Hairless Vulvas in Art History
written by Shea Sweeney
Yes, I am actively looking for someone to blame for the whole hairless vulva > hairy vulva situation. No thank you for the razor burn, countless dollars thrown to hot wax, and time spent removing pubic hair when I could be thinking about, I don’t know, making an NFT or this TikTok. I am firmly in the camp of all people have the right to body autonomy and if you want to be hairless and slippery from the neck down like a dolphin then that is your goddamn right. I’m actually equally disinterested in any argument that hairy is objectively better. Because, personally, I believe whatever you want is valid. I just don’t like being pressured into thinking that one is better for reasons of perceived hygiene or sexual desirability. There’s a Lolita-ness to the whole fixation with being bare that leaves me deeply uncomfortable. I know that I was not born desiring to have a bare vulva. I know that hair grows there naturally and serves the purpose of protecting my genitals. So, why is the image of the hairless vulva so seemingly ubiquitous and treated with such superiority when it’s not typically natural on an adult and isn’t particularly practical? The first culprit that came to mind was mainstream pornography. The fetishization of young women (Pornhub reported that “Teen” was the fifth most searched term in 2019), the image of the hairless vulva (often including a labia of a certain size and shape) is reiterated over and over again, seemingly infinitely. I’d love to blame dear old Pornhub for my woes, but that would be a grave oversimplification of what is actually a long (very long) and winding history dating back to the earliest known depictions of the human body in art. We’re talking 35,000 BCE (what does that even mean, cannot compute). Early humans carved a vulva on a cave wall in what is now Vézère Valley, France. It’s a rather crude rendition, but clearly sans hair. Of course, the question is; was that intentional? Or is it just really hard to carve tiny hairs into rock? I’m no expert in Paleolithic art (not that anyone thought I was), but my initial reaction was, yeah, it’s obviously just very hard to create detail with a blunt object in a dark cave…However, my pet theory was immediately challenged when I learned that starting in 29,000 BCE little Venus statues began to show up all over Europe and Russia, depicting women with huge boobs, curvy butts, and hairless vulvas. Not even the slightest etching of public hair. These Venus statues walked so that Bratz dolls could run. And later on, all around the world, there are more examples still of the ever persistent hairless vulva. “The Dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro” from modern day northern India, depictions of the goddess Hathor in ancient Egypt, The “Burney Relief” in what is now Iraq. The list goes on.
Eventually we arrive at the Greek sculpture of Aphrodite of Kinos (goddess of love, lust, passion, pleasure and beauty, honey). She’s widely credited as the first life-size female nude, and is thus extremely influential among other depictions of the female form that came after her. This statue has it all (Stefon voice): smooth, ageless skin of marble, perfectly round breasts, a resting face that emanates internal bliss, and though she holds her hand modestly in front, the woman has a completely hairless vulva. There are some arguments that the statue was probably painted at one point so pubic hair could have been added then, but it’s unlikely considering that male statues of the same period have public hair carved into them. In a way, that’s all beside the point because this isn’t even a statue of a human woman. It’s a statue of a non-human goddess. It’s a statue of a concept not a reality. No one looks at Aphrodite and says, Wow, no ingrowns at all? Wonder if she shaved or waxed. That’s not even part of the discussion. She simply is bare.
There’s a website called How To Talk About Art History (which is what I’m attempting to do right now), which points out that throughout Western art, nudity is basically made acceptable for mass viewership because bodies - particularly the bodies of women - are made “otherworldly” and “fantasy” by both their lack of hair and their lack of labia (vulvas are often just depicted as a fleshy V shaped mound with no opening, which sounds super fun). There are, of course, many examples throughout history where women’s body hair is included in art, but it’s not the dominant depiction. The inclusion of hair often signaled a certain permiscuousness, dirtiness, the untamable wild woman with an insatiable sex drive, contrasted with the innocence and purity of a body as smooth, hairless and perfect as stone.
Instagram. Facetune. Airbrushed bikini lines. Wrinkle-less faces. Aphrodite was an influencer. We know logically that the digital world we live in is heavily edited and still we seem to forget. We continue to strive for the impossible. We need constant reminding that what we see projected before us is not what we are. And it seems that dissonance between the concept of the female body and the actual female body has been biting at our heels for thousands of years.
We easily accept the archetypal woman - the goddess - who is blissful and hairless and youthful because she hasn’t actually lived a life filled with experiences. She doesn’t have a past, or needs or desires of her own. The male gaze is not upon her, she simply is the male gaze. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s hair we’re afraid of; it’s each other. Accepting the real bodies, minds, and hearts of other people, without filtering them through archetype or stereotype; that seems like the real task at hand.