Goya's La Maja desnuda (The Naked Maja), c. 1798-1805, and, La Maja vestida (The Clothed Maja), c. 1798-1805.
(from Goya "To every story there belongs another", by Werner Hofmann)
The word maja—which I have heard from some non-Spanish speaking pronounced as “maya” is incorrect; it should be said with a strong “h” sound—in modern Spanish, means nice, or cute, or simpática, in the feminine form. In Goya’s Spain however a Maja was a woman of the lower classes, and with the male Majo, were known for their elaborate, flashy style of dress and behavior. Well, The Naked Maja by Goya indeed revolutionized art history by showing female pubic hair in art.
Thinking of all this, my mind wondered to another important painting The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, located in Musée d’Orsay. (I am such a chicken. I don’t dare to post a picture of it because of a court case going on where I hope in the end facebook will be taught a lesson in the difference between nudity in art and the depiction of female nudity, which is also why I thought of this work). Interestingly it was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat in the 18th century for his collection of erotic art. A diplomat from a country where Alex Kuczynski tells in her wonderful essay And Be Sure to Tell Your Mother in the book Me, My Hair, and I, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, and excerpted in Harper’s Bazaar, received her first Brazilian wax. On a visit to a hammam in Istanbul.
Life imitates Art? Art imitates Life? Can it be both? In the same essay, Kuczynski talks about how the porn industry changed our Western ideals. Whereas previously it was only in the Middle Eastern cultures where removal of all pubic hair was the norm, it became acceptable and then eventually expectable. So much so that in the HBO series Girls, a male character is surprised to see that Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, has pubic hair. Hannah, never at a loss for words, beautifully responds: “For your information, this is what adult women look like!..” Emphasis mine.
Things were different in the 90s. Kuczynski in her essay writes that upon returning from that eventful trip when she was 24, from that hammam, seeing her in the naked, her “boyfriend at the time remarked that (she) looked like an enormous eight-year-old”. Again, emphasis mine.
So what does this mean? Vis-à-vis Goya’s Naked Maja and naked adult women and naked children depicted in Art. The genitalia specifically. Well, in the nude, the pubic area of a female child looks no different than an female adult's if there is no pubic hair. Between a boy and a man there is a huge difference though, no pun intended. You can never mistake a baby boy's genitalia from an adult man's, hence the depiction of baby Jesus with his penis. And also cherubim, like Eros, are depicted in art with penises. They are babies, non-sexual beings. Innocent. Also, female nudes with no pubic hair implied a purity, and therefore were non-sexual beings in a way. Not yet till that point somehow. Ready to be taken. Until The Naked Maja, a woman not of aristocracy, of a lower class, with pubic hair and that most inviting gaze in an inviting pose. It goes without saying it is like this Maja is saying, “I am an adult woman. Sexual. Because I want to. I have this gaze because I want to”. She is the one who wants this.
But I think in the Middle East where the culture to please men however painful it might be is prominent, and to look as young, and as close to innocent as one can be is strived for—be it for reasons of religion, class or hygiene or customs—and also, because of more access to porn in the late 80s, and then the 90s (porn in 70s depicts quite bushy women and men), changed female genitalia ideals. And now there is no difference, upon sight, between a girl and a woman in the naked.
I recently thought of all this as I was shaken to the core of hearing of all the horrible child abuse cases—the gory details of the sexual and physical torture little girls were exposed to makes you want to die—in my country of birth.
In the book I mentioned above Me, My Hair, and I, Siri Hustvedt mentions in her essay Much Ado about Hairdos, that “Turkish women .. remove their pubic hair” But I think this depended on class. For example, among my mother's generation of the urban, college educated women of means, none had been to a hammam. Again grooming practices differed between urban women and women of rural background. Now among millennials there is no class difference as in many senses, this one too.
But consider this: I have been told by many Vietnamese women that they don’t get Brazilian waxes. Their belief is that on their wedding night, if a groom sees that the bride has no pubic hair, he would send her immediately back to her parents’ home. Because it is considered to bring bad luck. I have always thought this to be a very good thing. I would like to think that this all started in order to ensure that a child was not forced into marriage before she was an adult. And how else can you tell a thin, young, adult female apart from a prepubescent one? From the existence of pubic hair.
I think this superstition, that a bride without pubic hair, or, that having sex with a female who has no pubic hair would bring bad luck changes things. It defines the adult genitalia as it should be, the object of desire, and leaves a child’s as innocent, child-like and untouchable. Who can actually start this change?
Lately I see very prominent eyebrows, full and thick. So much so that I am surprised to see there are any women left with super thin eyebrows anymore. Perhaps just as we get used to seeing more and more women with thick eyebrows we should also start getting shocked from seeing bald female genitalia in adult women. What shocks you? In art, and in life...
This is how my mind works: From Charles Saatchi and Goya’s Naked Maja, all the way to changing fashion in grooming. A mind trip from a newspaper article in England, to Spain, to another article in the US, to Vietnam, Turkey and the US.
And I am always talking turkey, and somehow, I always make everything a feminist issue.
With hopes of a better future...