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Genital Depilation and Power in Classical Greece

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eScholarship - University of California
Keywords
  • Arts And Humanities
  • Art History
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Abstract

Throughout Classical Greece, the superficial artistic conventions of pubic hair illustration illuminate deeper insight into contemporaneous Greek life. In nude male statuary, the evolution of carefully sculpted and stylized pubic hair to unbridled tufts reveals the shifting definition of masculinity. No longer valuing the ostentatious pubic ornamentation of aristocrats, the newly founded Greek democracy turns to embrace the pubic hair of the everyman. With this change, every citizen can attain bodily austerity just as he can attain influence in his government. In a true reflection of the Classical ideal, his self-containment endows him with masculine power. He suppresses any potential threat to this power, a mindset not limited to merely his rival men. One also can apply this concept of patriarchal dominance to the practice of female genital depilation; the most powerful and therefore most threatening women remove greater quantities of pubic hair, while the more innocuous females need not practice such depilation. This applies to the goddesses, who lack pubic hair completely; the wives, who take pride in their neatly pruned genitalia; the hetaerai who partially depilate to augment eroticism; and the common slaves, who as harmless property do not groom extensively. The man’s pubic dominance remains unattested, however, in vases that include scenes with other males. While these subjects could threaten the patron with a masculine proliferation of pubic hair, they instead juxtapose him with their relative hairlessness. Through this portrayal, the artist simultaneously avoids ominous castration allusions and provides the viewer with youthful homoerotic erômenoi who assure him of his eternal dominance. The accumulation of both textual and visual evidence elucidates how pubic hair in Classical Greece reflects the contemporaneous zeitgeist, visually portraying the ideals of both public and private spheres.

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