I was just beginning to "blossom" into my young womanhood when Farrah Fawcett Majors hit the scene. Everywhere I turned I saw her Jimmy Carter smile, wildly feathered hair and barely concealed, dainty little breasts. She lurked inside boy's lockers, on their bedroom walls and closet doors, and sometimes she suffered the indignities of being hidden from mom behind a more "decent" poster. She was the pin-up girl of the late seventies and she both helped set and support the beauty standard of the time, just like pin-ups before and after her.

Feminists have, with some good reason (and some bad reason) pointed out that pin-up models don't embody (if you'll forgive the pun) the entire woman. When we look at Betty Page's magnificent ass hiked to nosebleed height by her six inch heels, we're not marveling at her sparkling wit or dazzling conversational skills. But is this so wrong? Not, I believe, if we all realize, and embrace, the fact that here is a woman embodying a fantasy; and fantasies are essential to healthy human growth. Even for women. I'm pretty certain that not every woman who bought the famous Burt Reynolds centerfold issue of Cosmopolitan did so for the great articles and clever cartoons. We like to look at people who excite us, arouse us or just make us flush with pleasure. It's our job to make the model's job easier by realizing that just because Jayne Mansfield's chest measurement was bigger than the national deficit, didn't mean she was stupid or a slut. A girl's gotta eat, ya know...especially if she's carrying a lot of frontal software around.

We tend to think of pin-ups as being a very modern phenomena. We hear from every moralist who owns a soapbox about what a decadent and lascivious culture we are. But, as Billy Joel pointed out, "We Didn't Start the Fire." Before Christmas or Easter were invented, some men chose to have the likenesses of beautiful women painted in their homes. The ruins of Pompeii, felled by hot volcanic ash, revealed a number of Dionysiac friezes featuring (stop me if you've seen this before) lovely young ladies, wind blowing through their hair and one arm raised behind their head to allow for better full body viewing. Christian authorities, not at all tolerant of this sort of naughtiness, were unable to destroy these works of art when they launched their later crusades against it. Fortunately for the naked ladies of Pompeii, their anti-pornography oppressors were unable to find them, buried as they were under feet of protective ash.

The age of photography has been a boon to the pin-up, making it quicker and easier to portray beauty and distribute it to hungry eyes. In some ways photography has also made the subject matter easier to present badly. With thousands of men with wildly varying abilities taking hundreds of thousand of pictures of naked or scantily clad women of all physical descriptions, the result can only be a collection of photos ranging from sublimely beautiful to ghastly and tawdry. It's the price you pay for technology.

Prior to the mass use of the camera, those who wished to gaze upon female flesh used the medium of the advertising poster to satisfy their craving. During the 19th century, as now, appealing pictures of women were used to attract attention to various products. Jules Cheret was the dominant figure during the great age of Parisian color lithography. His images teased viewers with outlines of limbs and torsos and his women were sensuous and carefree. Other poster artists of note were the more sullen Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Art Nouveau god Alphonse Mucha, and Aubrey Beardsley, whose spare, simple works evoked an amazing degree of sophisticated decadence. You didn't see a lot (by our standards) during the 19th century, mostly bare arms and legs, though the occasional set of breasts did make an appearance. The poster era was stylized, charming, often fairytale-like and always filled with class; something we can't always say about the pin-up after the camera.

As the world prepared, whether it knew it or not, for the camera, it received its first "authentic" pin-up drawing: Charles Dana Gibson's alluring Gibson Girl, a girl not simply for gazing at but for American women to emulate. The Gibson Girl was not simply an advertising ploy, she was an individual...one that men yearned to touch, flirt with, marry. A culture still addicted to strictly enforced rules of etiquette was ripe for the picking by Gibson. Women could no longer simply look at the pretty girls (next to their bottles of lamp oil or absinthe), they had to become them; men were compelled to love them. The pin-up would never be the same again.

The first couple of decades, now with the trusty camera, looked similar in style to the poster art era. Dancing girls, actresses and "beauties" posed for photographers, often in lovely and romantic outfits. Nude and partially clothed women struck by Cupid's arrows, gazing into mirrors, preparing for baths or oceanside wading, or gazing at the viewer coyly/brazenly. Any man (or woman, if she was bold enough) could purchase sets of such photos either as cigarette cards or post cards.

Once the first quarter of the century ended, the pin-up really began to take off, so to speak. "Art" magazines began including lovely nude photos, again strongly influenced by the work of poster artists, though with a new zest that clearly labeled them as products of the Roaring 20s. Non-white women were finally allowed to appear in publications...but only in connection with dance. Pubic hair did not exist, the wonders of post production touch-ups making photo models as hairless as marble statues.

Though crusading moralists quacked about declining morals and the need for a universal morals code, the pin-up continued to grow in popularity and availability. During the 30s, Esquire, a respected magazine catering to fashionable and elite men, began carrying the Petty Girl, a cartoon girl accompanied by a humorous caption. Although she retired in 1941, she was not forgotten, having a film in her honor, The Petty Girl, released in 1950. In 1940 she had been introduced to her rival, Alberto Vargas' Varga Girl. Said Varga girl so outraged some that in the early 40s Esquire nearly had its second-class mailing privileges revoked.

The American economy loves a good war and, apparently, pretty ladies showing their legs, butts and breasts. Servicemen scooped up girlie magazines (gotta keep up morale, you know) and then removed their favorite pictures, attaching them to their lockers, mess rooms, tanks or airplanes. And Betty Grable, with her "million dollar legs" probably did more to lift troupe...er...spirits, than any USO show. In 1944 Gable starred in a film entitled, Pin-Up Girl. The genre had its name.

Celebrities began using the pin-up format for publicity stills and special pin-up models came into existence. Esthetic standards developed - it became important that the model have some type of beauty in face and body, that the pose be tasteful, whether the overall effect was cute, alluring or tawdry. Magazines specializing in pin-ups cropped up such as Glamorous Models and Tid Bits of Beauty. When the 50s arrived, bringing a post-war wholesomeness that white bread couldn't match, Playboy came on the scene to save us all from too much virtue. Since Esquire was phasing out pin-ups and other men's magazines emphasized adventure stories, rugged sports, travel, the outdoors and other butch male activities, Playboy was without peer. Founder Hugh Hefner had worked for Esquire and wanted his magazine to revive those golden days of girlie pictures. Gathering such amazing writing talent as Carl Sandburg and Jack Kerouac, Hefner's magazine was an immediate success...thanks in large part to the existence of a Playmate of the Month and a centerfold. The first Playmate? Marilyn Monroe.

With Playboy, the image of women changed drastically. This new fantasy lover had no scars, no body hair or freckles, veins or birthmarks. As Woman's Liberation formed, feminists, tired of social injustices, were outraged. Was this harmless fantasy or yet another example of men demanding that women be other than human? Perhaps the simple answer to this is: a little of both.

For better or worse, Playboy's success spawned a lower stratum of magazines that didn't even pretend to be literature. Big butts and boobs were the focal point for magazines such as Ace, Bachelor, Cavalier, Gent, Lark, Man and Rogue. Great Britain had its own heritage of B-grade pin-up rags. In 1965 Britain presented the world with Penthouse, Mayfair and Men Only. Each magazine was slick, literate and spendy; designed to compete with the American giant, Playboy. Bob Guccione, Penthouse's publisher, photographed most of the early "Pets" and used international beauties; a novelty. Another novelty for a quality magazine was the first, modest, appearance of pubic hair in a centerfold in the April, 1970 issue. Unlike Playboy, Penthouse refused the cliche' "fixing up" of models, preferring them to look more natural and portraying its Pets as more spirited, unconventional and independent than the submissive Playmate. Shades of the generation gap.

Today these advances seem so prim, so tame. But some beauties have timeless appeal. Now quite old, or just plain dead, goddesses such as Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Lana Turner, Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake...they still have power. Frozen in celluloid forever (I hope) we can gaze upon their soulful eyes, lush hair, full (and sometimes astonishing) breasts and their seemingly endless legs. As a woman, I can marvel at the power those images have had in influencing the behavior of both men and women.

We haven't even scraped the surface here. Today there are pin-ups by women, for women (Annie Sprinkle's Post Modern Pin-Ups, featuring pro-sex "Pleasure Activists," for example), and adult magazines published and edited by women. Space doesn't allow me to do more than mention Mamie Van Doren, Gina Lollabrigida, Bridgitte Bardot or Ann-Margret. Fetish goddess Betty (swoon) Page will have to wait for another day. The huge breasted amazons of Russ Meyer's films, including the fetchingly dangerous Tura Satana (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) represent a more dominant type of pin-up...again, for another time. And the many male pin-ups? I'll have to research that article in my dreams tonight.

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This is reprinted from Exotic Magazine © 1996 X Publishing