FOR SAINT­HOOD: THE DI­VINE HUNGER OF CATHER­INE OF SIENA

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - DEPARTMENT OF EVERYTHING - —ANN FOS­TER

When 33-year-old Cather­ine Ben­in­casa lay dy­ing of star­va­tion, her fi­nal words were of tri­umph; she had done this to her­self, on pur­pose, for God. She died in 1380, fol­low­ing years of self-in­flicted tor­ture, de­fy­ing the en­treaties of her fel­low clergy to eat the food placed in front of her. She had long be­lieved her­self to be fol­low­ing the di­rect or­ders of God, in­clud­ing the di­rec­tion to hate her mor­tal body and to neuter all of her bod­ily im­pulses. Decades later, she was can­on­ized as Saint Cather­ine of Siena, her suf­fer­ing re­cast as mar­tyr­dom, and her writ­ings on self-de­nial and star­va­tion in­spired fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of young women of faith to starve them­selves in em­u­la­tion of her. Her self-ha­tred is anath­ema to 21st-cen­tury ideals of sepia-tinted self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, but the core tenet, that women can har­ness power by con­quer­ing their bod­ies, is iden­ti­cal.

To­day’s life­style In­sta­gram­mers pro­mote a tough-love ap­proach to the body,

In the many eras and cul­tures in which women’s bod­ies are the only thing they have con­trol over, we find women who take firm con­trol by mal­nour­ish­ing them­selves.

sug­gest­ing that through lax­a­tive detox teas and di­ets, one may fi­nally reach a sense of nir­vana. The same no­tion that women are their bod­ies drove Cather­ine and other early saints to cut off their hair, stuff nails in their shoes, and self-flag­el­late past the point of open wounds. In the many eras and cul­tures in which women’s bod­ies are the only thing they have con­trol over, we find women who take firm con­trol by mal­nour­ish­ing them­selves. This act of con­quer­ing one­self so no one else can, of mys­ti­fy­ing the men around you with the power this can un­leash, led to can­on­iza­tion for the me­dieval saints and is a path to in­ter­net fame for to­day’s gen­er­a­tion.

It was not Cather­ine’s eat­ing habits that led to the in­flu­ence she wielded, but rather her con­vic­tion that she was act­ing on or­ders from God. The di­vorce of her body from her soul, per­haps partly achieved through self­pun­ish­ment, al­lowed her the con­fi­dence to raise her voice at a time when women were cul­tur­ally si­lent. Yet for all her power and con­vic­tion, her re­li­gious fer­vor even­tu­ally alien­ated those around her.

Cather­ine was chided by those around her to just eat, but of course it was not so sim­ple. Mal­nu­tri­tion had changed the way her body func­tioned, and—com­bined with her staunch be­lief to be act­ing on God’s in­struc­tions—she found eat­ing re­pul­sive. She moved from ab­stain­ing from some to all food, and fi­nally even wa­ter; the very act of eat­ing caused her to vomit. It’s chal­leng­ing for to­day’s psy­chi­atric and med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als to treat dis­or­dered eat­ing with talk ther­apy and iv flu­ids; for 14th-cen­tury clergy, her case was sim­ply un­treat­able. The fur­ther re­moved Cather­ine be­came from her body, the less power she re­tained over her­self, but con­versely, the more pow­er­ful she seemed to feel. In death, she tri­umphed over her own body, a per­sonal achieve­ment, not a re­li­gious one.

Cather­ine was de­voted to her faith much as to­day’s or­thorex­ics are to what they see as a healthy life­style. Both goals, taken to the ex­treme they so of­ten land upon, im­bue a sense of per­sonal mas­tery even as they de­stroy the body. Our cur­rent so­ci­ety con­tin­ues to teach young women that bod­ily urges—from sex­u­al­ity to hunger—are not to be trusted, and that much of their per­sonal power lies in their body. We re­mem­ber Cather­ine not only for her health is­sues, but for the power she ex­erted dur­ing times when young women were so of­ten side­lined and ig­nored. She was re­warded for her faith with can­on­iza­tion, much as to­day’s so­cial-me­dia stars hope to in­crease their num­ber of likes and fol­low­ers with each pound they lose.

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