There’s no wrong way to read Playboy’s new coffee table book of naked ladies. You can breeze through the encyclopedic collection of centerfolds in chunks, stopping when a shiny lower lip or well-groomed clitoral hood catches your interest. You can use the index to find a favorite Playmate, if you’re the kind of person who has a favorite Playmate. You can turn to the year you were born or bat mitzvahed and see what the residents of dudeland were drooling over that month. You can flick the pages like a flipbook, watching faces and skin blur together like a demonic wormhole that really, really wants to have sex with you.
But if you’re going to drop up to $75 on an 8 1/2-pound volume of exposed flesh, I’d recommend taking an hour or so to leaf through the entire thing, page by page. Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds, 1953–2016 offers exactly what it advertises: every single centerfold the magazine has published through February of last year. That is a remarkable number of bodies to trap in one volume. Taken together, they offer a kind of biological survey few humans will experience in their lifetimes. Even the world’s busiest doctors and most-overbooked porn stars don’t see 700-some-odd naked women in a single hour.
If you take this route, as I did on Thursday afternoon in a painstakingly sequestered corner of the Slate office, you will catalog approximately 1,400 nipples of various shades, textures, and surface areas. You will see several hundred labia and, if you have a set, think carefully about your own. You will despair at how the satin robe and garter belt industries have escaped any attempts at meaningful innovation in the past half-century. You will wonder why, in the 2010s, just as Earth was experiencing the hottest temperatures in recorded history, all women suddenly got visibly cold.
This volume is actually something of a reprint. The first edition was published a decade ago; the book that came out on Tuesday includes the most recent 10 years and a new short essay from Elizabeth Wurtzel on the centerfolds of the 2010s. Playboy is marketing it as a kind of chronology of the female body seen through the proverbial male gaze, a way to track how beauty ideals and sexual fantasies have evolved since Hugh Hefner printed the magazine’s first issue.
The most obvious signifier of the passage of time, and the thing every person has asked about when I’ve mentioned this book, is pubic hair. For the first two decades of centerfolds, there was none at all because it was obscured by strategically placed pillows, undergarments, or even roomy-cut khakis. Bits of hair didn’t start peeking out until around 1972, but by the mid-’70s, bushy vulvas were showing up in almost every photo. A decade later, hairstylists started to groom the puffs, though it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that what’s now known as a “landing strip” hit the runway. The relative newness of the thing about 84 percent of women now do to their genitals was a life-affirming revelation for this millennial, who suffered puberty in the aughts, or as Maureen Gibbon’s essay in The Complete Centerfolds dubs it, “the decade of the smoothie.” After enduring the entirely bare, child-like crotches of the 2010s, flip back to July 1977, where one magnificent image of pubic hair straight-up poking out of a butt crack will restore your internal calm.
The maturation of photo-retouching techniques, which begin in the 1980s and ramp up in the ’90s, delivers another major sea change in the book. Earlier photos exhibit a kind of Vaseline-on-the-lens radiance, with softer lighting than the high-def flashbulbs of later years. Before Photoshop made every limb a perfect cylinder with a computer-assisted color gradient, skin had actual texture, betraying goosebumps, peach fuzz, and tiny wrinkles where the legs meet the hips. In fashions, too, the Playboy timeline charts a shift from the natural-ish to the absurd. Peasant dresses and open argyle cardigans gave way to bathing suits fit for Borat and webs of spangled fabric that wouldn’t impede any sex act the average mind could invent. Mascara and rouge gave way to silicone, suntans, and gigantic, heavily-lined lips. The fantasy of the ’50s was that the women on these pages might actually succumb to the average schmuck’s pick-up lines at the sock hop or milkshake counter or wherever white folks performed their mating rituals in those days. The fantasy of the ’90s and ’00s was that these glistening, medicine ball–breasted women existed at all.
But for all the differences that emerge while flipping through generations of nudies, the similarities stand out far more. After looking at 734 photos of naked women, one can’t help but conclude that the human body has some very strict limitations and the human mind lacks any substantial creativity when it comes to sexy poses. There are only so many ways to slightly part a set of lips, only so many ways to mimic the act of putting clothes on or taking them off, getting in or out of a body of water, and stepping onto or off of a surface that looks reasonably prepared to support sexual intercourse. Some themes have always been hot: cowboy stables (chaps, lassos, bolo ties dangling between breasts); sportsing (phallic sticks and bats, mesh jerseys, kneesocks); childhood (glasses of milk, merry-go-rounds, dolls); servile domesticity (aprons, pies, and once, disturbingly, pinking shears).
It’s a pleasure to see this kind of Playboy world-making get more elaborate and less self-conscious as time goes by. There are a few funny scenes in earlier years: One deeply weird 1967 shot shows a woman standing on a primitive Onewheel with her toe resting on a shuttle cock, and one from 1983 has a gal luxuriating in a tanning bed, eye shields and all. But the fantasies get way more specific in the ’90s, with a flight attendant exiting an airplane bathroom, a military jacket with dog tags worn as a belly chain, more nautical dioramas than a landlubber might expect, and a prescient cigar situation in July 1996, just before the Clinton–Lewinsky “it tastes good” moment became public. Around the turn of the millennium, schoolgirls started dominating the pages of Playboy, with some dorm room arrangements so scrupulously imagined, they could be ads for PBteen. The effect is a creeping feeling that any place can be a sexual place, and any activity a woman does—even those performed in the course of her job—can be a sexual activity. Playing golf, taking your order at a diner, exercising on a Stairmaster, applying a lure to a fishing rod, cuddling with a kitten, delivering the nightly news at a TV station—if you look hard enough, with a few years of Playboy centerfolds filed away in your brain, these everyday pursuits are actually a kind of foreplay. That cyclist lady is naked underneath her flannel, you know.
Should you, like me, choose to absorb each and every centerfold in rapid succession, the outfits will eventually cease to matter. So, strangely, will the human forms. If you say a word too many times in a row, it starts to lose its meaning. If you review hundreds of naked women in one sitting, the fact of their nudity will lose its meaning, too. Curves and lumps and flaps of flesh punctuated by the occasional dimple or mole will become indistinguishable shapes in the void. By the 40th minute of scrutiny, the nearly half an acre of human skin you’ve seen will have lost all erotic potential, each body just another disgusting bag of organs and blood. As one Amazon reviewer put it, “What an awesome treasure for men!!!”