The Renaissance Woman and Body Hair
Notoriously, on the wedding night of the celebrated art critic, John Ruskin and Effie Gray in 1848, Ruskin was so repelled by the sight of his bride’s body that he was unable to consummate the marriage. Effie Gray explained in a letter of five years later “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”. Ruskin was traumatized by the sight of Effie’s pubic hair.
For an English male art historian of the nineteenth century, steeped in the classical tradition and Italian Renaissance art, the expected female body would have surely been hairless. But how did these pictures interact with the way women treated their own bodies? Did the reinvention of the female nude in Renaissance Italy go hand in hand with a vogue for body hair removal?
The Renaissance could indeed be called a golden age of depilation. During that era, the practice of pubic hair removal flourished. Sixteenth and seventeenth century artists portrayed women as having little or no pubic hair. The work of Peter Paul Rubens, whose models typified the ideal in feminine beauty, most dramatically displays this as shown in his paintings. Recipes for the practice of hair removal where common place and easily retrieved from books.
A recipe that constantly recurs is one based on creating a highly alkaline solution that melts the hair from the surface of the skin, just as hair-removers like Nair do today. There is evidence of recipes for this paste, called rhusma, being used in Ancient Turkey from about 3000 BC and from the Trotula, a very popular medieval book of recipes dating from the twelfth century. Variations of this recipe have been frequently reproduced and include ways for women to remove unsightly body hair for “all” parts of the body.
A 1532 Book of Secrets gives this version of the recipe:
How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body
Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.