Did renaissance women remove their body hair?

Image

Notoriously, on the wedding night of the celebrated art critic, John Ruskin and Effie Gray in 1848, Ruskin was so repelled by the sight of his bride’s body that he was unable to consummate the marriage. Effie Gray explained in a letter of five years later “he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person”. Although we’ll never get to the bottom, so to speak, of the reasons for Ruskin’s reaction, it’s been widely assumed that he was traumatised by Effie’s pubic hair.

And, frankly, no wonder. 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?

First, some methodology

There has been a fair amount of research over the last ten years on a new fashion for the removal of pubic hair amongst young women. It’s been linked in some quarters to an aesthetic of pornography now widely available on the internet that has reset the “norms” of women’s bodily appearance.

Visible body hair on women disrupts traditional gender roles – it is deemed to be masculine to have hair on one’s body in many cultures – and this includes the hair on the pubic area and armpits that naturally grows on most female bodies. In many cultures it is normal to remove this hair – in a 2005 study of UK women, over 90% participants reported having removed hair from their underarms and legs, over 80% from their pubic area and eyebrows. These figures are similar in the US and Australia.

Thus, as many feminists have pointed out, being a “normal” woman involves a great deal of work that men normally do not have to do. Sandra Bartky, in a much cited essay of 1988, considers Michel Foucault’s argument in Discipine and Punish that there was an “emergence of unprecedented discipline directed against the body” in the later eighteenth century. Bartky takes Foucault to task for ignoring gender – ““To have a body felt to be “feminine” – a body socially constructed through the appropriate practices – is in most cases crucial to a woman’s sense of herself as female”. This explains normative self-governimg practices such as the use of cosmetics, dieting and depilation. For both Bartky and Foucault this self-discipline is a by-product of modernity. Bartky argues that “In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: They stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment.”

The idea that there was a pre-modern era of “anything goes” in terms of normative bodies is a commonplace. Lennard Davis, too, in his important work on the disabled body and what he calls “enforcing normalcy” claims that “before the advent of statistics in the nineteenth century” images of beautiful women such as Venus possessed “a mythic poetic body linked to that of the gods” and thus “there is no demand that populations have bodies that conform to the ideal”.

ImageIf 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?

How to remove body hair – renaissance style

Sandra Cavallo has noted an “explosion in treatments for facial appearance” in the sixteenth century, as propagated by the proliferation of household recipe books – often titled “books of secrets”. These books are full of all sorts of recipes that might be useful for the household including many for what we’d consider cosmetic use. Alongside the reams of advice on creating the perfect complexion – recipes for A cheap easy liquor which can be used to keep your skin smooth, soft and shiny, or a lotion To remove every kind of mark from the face and …keep the skin looking lovely, or Waters to make one look twenty or twenty-five years old, there is indeed advice on how to remove hair from every part of the body in all of these books I have consulted. The renewed interest in facial cosmetics was, then, matched by an explosion in treatments for body hair removal. The Renaissance could, indeed be called a golden age of depilation.

The recipes

A recipe that constantly recurs is one based on creating a highly alkaline solution that melts the hair from the surface of the skin (just as hair-removers like Veet do today). There’s evidence of recipes for this paste – which is called “rhusma” being used in Ancient Turkey from about 3000 BC, and the Trotula – a very popular medieval book of recipes dating from the 12th century, but reproduced frequently since, also includes this.

A 1532 book of secrets gives this version of the recipe:

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.

Caterina Sforza in her Experimenti (basically a book of secrets compiled around the turn of the sixteenth century), gives more or less the same instruction, but advises that you should leave the mixture on the skin for “the time it takes to say two Our Fathers”.

All the recipe books I’ve looked at contain a version of this technique. The Trotula’s three recipes for hair removal are all variations of this technique in fact – and this perhaps is telling; the books of secrets written from the turn of the sixteenth century onwards have a proliferation of recipes for hair removal. Thus Caterina Sforza’s book has such 9 recipes; including one made of pig lard, mustard and juniper, and another involving a distillation of swallows.

Another recipe compilation in Bologna from around the same time has an entire section called Treatise on how to remove hairs from the body in various ways, so that they never return, which advises that the woman “who delights in keeping herself neat, and adorning and gently cleansing her face will need a depilatory that cleanly removes the unsightly hairs in various places on a woman’s body”. It gives no less than 16 recipes. This new variety of recipe types is equally noticeable in subsequent books, and they start to contain ingredients everyday, rather less volatile ingredients that one could get cheaply and use at home. There’s a particularly memorable recipe in the 1532 book, for example, that recommends women wash the area where hair is to be removed in a mixture of cat dung and vinegar.

Argumentative, muscular, ugly

Hair removal was not just aesthetic. As Cavallo has noted, there’s an understanding of hair as a bodily excretion that needs to be removed in the early modern period. A 1626 account suggests that a “bushiness of hair” creates a proliferation of vermin and filth – though it has to be said that there is little evidence for removal of male body hair for this reason.

In fact, hairiness in women could be a visual representation of humoral imbalance. According to the humoral system, women were cold and wet in nature as opposed to their hot dry male counterparts, and it was heat and dryness that was the source of body hair. Thus the sixteenth-century Spanish physician Juan Huarte wrote that

Having a lot of body hair and a bit of beard is a clear indication of low levels of coldness and moisture… and if the hair is dark then even higher levels of heat and dryness are present. The opposite temperature creates a woman who is smooth, without beard or body hair. The woman of average levels of coldness and moisture has a little bit of hair on her body but it is light and blonde. Of course, 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.

Having too much body hair could, in sum, make a woman a poor marriage partner.

ImageRemoving the hair could be seen as merely a return to the proper balance of a female body, avoiding the dangerous specter of a masculinized woman. Medicine, hygiene and beauty were closely intertwined in the Renaissance (as they are today). But certainly aesthetics were an element of hair removal. For example, 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.”

Male expectations of female bodies – or even as here women’s assumptions about male expectations of female bodies – can lead to highly effective self-policing. It’s not a million miles away from Sandra Bartky’s “panoptical male connoisseur”.

Conclusion

Terry Eagleton, in his After Theory of 2001 said “not all students of culture are blind to the Western narcissism involved in working on the history of pubic hair while half the world’s population lacks adequate sanitation and survives on less than 2 dollars a day”. As several outraged pubic hair specialists have noted (and yes, they do exist), research into women’s personal grooming habits is, in many ways the study of systems of inequality – particularly the internalisation of the notion that a woman’s body is imperfect unless it is somehow modified.

The study of cosmetics has been dismissed as frivolous – and that’s certainly still the reaction of some colleagues. It’s hard not to see some sexism, even misogyny, as a structural reason why this subject has been ignored despite the abundance of primary source material available that can give us an insight into the daily life of early modern women. Although there is no way to make a neat causal connection between the visual art of this period and female bodily identity, perhaps it’s time we asked these questions. 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. No wonder they sought to modify their bodies to meet this ideal.

About jillburke

I'm a senior lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and the Associate Editor of the journal Renaissance Studies. I have a research blog for putting out ideas and research more quickly than traditional publishing allows, and also to include thoughts, material and info that won't fit in an article or book. I also am involved in the Being Human in Early Modern Europe, and Making Up the Renaissance projects.
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42 Responses to Did renaissance women remove their body hair?

  1. Robert Destellirer says:

    I,m glad that after a long deserved summer recess your blog is back , as an retired historian i enjoy it very much. 2 questions did Hildegard von Bingen ( our newest Doctor of the Church ) also write something about womens dehairing .
    And was it for Jewish( after all Trotulla was a Jewish docter) and Muslim women the same ?

    ( did they follow the christian trends in this matter ? )

    kind regards
    Robert.D

    • jillburke says:

      Thanks Robert for your kind words. I will check Hildegard of Bingen – not sure if she said anything about body hair! It’s a good question too about Jewish/Muslim women. I’ve come across a recipe which is said to come from “grand ladies of the east” to do with burning the skin at a young age to prevent hair coming; and I’d think that hair removal would be common also in these cultures – but to be honest, I’m not sure and I’d love to find out.

      • Pubic depilation was required of Jewish and Muslim women through not only during the Renaissance, but before and after. An application of nura (a mix of quicklime and this and that) followed by sugaring (sort of like hot taffy applied and ripped off) was the usual drill at women’s baths. Henna applied after depilation soothed the discomfort (and enhanced the visual appeal of the nude body). Pubes and leftover menstrual blood were believed to attract and harbor the evil eye which might cause migraines, grouchiness, and speaking to one’s husband in a less than soft and deferential tone.. Removal of pubes and all traces of menstrual blood mitigated these dangers.

  2. Thank you Jill for this exploration of the Early Modern penchant for glabrousness! I am wondering if your researches uncovered any of these practises being inherited from the middle ages of beforehand – do we know what ladies, or even nuns did with this hair? I recall Ancient Roman sources of vigorous and painful removal of armpit hair from bath scenes and tweezers from antiquity are still being found.

    What a treat to to have you sharing these insights via a blog, cheers!
    Hasan Niyazi

    • jillburke says:

      Thanks Hasan, I think there is a long history of body hair removal, which must have gone on through the middle ages too – but not a great deal of written evidence for it. I’ve never come across any recipes for waxing, which seems strange, but that’s perhaps because waxing/tweezering was such a normal process that people didn’t write about it? As for what they did with the hair – your guess is as good as mine! Jill

  3. Robert Destellirer says:

    http://www.joodsleven.nl/Talmoed/Daf-onderwerpen/Moeed%20Katan/MK-09.htm

    I found this aboutJewish Women dehairing in the Talmud/Gemara it is in Dutch this site but sure with google translate.
    the last line is interesting as a Rabbi advises his daughter how to dehair here body part after part !!!
    And Rashi gave a commntary ( see the text ) s o it must be an old practice i think.

  4. Robert Destellirer says:

    http://www.daatemet.org.il/issues.cfm?ISSUE_ID=562

    I found the answer for you Jill :) forgive me to meddle with your research :) ( but once a historian and teacher ! always )
    So in this Babylonian Talmud ( link above ) a story about Tamar and there is stated that Jewish Women shave their pubic hair, Tamar not because she wasnt Jewisjh say the rabbi ,s.?

    Another thought was the renaissance removing of pubic hair only for the upper class ladys and courtesan s.?
    Working poor women i think/guess had no time and money for this kind of high culture ?

    By memory i remember(h ave to look ) that in witches images( paintings engravings etc ) around 1500 they have pubic hairs , but i have to look

  5. Robert Destellirer says:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2844270/

    According to this article about the malleus maleficarum suspect witches were shaven of their pubic hair before starting torture.
    i think as most supposed witches belonged to the common people it is possible to conclude that most common women didnt remove their pubic hair.
    i have to look in the malleus in my library

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  7. Fascinating. I just wanted to point out that the Spanish physician who mentions the excess of body hair and other masculine issues of a woman may be stumbling on a hormone imbalance or even what we know call PCOS in women, particularly when added up with infertility issues. It’s an imbalance of the female sex hormones, and I find it interesting that the physician, in his own way, has noticed this by calling these women more masculine.

  8. Caely says:

    Fascinating. I’ve read in the past that merkins were popular for a long time for women who removed pubic hair to prevent lice. This would be consistent with the proliferation of hair-removal recipes, certainly. Have you come across any evidence of this practice? How do merkins figure in your analysis?

  9. Sarah Y. says:

    Excellent post, thank you! I think it’s a fascinating subject and would’ve loved to delve into it for my undergrad dissertation but was told by my supervisor that it wasn’t appropriate.

    For further reading I highly recommend the book “The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair” edited by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein. Here’s an interview with the editor: http://www.hercircleezine.com/2011/07/14/writing-the-body-body-hair-and-its-cultural-implications/

  10. tlcbroyles says:

    What a great post / blog, and I love the comments and thoughts that follow. I’m a writer working on a novel set in the 16th century Italy, and Veronica Franco is a minor character. Now I know much more about her likely grooming habits, though working them into the book might be tricky…. :-) Great stuff. I’ll keep checking back on your blog.

    (PS – what is Gravatar, and why do I already have an online profile…? Does anyone know how this happens?)

  11. roxxan23 says:

    Wow, this is the most timely and helpful post ever. I am writing a paper (due Friday…eep) about cosmetic changes women made through history (I think, still working up an exact thesis and all) and I wanted to focus on body hair, body modifications and eating disorders so this is amazing!! Such an interesting topic anyway and so many helpful links in here too! Thank you!

  12. Susan Taylor says:

    Fascinating post; thank you for blogging this.

    “Male expectations of female bodies – or even as here women’s assumptions about male expectations of female bodies – can lead to highly effective self-policing.”

    What about women policing women? It often seems that women’s views of other women’s appearances (and their own in comparison) are by far the most critical.

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  16. Jemma Field says:

    Thank you Jill, what a fascinating and engaging read! I wonder if such “books” also included recipes for changing the colour of hair?

    It appears that such a desire to remove bodily hair was similarily present in seventeenth-century England, although recipes seem to have been slightly less abrasive/toxic. My supervisor put me onto one such book entitled “The Queens Closet Opened” that was published in 1656 and is essentially what you describe as “a book of secrets.” The recipe offered “To take away Hair” called for “the shells of fifty two Eggs, beat them small, and still them withj a good fire, and with the water anoint your self where you would have the hair off; Or else Cats dung that is hard & dryed, beaten to a powder, & tempered with strong Vinegar, and anionted on the place.”

  17. Mary says:

    While researching another topic, I came across an image of the naked Lucretia with noticeable body hair: See Heinrich Aldegrever after Georg Pencz, Rape of Lucretia (Tarquin and Lucretia), 1539–a later engraving has been depilated. I don’t think I can paste it here. It is plate 116 in Rona Goffen’s Titian’s Women (1997).
    Reflecting on this blog, I have thought that male pubic hair is also often “edited” out, or at least deemphasized. I believe this has been commented on by others. I am not suggesting, however, that men removed their hair as frequently or completely as women did (do).

    • jillburke says:

      Thanks Mary (and apologies for the late reply) – I’ll look this one up. There’s armpit and pubic hair on paintings by Hans Baldung Grien too. Could it be a German thing?

  18. Adam says:

    Hi Jill
    Its interesting to read that hair removal for women has been a hot topic for centuries. I enjoyed reading some of the methods used back then especially the arsenic/quicklime mixture. Imagine a product today having those ingredients, the claims courts and the lawyers would be extremely busy.

  19. This is fascinating! Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve always wondered how far back body hair removal for women went.

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  21. Joining the party late here, Jill, but I have an early eighteenth century reference that might be of interest to you on this subject. In the 1711 edition of his ‘Treatise of the Venereal Disease’, the London surgeon, John Marten, includes a brief digression on pubic hair removal which suggests that in England at least it was rarely removed, whatever the case may be in hot countries such as Spain, Turkey and Italy. He explicitly links a lack of pubic hair not only to immodesty, but to disease, briefly references merkins and recounts the case of an English gentleman who abstained from sex with his wife for two years after she had hers removed in a Turkish bath! The general gist is that a repectable Englishwoman would never do such a thing. You will find these refs on page 196-7, and there is a further ref to pubic hair and modesty on page 168.
    I am reading the Treatise at the moment for my phd on medical advertising, and I must say that it is full of fascinating stuff!

    • jillburke says:

      Thanks – that’s really interesting, I’ll look John Marten up. I do have the feeling that hair removal is a more southern European thing – and I wonder if it’s related to a braoder Mediterranean/Islamic culture… but all very speculative for now! It’s fascinating that pubic hair removal drove a man to abstention. I really should organise a conference on this…

  22. Robert.D says:

    http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/usse002gesc01_01/usse002gesc01_01_0001.php

    Good morning Jill.
    O surprise in this Dutch( Belgian ) book: van Ussel geschiedenis van het sexuele probleem you see in the list of illustrations i post the link here and translate the text a bit:
    in front of page32 ” rich lady with hat and necklace cuts the pubic hair away with a Scissor a servant girl helps here ….. …”woodcut 16 century

    That is a new aspect no potions creams etc but classic Scissors .
    would be surprised if after the scissors treatment came shaving ?

    • jillburke says:

      Goodness me – these illustrations are incredibly interesting. Thanks so much for sending this to me. I’ve never come across anything like it before, so will investigate further!
      Jill

  23. Amy says:

    Thanks – that’s really interesting, I’ve always wondered how far back body hair removal for women went.

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  25. John says:

    Thank you for this interesting, if off-beat blog post. Just my opinion, but a few things seem to get lost in the great hair removal debate. One is that removal of body hair, especially from certain areas,( how shall I put this?), tends to change the quality of contact in those areas, so appearance may not be the only consideration. As for “vermin,” being old enough to have known people who were born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and heard the stories of when they were young, even in relatively recent times, while not too common, it was not unheard of to find people who had lice, or other infestations. In earlier times, it seems this could definitely have been a consideration among upper classes. Yet another aspect, is that women seem to have definite shaving preferences regarding men (as far as I know in regard only to facial hair) that tend to change over time. A woman I know who grew up in the 1930′s and 1940′s said she would never go out with a man who had a stubble beard that is popular today, because these men “look like a bunch of skid-row bums who just crawled out of the gutter after a three day drunk.”

  26. John says:

    PS, While men may not have routinely shaved to prevent vermin, shaving may have the only really effective treatment to get rid of it in previous times. I have know one or two men who did shave their body hair at a time when it was not fashionable for men to do so (1950′s) to help get rid of vermin, Also Mark Twain mentions having his head shaved (while in Italy!) in the 19th century to get rid of head lice.

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