Body Hair in Art

In the next few posts, I’ll explore body hair in art history, especially on images of women. No this isn’t a post about puberty like one of those books parents toss to their kids because they’re afraid of the birds and the bees. This also isn’t a political post, do whatever you want, right? (I prefer glorious Patti Smith style most days.)

It is rare to see female body hair in art, and that’s worth exploring. Hell, hairy legs can still make headlines.

So where the heck is it in art history?

The most famous (and likely apocryphal) incident regarding body hair in art goes like this.

John Ruskin and young Effie Grey get married. He is unable to consummate the marriage because she had scary pubic hair. He was an expert in art history and grew used to Classical beauty, like a smooth marble statue, without a glint of body hair.

sculpture of the Graces
Smooth as butter.  The Graces, Greco-Roman mosaic from Villa Cornovaglia, 2nd Century CE

Well at least, something regarding her body disgusted him. One of Effie Grey’s later letter recalls:

…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 [that] first evening.

Photo of John Ruskin

There’s an ungodly amount of research into and books about this event (and into John Ruskin’s problematic preferences which may have played a part). Effie Grey was able to escape that marriage. But for my purposes, this story highlights how taboo body hair is and how fascinated we actually are by it. Even now it rarely fails to spark a conversation, especially regarding female body hair.

Women (and men a la Egyptians) have removed body hair for many reasons throughout the millennia, but you think body hair would pop up more in art. Perhaps the study of aesthetic modification of the body or body hair has been neglected as it pertains most frequently to women. I don’t know. But frankly, we don’t often see body hair on men in art either so it makes me wonder if it’s also difficult to render or cluttering? As with most things, it’s probably a bit of both.

But this masterpiece of Shunga by Kitagawa Utamaro shows how even the smallest bit of body hair can turn a piece into something breathtaking

Shunga piece
Lovers in an Upstairs Room, Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788

See it? It’s just a small line of neck and back hair standing on edge in the midst of their pleasure. In my opinion, it’s more erotic than the most explicit pieces of Shunga.


In these posts, I’ll use the examples of Mary Magdalene, the Queen of Sheba, and 19th-century art to study the portrayal of body hair in art history.

Most research available online focuses on pubic hair in art. Those poor arms, legs, and underarms get left out. So I’ll do what I can to involve them, but, like a happy trail, these posts may end up there. (Sorry, not sorry.)

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