Warning: If you find nudity offensive please skip reading this post. I enjoy annoying people from time to time but, I prefer doing it in person ha ha ha.
During my European travels, I realized that the female nudes weren’t accurate. All of them looked like Barbie the pubic area of every sculpture was smooth with no detail. At first, it wasn’t really noticeable it later grabbed my attention given that every female nude either had its pubic area covered or it was atomically incorrect. I will provide a brief history of the female nude. Then I will discuss several possible explanations for why the nudes are inaccurate. Some of these observations are my own however the main argument of this post is rooted in art history research.
The first Greek nude sculpture can be found on the Ludovisi Throne Reliefs and soon after the first full-size female nude sculpture was sculpted. Aphrodite of Knidos, by Praxiteles, was seen as indecent at first given that it depicted a Goddess as nude (Schriemer,n/d). It is intriguing that just Goddesses were depicted nude, never reputable women. The sculptures of these Goddesses varied, sculptures echoed regional preferences and inspiration. The common trend was that Godly and earthly men were depicted in the nude. Human women are noticeably missing from this type of sculpture. “Until Praxiteles sculpted his Aphrodite, it was expected that goddesses be portrayed clothed. Both Astarte[i] and Inanna-Ishtar[ii], however, were shown nude and signified fertility and power in their particular cultural contexts” (Ibid,n/d).
The first one I thought about myself was that most of the sculptors were male and maybe they weren’t comfortable with creating a sculpture which was an exact replica of the nude female body. Fear of being dubbed a pervert may have prevented accurate female nudes. I did some Googling and found that the first female nude caused quite a stir in society. “The non-existent sculpting of the genital region may have been an attempt on the part of the sculptor to not cross the boundary of blasphemy by portraying a goddess in what would have been seen as a blatantly shameful fashion”(Ibid,n/d). Given that all the female nudes were of Goddesses retaining the dignity of the Goddesses may have been why these nudes aren’t accurate. Greek and Roman society was also based on class and remaining respectable mattered sculptors may have feared becoming possible social outcasts for sculpting detailed female nudes. But, this explanation is flimsy given that the breasts of the nudes are crafted in such detail so chances are this isn’t the actual reason why the ladies look like the ancient version of Barbie. And also why would an accurate nude Goddess be shameful when the male Gods and mortals show off everything.
The next explanation which I also came about by purely guessing was that most of the female nudes are standing in an upright position with their legs closed. Displaying just a V shape is what the sculptor may have thought was accurate. The sculptures aren’t sitting down with their legs open. Female nudes are often standing in positions similar to male nudes. This may be why they all ended up looking like ancient Barbie’s instead of real women. This explanation is purely based on guesswork and for me, it wasn’t enough of an answer. So I dug deeper.
The oppression of women
I will now explain how women were oppressed in ancient Greece[iii]. These conditions are most likely why the female nude was not sculpted in detail.
Patriarchy, erosion of Goddess culture and shame
Then the last answer to my question I found by researching. In ancient times Goddess culture was a key part of society. People revered Goddesses and built temples in their honour. Ancient culture changed though and became more patriarchal this lead to the erosion of female power and in turn of Goddess culture. The female nudes tend to be of Goddesses displaying heroic nudity* and given that women had less influence the depiction of the female form became intermingled with the politics of the time. A vagina which included the vulva was seen as something ordinary women had not a Goddess. Women’s genitals were also seen as unclean, burdensome and a part of women which all females should be ashamed of. “… somewhere along the line, the vulva became synonymous with the obscene. As ancient Greek society-Athenian society-developed, feminine power and, by extension, the vulva was denigrated. The surviving sculptures enforced Greek male ideals of the female body…” (McFadden,2015). Hiding a women’s true form may not have been about decency but, it was probably done to make females feel ashamed of their bodies of their femininity and this reduced their standing in society. Because, if a Goddess which is the epitome of what people admired was missing her private parts then the idealized female form excluded the reality of what ordinary women looked like.
From birth female babies were disadvantaged because of their gender. “As in many other male-dominated and agrarian cultures, female babies were at a much higher risk of being abandoned at birth by their parents than male offspring”(Cartwright,2016). Fathers could also choose whether their babies would be kept or abandoned. Mothers had no say as to whether their children would be kept or abandoned. This high incidence of infant femicide shows that males were seen as more valuable than females in ancient Greece.
Exclusion from politics and economics
Greek and Roman society was patriarchal which meant that men held political and economic power. Women were excluded from voting and holding political positions (Cartwright,2016). Slaves, women and the indigent didn’t have the right to participate in the running of the ancient Greek state. Women, therefore, had no direct political power. They were essentially voiceless. Women with brothers normally gained no inheritance from her father. If the female, in this case, was an only child her inheritance would be controlled by a male relative or her husband when she got married. She may have been forced to marry her closest male family member in most cases this was her uncle in order to gain her inheritance. Females had some individual possessions, usually attained as gifts from relatives. Things such as clothes and jewellery were typical possessions of women. Females were not allowed to make a will and when they died all of their possessions would become their husband’s property(Ibid,2016).
Marriage and sexuality
Most females married at 13 or 14 years old whilst men only married at 30. Women were expected to remain virgins until they married (Ibid,2016). The same standard was not required for men. Indeed prostitution was widespread and legal for men to use as a sexual outlet (Ibid,2016). Women had to remain virgins and had to accept that men were not required to adhere to the same standard. Men were allowed mistresses, live in lovers and prostitutes (Ibid,2016). Women could not cheat nor have children outside of their marriage. Women who were found cheating were charged with the crime of moicheia and were banned from communal religious ceremonies. Men could father children outside of their marriage. “Greek women were not expected to take any interest in sex as this might lead to adultery and to the horror of a potentially questionable bloodline. This restriction emphasized their primary role as child bearers. In this role, they were expected to be chaste and modest” (Schriemer,n/d). Women who were married were completely dominated by their husbands the law granted husbands total authority over their wives. Indeed celebrated authors such as Aristotle believed that females lacked the intelligence and mental faculty required to make significant choices for themselves (Cartwright,2016). There was also no place in society for unmarried women (Ibid,2016).
In Greek society, female genitals were less valued. Hippocrates who was a well-known doctor of ancient Greece and is also regarded as the father of modern medicine came up with the theory that women were not fully formed. He came up with the Hippocratic oath which is made by doctors and is also regarded as the father of modern medicine and his works influenced Aristotle (Kortsha,2017). In his writing “On the Generation of Animals” Aristotle explains that the women form is “a mutilated male” (Ibid,2017). He claims that a women’s period is semen but it is impure semen because it lacks “the principle of soul”(Ibid,2017) For him because men impregnated women their semen carried “the principle of soul” women were seen as far less important in procreation. According to Aristotle women have a cooler and moister disposition and this explains why the female body is mutilated. Women are deformed men who lacked the heat needed to become a fully developed person, to become a man(Ibid,2017). The highly respected Greek doctor Galen who lived in the 2nd century believed that female genitals were flawed too. Only the penis was perfect. Galen and other Greeks believed that external genitals were the only true genitals (Saleh,2011). For Galen and others having a vagina wasn’t enough as shown by this quote“…Aristotle and Galen both described the vagina as being devoid of a penis”(Ibid,2011).
It is clear that women had a very restricted role in the social order yet shockingly there are powerful women featured in Greek religion and mythology. Athena was the Goddess of wisdom she was seen as strong, clever, brave and principled. Ancient Grecian culture also revered Goddesses which were linked to agriculture, given that agriculture was crucial to society at the time. Fertility Goddesses were therefore honoured and well regarded such as Demeter and Persephone which was the most sacrosanct in ancient Greece. The Muses are seen as positive and are expert artists. The idyllic virtuous woman is embodied by the pure and loyal Penelope which features in Homer’s Odyssey; she remains faithful to her absent husband despite the temptation she endures (Cartwright,2016).
Yet ancient Greece also has a number of female characters which are rabble-rousers. Hera the wife of Zeus is jealous; Hera and Aphrodite use their feminine charms to make men lose their common sense. Then there are women in mythology which seek to ruin the missions of male heroes. The great witch Medea and the beautiful killer Sirens are examples of troublemakers in mythology (Ibid,2016). “Just as whites in apartheid South Africa were obsessed with racial classification and separation, the ancient Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time thinking about gender roles—and worrying about what would happen if women were to gain power. The more you oppress, the more you’re preoccupied by those you oppress…”(Tuttle,2017). Even Greek mythology perpetuated unequal gender relations. Zeus was a serial rapist (Tuttle,2017). Zeus raped 3 women Leda and Danae who were princesses and Thestius. He also raped Ganymede, a male mortal. It’s obvious that Greek mythology already set the bar for misogyny and toxic masculinity (Ibid,2017). So although powerful Goddess were venerated there was also negative female characters and deities which most likely helped maintain the misogyny and patriarchy of ancient Greece.
In conclusion, Praxiteles was the first sculptor to create a full-scale female nude. Goddesses were depicted in the nude yet human women were never portrayed as nude by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Male sculptors may have been embarrassed or fearful of accurately sculpting the genitals of Goddesses. The position of the sculptures also tends to hide the details of the pubic area of the nude female sculptures. But chances are that the inaccuracy of the nudes is linked to misogyny and patriarchy which existed in the ancient Grecian society. Patriarchy increased eroding Goddess culture, women were oppressed and their genitals were seen as less than when compared to male genitals. This remains paradoxical given that Greek mythology was sometimes favourable towards women. There were Goddesses and other deities who were revered yet the human female body was not revered in the way the male form was. At least now I know why the female nudes were missing their labia, pubic hair and other details.
[iii] *When I refer to Greece I am referring to Athens and other parts of the classical Grecian world but, I am excluding Sparta. Sparta was a unique ancient Greek state in that women played a similar yet different role in society. They were popular for being naturally beautiful and were not allowed to wear makeup or any beauty enrichments. They were provided with public education. Spartan women could not build careers and earn a living wage by using their education. But, they probably gained an income from owning property which their families either provided or a public land distribution program. Land ownership was never granted to other women in ancient Greece. Spartan girls were allowed to exercise outside this formed part of their education, just like boys. They exercised naked and competed in public spot events such as athletics. This was never done in the rest of Greece where women were not even allowed to talk to men other than her husband and relatives. Spartan women were also outspoken and confident. They were even noted as being flirtatious and knowledgeable with regards to politics.
Cartwright,M.(2016). Women in Ancient Greece, from: https://www.ancient.eu
Unknown Author.(2012). The Women of Sparta: Athletic, Educated, and Outspoken Radicals, from: https://www.ancient.eu
Kortsha,M.(2017).Calling women ‘non-men’ isn’t inclusive, it’s sexism straight from ancient history,from: https://www.feministcurrent.com/ 2017/08/22/calling-women-non-men-isnt-inclusive-sexim-straight-ancient-history/
McFadden,S .(2015). The lack of female genitals on statues seems thoughtless until you see it repeated, from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/13/absent-female-genitals-art-repeated
Saleh, N.(2011). Female Misrepresentations, from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-red-light-district/201105/female-misrepresentations
Schriemer,L.(n/d). Undressing the Female Nude the paradox of Morality in Ancient Greek Sculpture,from:https://www.academia.edu/27559215/Undressing_the_Female_Nude_The_Paradox_of_Morality_in_Ancient_Greek_Sculpture
Tuttle, K.(2017).Tracing the roots of misogyny to ancient Greece and Rome with Mary Beard, LA Times, from:http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-women-and-power-20171228-story.html
Thanks a million for reading my blog. I hope you enjoyed reading this post, it was written using a more academic essay style. Please feel free to comment.
xxx Nikki xxx