time I promised you, this little anecdote ought to clear it up.
Francisco Delicado's La Lozana Andaluza, was published in Venice in 1528. It tells the tale of an Andalucian prostitute, Lozana, in Rome who gets up to all sorts of sexual misadventures and also offers beauty treatments to female clients. Lozana declares that in a certain Roman brothel "You'll see more than ten whores, some who pluck their eyebrows and others who shave their private parts", and later recounts a story of how "By mistake we burned off all the hair from the private parts of a lady from Bologna, but we put butter on it and made her believe she was right in style". Later some women come to Lozana for some cosmetics and ointments, and also ask Lozana to "teach me and my cousin here how to shave off female hair, since that's the way our husbands like it."
Sorry, still thinking about butter vag. Butter bush? Slippery when wet? Is this where that whole "Tastes Like Butter" thing comes from — OK, I'll stop. But, anyway, see? It's for the mens. Do it for the mens. On the real, I can't imagine there is a woman untouched by this pressure to beat back nature, or in this case, shave/wax/melt/trim back nature. Like so many aspects of maintaining supposed femininity, which is about as natural as an acid trip, I think it all comes down to doing what you feel comfortable doing, and saying fuck-all to the rest. Although with stuff like this that's so steeped in our very notion of femaleness, it becomes increasingly harder to pretend this is a choice ever made free of an utter barrage of influence in one (hairless) direction. And I think it's really important to know that, and to empower women to move toward a definition of femininity that is less harmful to our psyche. And our actual vaginas.
Sadly, the endless modification of the female form to ever-changing (and sometimes never-changing) criteria to achieve "femaleness" only continues to push the idea that we are never good enough as we are, that there's nothing a little nip and tuck or shave won't improve.
The renaissance nude wasn't simply a celebration of humanity, or a homage to a lost antique past, but popularised – even fetishised – quite narrow notions of attractiveness in a society where, for women, beauty was a cultural currency and could determine their future prospects.
Over four hundred years later, this statement is just as true today.