Julianna Baggott’s dystopian Pure features a post-apocalyptic America. Destroyed by the Detonations, American society is racialized into two distinct groups: the Pures within the Dome and the Wretches without. While the citizens of the Dome live artificial lives governed by a totalitarian government, the Wretches live in anarchy, fused to their belongings, surroundings, and even each other. Many of the characters that protagonist Pressia is surrounded by suffer from the effects of their fusion, which has rendered them deformed and disabled. However, while Baggott challenges preconceptions of beauty by contrasting typical ideas of femininity with the disabling deformities of her characters, she simultaneously reifies stereotypical notions of girlhood. Specifically, Pressia lacks confidence and is ashamed of her deformity. In portraying girls as self-conscious of their outward appearances in contrast to strong boys who wear their scars proudly, Baggott overtly confirms correlations between beauty and femininity.
Baggott’s novel plays upon girls’ intrinsic self-consciousness. With the current onslaught of media images, it becomes nearly impossible to avoid bodily comparisons. Clay et al. find that “experimental exposure to either ultra-thin or average-size models lowered body satisfaction and, consequently, self-esteem” (451). Thus, girls become painfully aware of their own bodies and the ways in which they fail to satisfy ideals. This notion is also evident within Pressia, whose doll-head fist is a point of affliction and embarrassment: “And what do they see when they look at her? She tucks her head to her chest, turning the crescent-shaped scar away from view, and she pulls her sweater sleeve down over the doll head” (43). While Baggott does well to represent strong female characters that challenge ideals of beauty and femininity, she does so in a way that blatantly reiterates modern feminine insecurities.
While the closure of the novel shows Pressia embracing her deformity as a sign of survival, she struggles with this concept throughout most of the text. Yearning for the way things were before the Detonations, Pressia sees her doll-head fist as external to herself: “its blinky eyes that click when she moves, the sharp black plastic rows of eyelashes, the hole in its plastic lips where the plastic bottle is supposed to fit, its rubber head in place of her fist” (9). The plastic doll-head is an artificial extension of her real body. Pressia’s refusal to accept the doll-head as part of her body reflects the phenomenal denial of the body by modern adolescent girls. In a 1991 study, adolescent girls described their ideal bodies as “5 ft 7 in., 100 lb, and size 5 – an ultra-thin, if not anorexic, body size” (Clay et al. 453). Young girls desire a body type suggested to them by popular media, consequently lowering their self-esteem and body image much like Pressia. She refuses to see the doll-head as anything more than a consequence of the Detonations, yearning for a time before she is fused.
In response to her affliction towards her doll-head fist, Pressia desires uniformity. Like all adolescent girls, she just wants to be like everyone else. What is ironic in this context, however, is that everyone else is fused and deformed like Pressia: “Pressia notices the girls in the audience. One has exposed wires in her neck. Another has a hand twisted solid with the handle of a bike, the metal sawed off and poking from her wrist like a protruding bone. She’s surprised they don’t hide these things. One could wear a scarf, the other a sock like Pressia does” (43). What she yearns for, then, is pureness: an unattainable ideal of perfection. Clay et al. note that “the media – magazines, TV, films, advertising, music videos – not only emphasize that female self-worth should be based on appearance, but present a powerful critical ideal of female beauty that is becoming increasingly unattainable” (452). Thus, adolescent girls, like Pressia, are left wishing for a body that they do not and cannot have, and so she tries to hide her deformity to fit in and does not understand why the other girls do not as well. As a result, she draws more attention to herself and her doll-head rather than wearing it proudly.
Pressia’s desperate yearning for purity, and therefore beauty, is paradoxical due to Baggott’s attempts to normalize disability and deformity within the novel. Surrounded by the effects of the Detonations, fusions become a social norm within this dystopia, rendering Partridge’s untouched skin as, essentially, an abnormality: “There’s something unsettling about it. Pressia isn’t sure why, but she feels a kind of revulsion. Is it jealously and hatred? Does she despise Partridge for his skin? It’s also beautiful. She can’t deny it – like cream” (132). Here, Pressia’s cognitions make manifest the strangeness of Partridge because his aesthetic deviates from the norm, which is “unsettling”. However, as Pressia still perceives him to be beautiful, Baggott’s attempts to normalize disability and deformity is fundamentally, and momentarily, diminished. Instead, contemporary approaches to beauty are reinforced, as is the notion of adolescent insecurity and female self-consciousness. Until Pressia is able to find beauty within her own deformity and in the deformities of others, she is left hating Partridge for embodying the ideals that she never will.
Pressia’s male counterpart and love interest, Bradwell, glorifies the disabilities and deformities that result from the Detonations, stating: “‘We wear our marks with pride,’ [….] ‘We’re survivors.’ Pressia knows that Bradwell wishes this was true, but it’s not, not for her at least” (166). Here, the contrasting approaches to their fusions mirror contemporary feminine insecurities and makes manifest the differences between male and female attitudes towards beauty and self-confidence. As Clay et al. note: “women’s self-esteem is moderately, but significantly, lower than men’s” (451). Over the course of the novel, however, Bradwell’s pride towards his own fusion alters how Pressia perceives her own disability and that of those around her: “It’s hard to explain but her limbs seem beautiful to Pressia. Maybe its Bradwell’s views that there’s beauty in their scars and fusing because they are sign of survival which is a beautiful thing, if you think about it” (371). Through her relationship with Bradwell, Pressia finally finds the beauty in their fusions, empowering Baggott’s desire to normalize and de-stigmatize disability and deformity. This is problematic, however, because it reiterates the relationship between girl’s self-esteem and their likeability among men. Clay et al. connect girls’ “physical attractiveness”, “body satisfaction” and “personal desirability” as key factors in self-esteem (454). Thus, while the shame attached to Pressia’s fusion is eradicated and the obscure, and arguably subconscious, desire to conform to a beauty standard that does not exist is abolished, it is done so in a way that suggests girls weigh their worth based on their desirability.
The concept of beauty in accordance to femininity within this novel is therefore one of ambiguity and confliction. Although Baggott can be praised for challenging preconceptions of beauty by contrasting typical ideas of femininity with the disabling deformities of her characters, she also reifies stereotypical notions of girlhood through Pressia’s insecurity and self-consciousness. Furthermore, fitting of the YA trope, Pressia still finds a heterosexual romantic partner who is arguably responsible for the change in her perception of beauty. David T. Mitchell argues: “in literature disability functions largely as a metaphor of social collapse” (311). If this is the case within Baggott’s dystopia, it is ironic to consider that a social collapse is what causes the disability. That Baggott then portrays a girl protagonist who is self-conscious of her disability seemingly suggests that we are subconsciously aware of the social collapse that is happening around us but are only able to make a change after we embrace the anarchy.
Baggott, Julianna. Pure. Grand Central Publishing, 2013.
Clay, D., Vignoles, V. L., Dittmar, H. “Body Image and Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls: Testing The Influence of Sociocultural Factors.” Journal of Research on Adolescence, 2005, pp. 451-477.
Mitchell, David T. “Body Solitaire: The Singular Subject of Disability Autobiography.” American Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2000, pp. 311–315
- How do notions of disability and deformity alter perceptions of beauty in modern society?
- Does Pressia only believe that her disability is beautiful because Bradwell does? Because he sees her as beautiful? Does this challenge Pressia’s integrity as a girl hero?
- Why do you think Ingership forces his wife to wear the white stocking over her skin? To make her more desirable/beautiful? To make her look pure?
- Why do the Mothers only accept Partridge after he chops off his finger? Do you think we relate easier to people who look the same as us? Are we automatically suspicious of people we consider more beautiful than we are?
- What is the significance of Pressia’s fusing to a doll? What does it suggest about girls and girlhood?