Content warning: nudity
by Jess Howard
Owing to a particularly traumatic experience with a bottle of hair removal cream, I recently started thinking about body hair. For years fashion photographs have been telling us that men and women alike should trim, wax, shave, and pluck in order to look beautiful and presentable. This opinion is reflected in the visual arts of today, with models seldom seen with body hair and advertising campaigns even choosing to show women shaving a hair free leg, to prevent the ultimate taboo of showing body hair in the ad itself. Today it seems body hair is off the menu, but how does this compare to artistic examples throughout history?
Some of the most famous depictions of body hair in the visual arts can be seen in the works of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Kahlo, who began painting after being injured in a bus collision in September 1925, painted numerous self portraits throughout her life time. Iconic and instantly recognisable, Kahlo is identifiable within her images through her thick black eyebrows that sit prominently on her forehead, as well as by the shadowing of dark hair often seen above her top lip. In an article paying homage to Kahlo on the Huffington Post, in response to an exhibition of her work at the New York Botanical Garden, writer Priscilla Frank described Kahlo’s brows as ‘one of [her] most defining and inspirational characteristic’ claiming that they symbolised her ‘fierce individuality, self acceptance, fluidity, rebelliousness and… agency over her body’, thus proving that body hair has a status in art history that it does not have in modern media.
Through my research into the subject, I found a number of examples throughout history that demonstrated a similar attitude to female body hair. In the 16th Century, artist Heinrich Aldegrever produced the engraving Eve With A Stag in which Eve stands holding an apple and facing a serpent, and has soft curls of public hair.
Interestingly, when viewing the image from a 21st Century perspective, it is this hair that first caught my attention, distracting my gaze from the animal that stands behind her. The piece, which is owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is accompanied by a label that reads ‘Eve, standing before a stag, holds up the apple in her left hand and gestures with her right. Her head is shown in profile, directed towards the serpent on a branch at the upper left’, with no attention paid to the presence of the figure’s hair. Evidently, our gaze is being distracted from the main features of Aldergraver’s work through the adverse reactions to body hair that we now have. Society’s negative opinions of body hair are changing the context in which we view the piece.
In other examples of painted figures possessing body hair, in particular pubic hair, I would suggest that certain pieces err towards a soft pornographic style. Amedeo Modigliani’s Reclining Nude, considered scandalous upon its production in the early 20th Century, depicts a woman lying along her back in an unquestionably sexual manner. Breasts pert and round, with a curved body and small waist, the figure’s curved hips surround a triangle of dark pubic hair, arguably demonstrating that she is an adult female of childbearing age, and therefore a sexual being. In comparison to today’s society, where an un-groomed vagina is often considered messy or untidy, Modigliani has included the model’s pubic hair to catch the viewers gaze and indicate her sexual availability.
Arguably, society’s opinions of body hair, particularly pubic hair, have changed throughout history. From realistic representations of mythical Eve, to the arguably sexual depictions of the female nude around the turn of the century, our attitudes towards body hair clearly influence the way we perceive artwork. As society and cultural opinions continue to change, it will be interesting to see how our perceptions of these paintings alter and develop, allowing us to question to what extent contemporary beliefs influence our attitudes towards the visual arts.