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”.
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?
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.
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.
Removing 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”.
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.