Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Purity, dualism and control

When studying gender, I often suspect that there is a key concept, just out of reach, which will link together and explain many others. I am wary of such simplistic notions, especially given the conflicts over diversity and privilege within feminism today. However, the concept of 'purity' has cropped up regularly in my reading, and investigating it seems crucial to understanding our deep-rooted feelings about gender in, at least, much of 'Western' society.

Most of my recent reading has been on the subject of beauty standards and their growing importance in our culture, and some writers have gone so far as to suggest that challenging these will be the core of Third Wave feminism. Notable is Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (1990), which demonstrates the way in which 'beauty' has become a modern 'religion', encompassing the pursuit of unattainable perfection, and portraying the female body as something corrupt, decaying and polluted by 'impurities'. Germaine Greer (The Whole Woman, 1999) also refers to this association of impurity with the normal female body, and describes 'women who become obsessed by their alimentary canals, following in imagination every morsel that is introduced and waiting anxiously for it to reappear as excrement' (p.74). Of course, alongside the 'beauty myth' runs a resurrected 'cult of virginity', as described in Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth (2009). The links between modern ideas about 'beauty' and 'virginity' and that of 'purity' are fascinating, and, I believe, can tell us a great deal about the threads running through the history of women's oppression. One work which has highlighted this for me is Sarah Dunant's brilliant historical novel Sacred Hearts (2009), where the concepts of spiritual purity, control of the body, and women's lack of freedom are drawn together in ways which are still visible today.

Dunant imagines the entry into an early modern Ferrarese convent of an unwilling sixteen-year-old girl, Serafina, and the nuns' attempts to settle and 'purify' her. This culminates in a period of near-starvation (or 'Holy Anorexia' (Rudolph Bell, 1987)) as the convent's hardliner, Umiliana, tries to purge Serafina of lust and rebellion in order that visions and religious ecstasy may enter. Meanwhile the down-to-earth dispenser, Zuana, aims to heal Serafina's body and end her drugged, starved hallucinations. On a small scale, this reflects the divisions rending Christendom at that time and the looming threat of the complete enclosure of the nunneries. Dunant illustrates beautifully the conflict between a strict dualism (in which the body must be suppressed for the mind and spirit to flourish) and a holistic view, with the reader's sympathy being drawn towards the latter. She draws out the way in which 'negation' of the body might actually cause it to dominate the mind.

Interestingly, Dunant draws out in particular the suppression of the needs of the female body, with descriptions of the impact of the monthly cycles and childlessness of the nuns on the convent's moods. Of course, changing views about the connection of souls with particularly female bodies have informed different forms of oppression - from the medieval view of women as base and animal (and therefore needing repression), to the modern American virginity cult's insistence that it is men who are driven by lust (and therefore women who need to guard their chastity). Maggie Millar, in Sizeable Reflections (ed. Bovey, 2000, p.158), links society's fear of fat to a fear of the feminine in general. Thus the idea of dualism and purification of the soul through negation of the body may have affected women particularly.

There are other elements of the concept of purity which might explain its particularly strong connection with the female through the centuries. In Sacred Hearts, Serafina becomes absorbed in her fasting and her desperate pursuit of purity because discipline over her hunger is the only form of control she has. Purity becomes tied up with her one hope of happiness in the convent - the entry of Christ in the place of her lost lover. Wolf believes the 'beauty myth' is powerful because it can be used by patriarchy, as was the 'Feminine Mystique' (Friedan, 1963), to distract women who are getting too big for their boots. However, despite Wolf's assertion that there is no need to set up a 'conspiracy theory' because the conspiracy is so obvious, I suspect the reality is a little more complex. Perhaps Dunant's work helps explain women's own take-up of these obsessions in a world where we very often still lack the control and fulfillment we want.

Perhaps such obsessions with purification and control will, with the increased desperation of advertisers and changing modern roles, affect men in new ways too.

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