November 10, 2010

Hair in History: Ancient Greece

I've been having trouble finding much information on the Bronze Age and shaving, insofar as what hair removal meant to the European societies of the time. Just have to dig deeper I guess, but in the mean time, there's a ton of information on Greece and I've only done two history posts so far. You'll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit, but in art history I always found it fascinating that this is where the Western ideal of beauty began to take shape. Sure, it changed a lot over the centuries, but who but the Greeks would think to turn beauty into a much-debated, much-philosophized universal standard?

Cultures leave such an intriguing record of themselves through their "art." Grecian art is especially interesting because you can see how their understanding and appreciation of the body changed over time. To them, their gods had human forms and were subject to the same challenges and errors as everyone else, so the Greeks' depictions of people in statues and on urns looked the same whether they were deities, heroes of legend, celebrated athletes or other highly praised men of the time. Studying and capturing the body was a big deal to them, and over time they became a little preoccupied with the "perfect" form.

There were critics who felt that perfection could only be achieved through mathematics, and preferred the more traditional, if less realistic and more stylized, way of depiction. That led to a lot of rhetoric on the subject, but for our purposes, let's just say that these criticisms didn't really end up altering the way Greek art was heading.

It's interesting to note that nude sculptures of women didn't appear in public until very late before our common era. And when they did, they were not sculpted with a single hair below the eyebrows--much like the statues of young men. It seems to hint that women were expected to be hairless in order to be in harmony with the ideal human form, particularly if they were of the upper classes. Body hair may have been ugly to them, even then. It certainly didn't ascribe to their preference for the beauty of youth.

And of course, it seems women had the usual hair removal methods of ancient times: scraping themselves with shells and blades, ancient tweezers, along with ominous concoctions that sound like potions from the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. One thing I hadn't heard of before was burning their body hair off with lamps like the one on the left. Not far from laser therapy, huh?

Towards the end of the Greek empire came Alexander the Great of Macedonia. According to many sources, including the Greek historian Plutarch, Alexander ordered that all Macedonian beards should be shaved so that this would not be a convenient handhold for enemies in battle. Apparently this was not an idea unique to the Macedonian army.

Some references say that shaving grew more popular thanks to Alexander, for with the practice of pederasty (older men taking younger men as lovers) ever-present, it was not uncommon for young men to shave to appear younger when they were taken as lovers by older men. This kind of relationship is described as being less about gender and more to do with active versus passive roles. The younger partner assumed the passive role, the one of lower status. The feminine one. Which brings us back around to this idea of hairlessness = femininity. Hard to escape that, though, since the female body was designed to have less hair anyway. So no big news there.

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