What do you think about when you read/hear the term, pin-up? Sexy women? The 50’s? Vintage style clothing? World War II Nose Cones? Or does the word, objectification, come to mind? For me, it has always been a little bit of all of those, plus something else. I recall paintings by artists I admire like Gil Elvgren, Alberto Vargas, Zoe Mozert, and, in recent years, Greg Hildebrandt. I think of women like Bettie Page, who broke boundaries and embraced her sexuality, or Dita von Teese, who is the Queen of Burlesque and a fashion icon. I find myself feeling trapped in this duality of guilt and adoration. Am I encouraging the oppression of women’s empowerment, or am I acknowledging and empowering a woman’s ability to embrace her sexuality?
A Very Brief Pin-up History
Before I continue, I feel it is important to define what pin-up actually is–or was. The term “pin-up” comes from mass produced pictures that were meant to be hung informally and “pinned up” on someone’s wall. They date as far back as the early 19th century, but the best known pin-ups today are from the 1940’s and 50’s. pin-up images were often of fashion models and actors posing semi-nude, or in revealing clothing and flirty, but not explicit poses. There were some in the style of photographs and others that were painted. An example of this would be Alberto Vargas and his “Vargas Girls,” which were extremely popular during WWII. In fact, they were so popular that many of them were reproduced on soldiers’ nose cones!
Overall, all pin-up women were selling the suggestion of sex–a theme that sold then and sells now. Even when the presentation changes, the message is still the same. During the time these pin-ups were at their most popular, women were notoriously oppressed. Now, women’s roles in modern American society have changed greatly, and so have their viewpoints.
In my experience, there are two types of reactions from women–and some men–regarding pin-up art. They either love it or they hate it. It is ALWAYS a very strong reaction one way or another, with arguments that follow either side. Anyone who appears to be undecided is just uncomfortable expressing their opinions, or they are afraid to explore their true feelings about the subject. I don’t hold them at fault. This is a slippery slope that I explore…haha…phrasing.
Okay, but seriously…
In the age of #metoo, I am seeing more and more people shy away from conversations about pin-up art. Working at shows where I sell pin-up art and product–some of which involve my visage–I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a man say, “Let me go ask my wife if I can have this.” That isn’t a joke–they mean it! Men may hold a majority of the positions of power in our society, but they apparently answer to their wives when they’re at home.
Pin-up In Popular Culture
Despite the often polarized positions on pin-up, there is still a vast pin-up culture that only continues to flourish. There are numerous websites, brands, and movements around pin-up culture. Even the modern day perception of pin-up seems to be changing. The new pin-up girl is not a helpless house wife. She is a cutely dressed, occasionally tattooed, badass. I’ve seen some major developments in pin-up culture in the last decade–pin-up fashion, burlesque, and the return of print.
With a quick search for “pin-up fashion” on Google, my results were promising. Multiple sites that sell pin-up style clothing, Etsy listings for vintage dresses and newly made ones that mimic the vintage styles, a Pinterest board with several thousand pins of women dressed in pin-up styles, articles on how to dress vintage, and ads for pin-up wigs and shoes. I can see the appeal and won’t deny that I might have gone down a shopping rabbit-hole. Fortunately, I’m too broke to shop right now, but I loved browsing the cuts of the dresses, the flowing fabrics, the adorable heels. Fashions that might have been a forced societal norm in the 50’s are oddly appealing to this jeans, t-shirt, and Converse kinda gal. I can’t help it. The femininity of these styles is alluring. I might break my ankle in those heels, but damn, I’d look good doing it…
Then there’s burlesque. Earlier I mentioned Dita Von Teese, the “Burlesque Queen” of our generation. She is remarkable. Apparently, she also appreciated the fashion of the 40’s and 50’s, and she embraced it as a part of her identity. Von Teese had a love of lingerie and actresses like Betty Grable, and she turned that love into a flourishing career founded in costume design, glamour modeling, and, of course, burlesque. Classically trained in ballet, Von Teese began performing in burlesque shows in 1992, saying she “puts the tease back into striptease” when she’s on stage. Burlesque was at a low point until the 1990’s when it was revived by a cult following, led in part by people like Von Teese. While it may not be mainstream, burlesque has continued to grow in popularity, showing no signs of slowing down.
Chances are, if you’ve gone shopping for a calendar at the mall, you have seen at least one sexy pin-up calendar. They’ve been around for decades, and I don’t foresee them going anywhere soon. In fact, I’ve seen beautiful collections of painted pin-ups, including the “American Beauties” calendar by Greg Hildebrandt. He even has a line of vintage style metal signs with his pin-up paintings on them, and they are one of his best selling products.
The Feminist Debate
I don’t feel the need to dive too deep into this. Everyone has their own opinions, and I see points on both sides.
According to a 2012 article on Jezebel.com, there was a debate about pin-up on deviantART that sparked interest from many of its community members. I liked what one user, Techgnotic, wrote:
“Furthermore, the pin-up models themselves are no longer mute, anonymous “objects” for manipulation –- they have their own identities, websites and businesses based on how they choose to represent their female form.
When young men choose pin up totems of their preferred pop culture prey to adorn their man-caves these days, the “pin-up girl” ideal is more likely to be closer to Lara Croft or Gina Carano or the Kate Beckinsale character in “Underworld” or Milla Jovovich in “Resident Evil” than to some full bodied but otherwise expressionless model. Even the most macho men today seem to want their “dream girl” to be smart and tough and resourceful.”
Growing up I had body image issues. At this point, I’m hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t. I don’t know what started them, or if there was any one thing that sparked these insecurities and constant self criticism. I had a wonderful group of friends who were always supportive and encouraged me to love myself. I had friends of my parents tell me I was gorgeous and they were proud of me. I practiced Tae Kwon Do from age 7 and often took 1st and 2nd place trophies home with me whenever I competed in a tournament. I graduated High School as an honor student, and I had been working to make my own money since I was eleven years old. Looking back now, I can’t really understand why I felt so inadequate. No, my life at home was not perfect. Yes, I have my own #metoo story. Well into my 20’s this was part of my struggle.
Much of that stopped mattering the first time I posed for a pin-up. I worked for Greg Hildebrandt for almost a year before I posed for my first painting. The funny thing is, the person who got me to pose wasn’t Greg. It was his wife, Jean. She’s his agent of 40 years now, and she told me from the beginning that I should pose. Shy, lacking confidence, and untrusting of this crazy woman who encouraged me to take my clothes off, I kept saying no. Until I didn’t. I got to know Jean and Greg a little better, and as I did, it occurred to me that I liked and trusted them. Also, Greg was never pushy about it. He’s professional, courteous, and a lot of fun. He’s never made me feel uncomfortable.
I also got to see Greg in action with another model for a different painting. He doesn’t care about the fact that the woman standing in front of him is barely clothed. He cares about light, composition, attitude, and simply getting the best reference he can. The model who was posing at the time was wonderful. She was playful and creative, and after conversing with Jean, our lovely model came up with some poses she wanted to do for fun. We all loved them. Her confidence made me envious. I felt like she knew something I didn’t. How would I know until I gave it a shot?
So, there I was for my first pin-up. Greg had drawn a snow bunny in a tiny bikini with a pair of skis thrown over her shoulder and a sexy car in the background. We had discussed the concept, and I told Greg I had actually snowboarded on a mountain in my bikini once with my siblings. My mom even has a picture. He laughed and told me he heard stories about mountains where it’s normal to do that because the peaks get so warm during the day. Look it up, it’s a real thing! Anyway, there I was, posing for my first painting…it was just after a late winter snowstorm and we had about 3 feet of snow on the ground. Jean had kindly lent me her fur coat, a pair of ear muffs, and a pair of her fur boots–which were 2 sizes too small for my feet! Fortunately, I was more concerned with being warm than being comfortable, so I was happy to accept.
We didn’t have real skis, so Greg handed me a long wooden plank. I threw my hair up in pigtails, and out into the snow I went. The sky was bright, the snow reflecting all of the light around us. I was dazzled. I was liberated. I was a pin-up! I got flirty, I got excited, I got butterflies, but I had fun! There I was, a silly nobody who was posing to be painted by a world famous artist, and it felt amazing! I worked hard for my body, and now, it was paying off. I found something else happening, too. I imagined myself playing a part. Who was this dazzling girl with a red 1949 Delahaye behind her? I felt like an actress! I can’t say I was acting, but this would definitely be the closest I’ve ever come to it. Like a girl dedicated to her favorite D&D campaign, I pretended my heart out, played my role, and I made magic happen!
Since that first time, I have posed for a summer themed painting in 17ºF in the highest heels I own, I’ve donned a Wonder Woman costume and also dressed up as Harley Quinn, I posed in a bathing suit for a nude that ended up on a genuine WWII Nose Cone, and I’ve posed on a motorcycle in the middle of an open Harley Davidson dealership while all of the staff and customers stared at me in my underwear. That’s not even all of it. Those are just my favorites.
I love being a model. I love seeing a man pick up a metal sign or a calendar that has my picture on it, hold it up to compare it to me. Every time I catch someone doing it I call them out on it, and every time I do that the viewer says he believes what he sees. I love that a few men have tried to talk down to me and objectify me until they actually heard me speak and realized I was an intelligent person who commanded their respect. I have chosen to put myself out there, and Greg has honored me with his incredible talent. I wouldn’t want my posing photos to be printed–that’s not the way I choose to be seen. But there is a real joy in being able to say that I’m that painted woman, and yes, that model is real because she’s me.
Are you judging me yet? I can understand. Part of it probably sounds like I’m just seeking attention. Truthfully, I enjoy the attention. I didn’t always, but I learned to appreciate it. Just because a man finds me attractive, it does not make him a pig, a villain, or a problem. Almost everyone wants to be noticed or recognized. This is one of the ways that I choose to do so. I choose to play a role that is sexy, revealing, and far more provocative than I am in real life.
My choice may be the most important part. I had control over how I was going to be seen, and I expect the reactions and the behaviors of the audiences who are looking at me. Perhaps, what makes women uncomfortable is the way they feel out of control when a guy says something inappropriate or advances on her when it’s not welcome. It is the language that is used and the attitudes of the men who use them. If I’m wearing 7 layers and a guy tells me he likes my ass when he can’t even see it, he’s just an idiot. If I had boobs and I wore a low cut top, I would not be surprised if I caught men or women looking at me. Maybe someone would comment. That doesn’t make them a monster, it just makes them human.
It is also about perception. Everything I have shared has been from my own perception of things. If a guy whistles at me walking down the street, I’m not afraid to smile his way. If a guy grabs my ass when I’m standing in line at the grocery store, I’m not afraid to raise my voice and tell him it was a shitty, shitty thing to do. I am a strong woman who has greater value than her body who also happens to embrace her sexuality and celebrate the beauty of the human form. I can handle a guy’s advances. However, I can also appreciate the woman who can’t or doesn’t know how to. I am able to be outspoken now, but there was a time when I was not.
All I can say is that I have greatly enjoyed being a pin-up model for Greg Hildebrandt’s art. I adore, admire, and appreciate the female form in many of its shapes and sizes. I find pin-up sexy and probably enjoy it just as much as some of the guys do, because women are truly one of the most beautiful beings in this world. Attraction, sex, and desire are all perfectly normal feelings. How we handle them as a society is what matters. Where our society will go is still unclear. So, I am grateful to know that I will be able to look back on this time of my life and say, “Yeah. That was me. I was alright.”
What about you, dear readers? Do you have your own thoughts and feelings on pin-up? Do you like old or new pin-ups? What else would you like to know about my experiences or feelings on pin-up?