This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Devotion. Subscribe today!
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, 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 self-punishment, 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.