The violent purging of womanhood
It is a sick society that celebrates the medieval-style erasure of Ellen Page.
The female saints of the medieval era were dab hands at self-mutilation. St Jeanne de Valois pushed silver nails into her breasts. St Margaret Mary Alacoque cut her chest with a knife and injured it with fire. St Angela of Foligno drank water that had been polluted by cuts of flesh from a leper. The young woman who longed for a more perfect relationship with Christ would ‘cut off her hair, scourge her face and wear coarse rags’, wrote historian Rudolph Bell in his classic study, Holy Anorexia. She would stop eating, walk about with sharp stones in her shoes, beat herself with her own fists. All so that she might become ‘more beautiful in God’s eyes’.
The chief target of these holy hysterics’ self-mortification was their own womanhood. They feared and detested the arrival of sexual maturity. They shaved their heads, squashed their breasts beneath ill-fitting hairshirts, scalded their vaginas with pork fat. They were determined to become, in the title of Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg’s 1998 book on female sanctity in the pre-modern era, Forgetful of Their Sex. Their ‘rigorous repudiation of their own sexuality’ had one aim, writes Schulenburg – to push them towards ‘perfect manhood’.
Virginal, breastless from starvation, their locks shorn, their faces cut, they became more like men, the true saints, than fertile, buxom, sinful women. In ‘amputating from nature and spirit what made them female, even destroying their identifying physical characteristics through self-mutilation and self-denial’, they became more ‘male’ and thus more godly, wrote Lisa Bitel in her 1996 study of the early saints of Ireland. It is this woman, the woman who wrenches herself, violently if necessary, from her own womanhood, who shall be called holy, said St Jerome in the fifth century: ‘[She] will cease to be a woman and will be called man.’
I couldn’t help thinking of these self-punishing brides of Christ as I read Elliot Page’s disturbing autobiography, Pageboy. Once Ellen, an actress well known for her turns in Juno, Inception and numerous other movies, Elliot Page of course seems starkly different to yesteryear’s self-flagellating seekers after Christ. Yes, Page has also ‘amputated from nature and spirit what made them female’ – including her breasts – but she is not ‘religious at all’, she says in passing in her life story of transing from female to male. And yet the self-loathing and self-harm of the crazed saints of the early Church find an eerie echo in this tome, on nearly every page. It’s chilling, and we need to talk about it.
Like those women, Elliot writes of her dread of womanhood. She speaks of female physiology with a contempt that would be damned as misogyny if it came from a man. Her first period horrifies her: ‘That smell of metallic blood, [like] a robot leaking.’ Puberty, and in particular the growth of her breasts, sickens her. ‘I’d forever feel this disgust, and I punished my body for it’, she writes. She does everything she can to conceal her breasts – no, not beneath a nail-studded hairshirt, like our poor saints, but under ‘oversized concealing t-shirts’. And also through contorting her body: ‘My posture began to fold, shoulders caving in.’ ‘The unbearable weight of… self-disgust’ is how she describes her emotional response to turning from a tomboy who was often mistaken for an actual boy into a woman. She no longer felt ‘present in my flesh’. Instead, she felt a ‘compulsion to tear apart my flesh, a sort of scolding’ (my emphasis).
Like the female saints, Page cut herself, starved herself, repressed herself. ‘People cut themselves, I’ll try that’, she writes. She would ‘take a small knife to my room… pressing down, dragging it slightly, enough to see that red, enough for that relief’. Like St Margaret Mary Alacoque, she used a knife to mortify her womanly flesh. ‘People stop eating, I’ll try that’, she writes. In response to her developing body, she eats less and less. She relishes the opportunity to play ‘a character that was partially starved to death’ – in the 2007 film An American Crime – because it means she can ‘lean in to my desire to disappear, to punish myself’. Where female saints starved themselves ‘in the service of holiness’, in Rudolph Bell’s words, Page starves herself in the service of alleviating the ‘filling out’ of her body, her ‘growing breasts’. Her stomach feels like ‘a dirty old cloth’, ill-deserving of food, she writes.
And like the saints, she hears voices. This part of the book feels incredibly disquieting. It is undeniably religious. A voice tells her to stop eating. ‘[It] spoke with a sinister tone’, she says. ‘That can’t go inside of you’, the voice demands in relation to a pizza Page orders. This ‘minacious voice’ returns. It tells her, ‘You deserve the humiliation. You are an abomination.’ Later, however, ‘that fucking voice’ brings salvation: it reveals unto her the trans resurrection she must undergo to deliver herself from self-hatred. ‘You don’t have to feel this way’, it says. What is this? God? The same being that instructed Catherine of Siena to eat nothing but the Holy Eucharist? We never find out. But I guess if God can tell St Catherine not to consume food, He can tell Elliot Page not to eat pizza.
Distressingly, like the old delirious devotees of Christ, Page self-flagellates. She beats herself. ‘Hard and sharp, I struck myself with my knuckles… WHAM! Again. And again. Harder. Sharper. I pummeled my face, pounding next to my right eye.’ All this self-violence isn’t really her, she says – it’s ‘some other force’ working to ‘knock [her] out’. What is this madness? It is after this act of self-mortification, this physical enactment of her earlier desire to ‘tear apart my flesh’, that she has a vision of what needs to be done: she must become male. She will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.
This is the final act of Elliot Page’s secular mortification, of her punishment of the flesh for its sin of femaleness – she moves towards manhood. Here, the connection between this modern celebrity’s life story and the lives of long-dead female saints is as clear as it is disconcerting. Like them, Page ‘rigorously repudiates’ her sex and aspires to ‘perfect manhood’. No, she does not drive silver nails into her breasts, as St Jeanne de Valois did as part of her striving for maleness-cum-godliness. Instead, she has her breasts removed. I know the chapter on her double mastectomy – ‘top surgery’, as it is euphemistically called – is meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy. But to me it reads like pure tragedy.
‘[My] nipples just removed and slapped back on’, she says of her new, flat, ‘male’ chest. Blood ‘dripped through two tubes that came from a tiny hole under each armpit’, she says: ‘At the bottom hung little partially red, translucent orbs on either side of my waist.’ I’m sorry, but to me this just sounds like a more sterile version of the female self-loathing of medieval times; like a safer execution of the cutting and scalding of breast material carried out by female saints in order that they might become ‘sexless, gender-neutral beings’ and possibly even the ‘spiritual equals’ of men, as Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg wrote in her 1998 book. I will celebrate neither the sacrifice of womanhood to God nor the sacrifice of womanhood to gender ideology.
How do we explain the return of contempt for female flesh? The resuscitation of that hysterical urge to neuter one’s womanhood that gripped Christ-like women in the medieval era? After all, it isn’t just Elliot Page. Female self-negation is positively fashionable. Girls bind their breasts – the new hairshirts – sometimes under the guidance of charities and their own schools. It’s hip to be post-female now. Be non-binary. Be trans. Be genderfluid. Womanhood is so 20th century. Some younger women distance themselves from womanhood by changing their pronouns, but others go the whole hog. You can’t open a social-media app these days without seeing a grim image of a lovely girl who’s had her breasts removed, like a modern St Jeanne de Valois, punishing her flesh for the god of transgenderism.
If anything, the purging of womanhood is worse today. The old female saints with their self-starvation and self-mutilation won little favour in their time. Their families pleaded with them to eat, to let their bodies be. Priests did, too. When, in 1380, Catherine of Siena lost the ability to swallow even water, and lost the use of her legs too, the Church knew she was gravely ill, not holy. It often took centuries for these unstable women to be canonised (Catherine’s sainthood was speedier – she was canonised 80 years after her death). Today, in contrast, institutions of repute cheer and celebrate young women’s sexual self-negation. They’re beatified instantly in the media. Doctors happily remove their breasts. Popular culture worships Elliot Page’s ‘joy’ at leaving womanhood behind. Families are all but forbidden from intervening to save their dear daughters from the fleshly punishments of the trans ideology. They’ll be branded ‘transphobic’; they might even have their daughters taken away. Even the language of womanhood is eviscerated now, along with the flesh of it. Woman-purging has been institutionalised.
Rudolph Bell made a striking observation about the self-punishment of holy women. He argued that there was a ‘major distinction between male and female saints, especially with regard to their ascetic practices’. For women, he wrote, ‘evil was internal… the devil [was] a domestic parasitic force’. For men, in contrast, ‘sin was an impure response to an external stimulus, one that left the body inviolate’. That is, women were innately sinful, in their bodies, whereas men were more likely to sin in the world, in their actions. Hence, holy women’s battles with evil took place entirely within the locus of their own flesh, whereas men’s occurred in the world of things and ideas and choices. Deprived of access to the earthly realms of priesthood and learning, women had little choice but to demonstrate their virtue in the one realm where they had control: their bodies.
Is that still the case today? It seems unlikely. Ours is an era of female liberation, of ‘girl bosses’, of women being told that, if anything, they’re better than blokes at many social and political endeavours. And yet self-mortification has crept back in. The war of the flesh has returned, pushing aside the external battle of ideas. It strikes me that this retreat to the body, this slinking back to the medieval treatment of the flesh as the singular site of virtue and improvement, is not just a ‘woman problem’ anymore, though it no doubt expresses itself keenly for women for various historical and social reasons. No, it’s the broader human condition now. In our post-political, post-social, atomised times, more and more people, of both sexes, view the self as the sole site of radical transformation. Unnecessary mastectomies, hormonal interventions, ceaseless identity play, piercings, tattooing, self-harm, self-love, self-whatever – everyone’s returned to ‘the internal’.
It’s possible we’re in a worse position than those tragic women of the medieval era. At least they punished themselves as a means of transcendence, in an attempt to commune with God. Why do young women – and men – chastise their flesh or overhaul their identities today? Not for God, but for the self. Not to widen the possibilities of the spirit, but to myopically obsess over the body. Pageboy is the saddest book I’ve read in a long time. It confirms that some young people believe that the best response to hardship – whether it’s homophobia, sexism or just the difficulty of becoming an adult, all struggles faced by Page – is to change the self rather than society. There was something in between Catherine of Siena and Elliot of Hollywood, wasn’t there? It was that more positive, more expansive, more enlightened belief that if things in the world are bad, then you change them. You look outwards, not inwards, desiring to improve things for all rather than constantly tweaking ‘me’. Let’s revive that, not holy anorexia.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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