CamFest Speaker Spotlight: Alexandra Zhirnova

Alexandra Zhirnova is a PHD student in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. Her work focuses on the religious and social history of Anglo-Saxon England, with a special interest in gender and patristic reception. Alexandra’s PHD thesis investigates the development of ‘cosmetic theology’ - a set of ideas that allowed the early Christian authors to ally ethics, theology, and nature with various modes of (female) self-presentation.

See Alexandra Zhirnova at the Cambridge Festival in Can a Saint Wear Makeup? Cosmetics and Dress in the Middle Ages on Saturday 23 March.

Full page miniature of Æthelthryth. Copyright: London, British Library, Add MS 49598, fol. 90v

Full page miniature of Æthelthryth. Copyright: London, British Library, Add MS 49598, fol. 90v

Full page miniature of Æthelthryth. Copyright: London, British Library, Add MS 49598, fol. 90v

What prompted you to focus on this topic for your thesis?
I studied Latin literature at university and had a nerdy interest in historical dress. So at first I wanted to study medieval literature as evidence for what women dressed like at the time.  
But when you look at literature from the past, you will find that ancient and medieval people were having some familiar debates. When medieval writers talked about women's dress, they often commented on the deceptiveness of women's beauty and accused women who wanted to look beautiful of promiscuity. These discussions really resonated with me. If you look at the things people say when they want to target a woman, they go back to these tropes: too much makeup, can't trust her, dressed too pretty, so can't be very clever, etc. I'm pretty certain most people who say such things never read anything medieval – but that's where some of these ideas come from.  
What I wanted to show with my PhD thesis is how we came to think about appearances in this misogynistic way.   

What’s the biggest revelation or surprise that you’ve uncovered through your work?
I suppose it's that in early medieval England at least, men were sometimes held to the same standard as women when it came to appearance. For example, St Aldhelm talks extensively about why women shouldn't beautify themselves, but he admits that men can also be vain and obsess about dressing up. And Alcuin, one of the most famous writers of this period, wrote that men's fixation on their looks is the cause of the Viking invasions. But the men were almost never accused of their dressing 'promiscuously' – so there is definitely still an element of misogyny in these writings.  

From your research, do you think there’s a way women can counteract the misogyny they face around their appearance? 
One of the saints I discuss in my talk, an English princess called Edith, was told off by her bishop for how she dressed: her clothes were way too expensive for a nun, he said. Edith replied that God "pays attention to the mind, not to the clothing", and so it shouldn't matter what she looks like if she is a good Christian.  
But of course, there aren't as many people today who would openly say something like this to a woman's face. It would be scandalous for a male colleague to say, "I think your clothes are too fancy". But the gloomy question is how far these attitudes have just gone underground. And when these attitudes remain but go unspoken, it is very difficult to confront them. You end up feeling like a conspiracy theorist. So I think the most important thing to do to counteract the misogyny women face around their appearance is to recognise it and speak out about it.  

What would you like women to take away from your talk?
That misogynistic attitudes have existed for thousands of years – but there have always been women who challenged them.  

What’s next for you once your thesis is complete?
The end of a PhD is always a period of uncertainty, but I hope I can continue to pursue this topic further, whatever career path I end up on. In my thesis, I've only looked at early medieval England, but there is so much more to be said about other places and periods – ancient Rome is one obvious example. I also hope to turn this research into a book in the near future. 

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