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An Alphabet of Feminism #26: Z is for Zone

2011 April 18


Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.

John Donne, Elegy 20: To His Mistress Going To Bed (c.1654)

Starry Starry Night

All together now: THE LAST ALPHABET POST EVER. And it’s a word with one of the longest definitions I’ve yet come across: zone, first cited in 1500, from the Latin zona and the Greek zone, which originally means ‘girdle’.

Venus naked except for a girdle and some necklaces, by Lucas Cranach the Younger c.1540

Blame him. He stole my clothes. Venus and her cestus, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1540s)

Its complexity is mainly owing to the range of disciplines that have claimed it for their own; these include astrology, astronomy, physical geography, mathematics, poetry, and crystallography. Its immediate practical meaning is geographical: ‘Each of the five ‘belts’ or encircling regions, differing in climate, into which the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the Arctic and Antarctic circles divide the surface of the earth’ – that is, ‘the torrid (burning) zone between the tropics, the (north and south) temperate zones extending from the tropics to the polar circles, and the frigid (frozen) zones (arctic and antarctic) within the polar circles’.

A zone, then, is a ‘belt’ that marks out space, enclosing and dividing at once, as reflected in its vaguer sense from 1559 as ‘any region extending round the earth and comprised between definite limits’, where it is also applied to ‘a similar region in the heavens or on the surface of a planet’.

Of course, the Ancient Egyptians gave the practical sky-based role of zoning to a woman – Nut, the goddess of the sky, married to the earth god Geb (an unusual gendering). Nut is depicted throughout Egyptian art as a naked woman arched over the earth, balancing on her fingertips and tiptoes, and often covered in stars, from which position she protects the sun god Ra, and the earth below – a zone in its fourth sense (from 1591), as ‘a circumscribing or enclosing ring, band, or line’. Whence it is but a short step to 1608’s contribution to the party, zone as ‘a girdle or belt, as part of a dress’ (chiefly ‘poetical’), which is really the only literal use for the word: before the word’s adoption into English, Ancient Greek women wore a ‘zona‘ under their clothes to accentuate the figure.

Alas! My Girdle!

So we end where we began: with an extra-snazzy belt. Women’s girdles have a long and varied history going back to the cestus or ‘Belt of Venus’, an ill-judged wedding present to the Goddess of Love from her husband Hephaestus which rendered her irresistible to men (and, appropriately, endures on as an astronomy term). Martial refers to the cestus in his Epigrams as ‘a cincture that kindled love in Jupiter’ (planetary theme ftw), and clearly considered it quite hot stuff himself, since it was ‘…still warm from Venus’ fire’.

The Medieval West was not to be left behind in all this sexy-talk: no right-thinking female of the thirteen-hundreds considered herself fully sexed-up without a gipon, a type of corset designed to flatten the breasts and emphasise the stomach. And in case this proved insufficient, she might also pad her belly out for extra effect – well-rounded bellies appear again and again in contemporary art – and, as with the Cranach Venus (above), a decorative zone was the perfect way to emphasise its shape, making this a garment no less sexually charged in the 1340s than the 1940s (when, of course, its job was to hold the belly in). Like a garter, then, a girdle could serve as a fetishistic focal point for erotic (and indeed erogenous) zones, marking them out and keeping them restrained at the same time.

A woman wearing a locked chastity belt takes her elderly husband's money, but looks round at her young lover bringing the key.

A sixteenth-century German satirical woodcut: the rich old man's wife takes his money but her young lover brings her the key.

The Dictionary seems to have picked up something of this atmospheric heat itself, and brings us all back to earth by citing for this sense of the word Francis Quarles’ Emblem VIII (‘Shall these coarse hands untie / The sacred zone of thy virginity?’ (1635)). Neatly, this citation highlights the flip-side of zone‘s erotic focus – the Roman marriage ceremony famously culminated in the groom untying his wife’s girdle (enduring into the thigh-rubbing Latin slang phrase ‘zonam solvere‘ – ‘to untie the girdle’).

Meanwhile, the chastity belt (which also encompasses the ‘torrid zone between the tropics’, if you want to be vulgar about it) supposedly made its debut in Western society during the Crusades, lest the mice should play while the cats were off murdering Muslims. They may have been a niche market then, but – under the waggish and consistent alias ‘Venus’ belt’ – they were certainly widespread enough by the sixteenth century to become a target for satire. It was not until 1718 that English got the separate word zoned, but its meaning – ‘wearing a zone or girdle, hence, chaste’ – was clearly familiar to Francis Quarles, although he’s not talking about a literal woman, but about the relationship between body and soul.

John Donne plays with this conceit in his Elegy: To His Mistress Going To Bed, which famously describes the ‘mistress’ in question as ‘my America’. Her ‘girdle’ glitters like ‘heaven’s zone‘ (viz.: the celestial sphere), but the woman’s body is itself a ‘world’, a ‘new-found land’, and the speaker’s ‘roving hands’ explorers in a ‘kingdom’ – just as in The Sun Rising, ‘she’s all states, and all princes I’. It’s not just Donne (Thomas Carew did it too): think how many landmarks are claimed for sleeping giantesses, using the female body to map out geographical zones, just as geographical zones can be used to map out a woman (what else is the mons veneris?), and think back to Sir Francis Dashwood, landscaping pudendas in his garden.

Much like the zone itself, this Alphabet has tried to encompass various notions of womanhood. Come back soon and maybe there’ll be a final post mortem-style analysis…

Two women encompass a Z

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    April 18, 2011

    It’s slightly off-topic, but the talk of Nut as a belt encircling the Earth, holding the stars, made me think of this!

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 18, 2011

    The medieval period is a part of history I’ve never felt moved to study in depth. I was interested and intrigued to learn that medieval women padded their bellies. Compared with modern ideas, this demonstrates how arbitrary and socially determined standards beauty are. I suppose that the medieval idea was to emphasise a woman’s fertility. A remarkable contrast to today’s size zero supermodel ideals for womanhood.

    • Hodge permalink
      April 18, 2011

      I think most conceptions of beauty boil down to people wanting what they can’t have, really.

      Although I have to say I think the size 0 thing is different, because it’s completely sexless.

      Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of times some male has thumped the table in a pub and cried out some variant of ‘BUT WHY CAN’T WOMEN SEE THAT BEING SIZE 0 THIN JUST ISN’T ATTRACTIVE’.

      Um… it’s not all about you, sunshine.

      While, of course, there’s still a requirement for women to be thin, i’d estimate most average people would put the ideal at around size 8-10, which still accommodates a reasonable amount of junk in the trunk.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        April 19, 2011

        I think the size 8-10 thing has to do with the youthful ideal (which is imposed more upon women than upon men)… the idea that to be beautiful it is necessary to appear young. (Companies that make products to combat the appearance of aging must make a lot of money from this.) Specifically on size 8-10, my feeling is that it is natural for women to reach (at least) size 12 during their twenties.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          April 19, 2011

          I’ve been wondering when an ideal of size 8-10 started.

          I’m a fan of the Busby Berkeley musicals of the early to mid 1930s. Anyone who has seen these films (or even clips from them) will recall that they involve a large number of (mostly female) dancers. While none of the hoofers are overweight (dancing is, after all, an activity that burns off calories) many of them look (to my eye) more than a size 10. In fact, re-watching the dance routines (it’s probably not what one will notice on a first viewing) it has often occurred to me that there are plenty of body shapes on view that twenty-first century Hollywood would certainly reject. Body shape fascism is clearly growing more tyrannical.

          Susie Orbach pointed out that fat is a feminist issue, but the prevailing tyranny debars women who are certainly not fat. Many women are well above size 10 without carrying any excess weight.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 18, 2011

    While Egyptian iconography usually depicted Nut as a naked woman arched over the earth, like many Egyptian deities, she could also be shown as an animal. In Nut’s case, the animal was a sow. The stars were her piglets, to which she gave birth in the evening… and then devoured. Depicted as a woman, she devoured the sun in the evening, then gave birth to it in the morning. Some images show the sun moving through her body during the night. Nut was very much about devouring and giving birth.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 18, 2011

    I wonder whether there will be a picture for next week’s post mortem and, if so, what it will depict.

    • Hodge permalink
      April 18, 2011

      Bizarrely hadn’t occurred to me. Perhaps there will be.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        April 19, 2011

        That is bizarre!

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          April 19, 2011

          How about a picture illustrating a word you decided (at a late date) not to include? That way, you wouldn’t need to create a fresh illustration.

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