"nudity appears after sin...the problem of nudity is therefore, the problem of human nature in its relationship with grace--nudity in our culture is inseparable from theological signature" nudities giorgio agamben
Celebrity gossip is virtually unavoidable these days, and given that I am a part of a celebrity -obsessed culture, I am more than willing to go on record and say that I am given to following the occasional rabbit trail about train wreck moments, the pros and cons of twerking, and other celebrity/cultural obsessions. Recently there was some meme about Gwyneth Paltrow and her grooming habits, prompted supposedly by a Red-carpet comment she herself had made about the need for razor application to her nether regions because she was wearing a potentially revealing dress and apparently Mrs. Martin "works a 70s vibe."
Now, I could really care less about any celebrity and the particularity of their personal grooming habits, but I've been thinking a lot about imagery, representation, the seen and the unseen, the veiled and the unveiled and it occurred to me that cultural attitudes towards pubic hair have something to say, quite a lot actually, about how we see ourselves, or what we choose to be seen of ourselves.
Yes, pubic hair. I don't know if you've noticed but there is not as much of it around these days. That's why GP's comments caused a little bit of a wave of celebrity gossip, 'rocking it 70s style,' runs a little counter to contemporary grooming habits for many people--Brazilian waxes, landing strips, or completely free of hair are norms today. This grooming phenomenon, while largely a female issue, is by no means exclusively so, the rise of male-grooming into the mainstream, and the growing interest in 'manscaping' or 'boyzilians', makes this a broader conversation.
Like most things, what we do with this particular part of our bodies, is cause for reflection, it says something about how we perceive beauty, about what is or is not transgressive or permissive, it addresses views on sexuality and power.
Hair in general is a huge cultural indicator, ripe with meaning. 'Real men are hairy,' 'long-haired women are sexy,' and it was once, and perhaps still is in some cultures (think the Islamic world for instance), the true mark of womanhood. Pubic has also functioned as a sign of entry into adulthood.
But a cursory examination of the sweep of Western art reveals that has been a dearth of pubic hair in terms of representation. Many of the most famous paintings of the nude feature subjects without pubic hair--it was regarded as too erotic, too taboo, it was about sexual desire, particularly, female sexual desire. There was also a sense that pubic hair represented the 'unclean' as it is said that prostitutes used to shave themselves to prevent lice. It was also enticing, the promise of something adult, and generally frowned upon by the Church, who didn't want people falling prey to temptation or giving in to base desires.
We have had a strange relationship with women and hair in Western culture for quite some time--women have been shaving legs and armpits for ages--because hair in those regions is often viewed as un-feminine etc. (I'll go on record and say that I don't agree, I could care less, and find femininity is attached to much more than body hair), and maybe pubic hair is simply the last arena, now it is simply the hair on a woman's head, that represents true femininity apparently. Now, I don't want to veer off into an exclusively female angle on this, as I said earlier, this is an issue that is increasingly being taking up in the world of men's grooming, but obviously not with the same level of involvement.
Goya painted the nude at the top of this post around 1800, for the Prime Minister of Spain, who kept it private and ony showed it too trusted friends. Why? Because the woman had pubic hair. This painting actually got Goya an appointment with the Inquistion. Gustave Courbet's, Origin's of the World, painted in 1866 was shown in a special room, the painting covered in a velvet drape and women forbidden to view it.
Pubic hair or its lack, elicits a wider range of public response today. It made its way into pop culture via a revolution in cinematic realism. The 1970s, in that giddy post-hippy movement moment where all norms were challenged, produced movies such as Don't Look Now, Last Tango in Paris, and a host of other films, that changed the presentation of sex and nudity, it became more graphic, more realistic, more revealing. Penthouse magazine in 1970, took Hugh Hefner's playboy aesthetic and burgeoning voyeur-culture a step further, and introduced pin-ups who revealed rather than teased, and with Hustler magazine following behind and taking things to new extremes just a couple of years later, pubic hair went mainstream.
Until the 1980's when pubic hair began to disappear once again. Some say it is because of proliferation and 'main-streaming' of pornographic films--the need to remove anything that gets in the way of more explicit viewings of the mechanics of sex.
I think it may be slightly more complex than that, although I would certainly not under-estimate the mainstream influence and easy-accessibility of pornography as a contribution to this phenomenon, but even fashion--the invention of the bikini, lingerie etc., represents changing attitudes toward beauty and display, and contributes I think. There is a bit of an age factor involved, a recent study revealed that studies have found that women under 30 are two to three times as likely to have no pubic hair than women over 30. The report goes on to say that it is connected to levels of sexual activity, but that doesn't explain the trend as people have been engaging in sexual activity for a long time and didn't feel the need to remove pubic hair.
I think it is a physical representation of a larger cultural trend towards the legitimization of voyeurism; combined with a loss of desire for particular kinds of intimacy, which is linked I think to a loss of faith in the durability of any number of supporting social institutions like marriage and family; and a trend toward self-revelation/construction.
I think this trend can, and is, seen from a number of angles. For some it can be seen as a sign of oppression and conformity, the pressure to conform to cultural demands regarding beauty, sexuality etc., and affirms ongoing objectification and it is therefore dis-empowering, particularly for women. It can also be seen as a sign of newly found strength and confidence regarding sexuality and oneself, a way of owning ones sexuality, ones body and gaining a new sense of control.
It can also be read as a sign of shifting attitudes toward life in general--a representation of the post-mystical world we now find ourselves in, the suspicion that there is nothing hidden, or nothing hidden that can't be revealed, that the 'mystique' actually gets in the way--that the removal of pubic hair is a removal of the mystique, magic and mombo-jumbo so often associated with sexuality, and more than that, with life in general.
If, as Agamben writes, nudity has a theological signature, then I would argue that we are in the process of shaking off a particualr set of signatures and writing a new one, that moves beyond mystique, magic and mystery--not into the fully known, but into the full unknowing, grounding ourselves fully in the materiality of our humanity and stripping away the layers of religious and theological taboo that are perceived as layering our lives with unnecessary and unhelpful layers of a certain kind of mystique. Or maybe we just like things neat:)