There are, of course, nude statues of Greek and Roman women, usually standing in a three point pose – a bent knee, a curved hip, a tilted shoulder to accentuate the form. One has a hand over a breast to communicate modesty; her hoohah is smooth. In fact, all the hoohahs are smooth: there are but modest dents around the pelvic bones of the statues, but no openings or slight separations of the pelvic mounds to be found anywhere. The forms are all Barbie-doll blank down there, like female bodies just sprung out the head of Zeus, fully formed, sometimes clothed and vulvaless.
Meanwhile, the male statues rock out with their cocks out; dicks are everywhere. Penises of all sizes surround me: curled and flaccid, pert and alert, balls dropped and shrunken. I wandered around, looking closely at all of the female nude statues and fragments. There are no vulvas, no protruding labia, anywhere. There’s no suggestion that vaginas existed.
I wondered for an instant, whether the plethora of penises was the work of male archaeologists so enamored that the male member was rendered in excruciating detail centuries before – so concerned at the thought of emasculating their forbearers – that their recovery efforts spared only the minutiae of marbled male bodies. How is it that marbled penises survived the sacking, that for nearly three millennia the penis survived in all its barely tumescent glory and nary a stray labia caught the attention of a curator?
Patriarchy has tried to erase imagery of the feminine since time immemorial. Destroy the image and you can control the narrative. Easter was appropriated from the pagans celebrating the return of Astarte. Before her, the fertility goddess Inanna descended to the underworld not to rescue her beloved male companion but to extend her own power; she banished her husband there in order to return to earth. Even the Venus of Willendorf has a vulva.
Yet, 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, and recorded history shows a shift in attitudes toward women. Sex and female sexuality were now rendered as symbols of shame, carnality became inconsistent with “reason”, and reverence for fertility in the culture was shattered.
Scholars believe that this shift is tied to the patriarchal urge and successful campaign to erase goddess cultures in antiquity. Written language helped to shape those ideas concerning women. Leonard Schlain argued in his fascinating book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, that the ascension of literacy and the alphabet in antiquity correlated with cultural shift in the treatment of women. We see this most notably in the works of Plato and Aristotle, who fundamentally believed in the inferiority of women, as memorialized in their written works.
Representative art reflected this change. Men, and by extension their bodies and their sex, were venerated. Jane Caputi wrote in her 2004 book Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power, and Popular Culture that “while the phallus is deified, its female symbolic equivalent […] is everywhere stigmatized.” It became synonymous with “irrationality, chaos, the depths, and the common.”
These marbled statues represented a value – an idealized value – of male and female roles in society that codified a power dynamic and a social order that persists in so many ways today. It’s such a gesture that seems thoughtless until you see it repeated over and over; it becomes clear that it is intentional and deliberate, and the lasting effect, erases feminine humanity. Even the most enlightened of us still have to unlearn cultural definitions of our sex that cast our vaginas as profane, obscene, ugly.
It makes total sense why Georgia O’Keeffe painted flower petals so obsessively, why Gustave Courbett voraciously embraced painterly realism voraciously to shock the art world with a universal truth, why Hannah Wilke kneaded erasers into vaginal shapes and affixed them to architectural and landscape postcards, cleverly titling the series “Needed to Erase Her”, why Judy Chicago decorative plate settings for her famous Dinner Party emphasize anatomy, or why Mikalene Thomas updated Courbet’s painting with her “Origin of The Universe”. The longer you study art, the more you understand what ought to have been there but wasn’t.
Rare is the graffiti of vaginas even today. I’ve seen it once, scrawled furiously on the tile walls of the Bleecker Street subway platform. But penises (and their twin companions) are everywhere: scaffold walls, subway advertisements, bathroom walls. Maybe that was why it was so startling to see that someone took the time to furiously scrawl a female form in bold sharpie strokes something close to Courbet’s masterful work.
Maybe it’s I never noticed that those marble statues never presented female genitals with any accuracy.
Western civilization, at its root, indoctrinated shame around the feminine anatomy, and by extension sexuality, and we still carry that shame in unconscious ways. The male nude body is so normalized in heroic art that it doesn’t shock or shame. But this is bigger than anatomy; it’s an argument for a way of thinking. The heroic male struts his stuff; the woman, even the sexualized woman, hides hers away.
Is this why – could this be why – there’s a preoccupation with us waxing down there? Why some women got attached to the idea that they must bleach down there because it is too brown, or why others believe their labia too enormous and seek to surgically alter them? Do all the times our genitals been erased in art and culture, wiped away and smoothed flat, contribute to our sense that they ought to be invisible or absent?
Artist Jamie McCartney recently told The Guardian that he was motivated to create Great Wall of Vagina to address the trend in labiaplasty, noting that “There’s nowhere to go for information [on the vulva], so someone can easily be persuaded for surgery ... If you look at medical texts of genitals, they’re not very broad, so TGWV presents 400 women and what you see is that someone in there’s going to look a little bit like you.”
Yes, I thought, if only we are not too ashamed to look.