The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women - Naomi Wolf

A seminal feminist work, "The Beauty Myth" digs into the ways that the pursuit of beauty has hampered feminism. How many women rush to pursue the next makeup line instead of equal pay for equal work. How many women are in a Catch-22 at work - you must be pretty and feminine, but not TOO pretty and feminine, else it's your fault for sexual harassment! At a time when many are saying there is no need for feminism, Wolf shows that sexism is still alive and well and how trying to adhere to the Perfect Woman is holding women back.

As I dig more and more into feminism, particularly the portion where women take great pains to look the part that society tells them (sexual, but not TOO sexual, smart but not TOO smart), I kept seeing this book. Every current feminist work brings it up; therefore, it must be amazing right? Up there with Friedmam's "The Feminine Mystique" and Gloria Steinem? (OK, so I haven't read either, but I DO plan on rectifying that at one point!) So when a friend of mine recommended we buddy read this, I figured, "Why not!"



But - and you knew this was coming - I had a great many problems with this book, from writing style to over-generalizations to some of the messages to how dated it seems now. That is not to say this book has no good points or wasn't influential at the time. I'll bet back in the early 90's, there wasn't as much information about the push for women to be beautiful over their rights. Nowadays, practically every feminist work talks about how women are forced to adhere to a certain beauty stereotype - hence how I discovered this book in the first place!

But just because a book is a "classic", doesn't mean it's above criticism. I can appreciate what it meant to the feminist movement, while also A) not liking it and B) specifying how and why.

First off, the good. Let me allow Wolf's words to speak for herself:

"Whenever we dismiss or do not hear a woman on televisison or in print because our attention has been drawn to her size or makeup or clothing or hairstyle, the beauty myth is working with optimum efficiency."

"If a single standard were applied equally to men as to women in TV journalism, most of the men would be unemployed."

"The myth urges women to believe that it's every woman for herself."

"...to tell a woman she is ugly can make her feel ugly, act ugly, and, as far as her experience is concerned, be ugly, in the place where feeling beautiful keeps her whole."

"If the public woman is stigmatized as too 'pretty', she's a threat, a rival - or simply not serious; if derided as too 'ugly', one risks tarring oneself with the same brush by identifying oneself with her agenda."

"Few women have a strong sense of bodily identity, and the beauty myth urges us to see a 'beautiful' mask as preferable to our own faces and bodies."

"Women's bodies are portrayed as attractive packaging around an empty box...each woman has to learn for herself, from nowhere, how to feel sexual (though she learns constantly how to look sexual)."

"What women look like is considered important because what we say is not."

Young women now are being bombarded with a kind of radiation sickness brought on by overexposure to images of beauty pornography, the only source offered then of ways to imagine female sexuality."

"Men are visually aroused by women's bodies...because they are trained early into that response, while women are less visually aroused and more emotionally aroused because that is their training."



Each and every one of these, I can agree with a hearty, "YES!" How many of our newsanchors are old white guys? How many times must we hear about Katie Couric's hair, when we heard next to nothing about Dan Rather's or Tom Brokaw's? What about how critical we are of other women's appearances and the popularity of "What Were They Thinking?" (Almost exclusively populated with WOMEN BTW - and most as if the stars themselves picked out the garments instead of a publicist!). With quotes like these, how can this book be so bad?

How about ruining it with wild, baseless accusations, generalizations run amicably and the most confusing, rambling, never-ending narrative? For each time that Wolf says something great like this, we have to hear things like:

+ "Studies of a users show that violence, once begun, escalates. Cosmetic survey is the fastest-growing 'medical' speciality." -> This was NOT edited; this is how it appeared in the book.

+ Plastic surgery being compared to a violation of human rights, Nazism genocide, and female genital mutilation (no, I am not kidding). Last I checked, plastic surgery was a CHOICE, maybe a "poor choice" women feel like they need to make to keep a youthful appearance, but a choice nonetheless. NO ONE is making women do them - compare that to female genital mutilation, which is NOT a choice by any means!

+ The conspiracy theory that women don't have a choice (such as for plastic surgery or buying makeup). That is, until women DO have a choice and can choose to unite with other women. First off, who is at the head of this conspiracy? Those evul menzfolk? The government? Society in general? Secondly, while some women will cave to society's pressures, many do not. Most days, I don't wear any makeup or use any skincare products. I know tons of women who are likewise.

+ "Women are feeding their skins as a way to feed themselves the love of which many are deprived." Maybe they have acne???

+ No distinction between losing weight FOR HEALTH and to adhere to the skinny model. (In fact, in this day and age of obesity, this book overlooks eating disorders besides anorexia - which the author had as a teenager - and bulimia.)

+ Vilifying cancer patients for breast implants (even though these patients may have had mastectomies!!).

+ "...our portions testify to and reinforce our sense of social inferiority." Uh, no, I eat smaller meals to be healthy. If I ate everything I wanted until I was full, I'd look like a whale (especially with the way the food industry designs food so that we eat more!).

+ "The demonic characterizations of a simple body substance do not arise from it's physical properties but from old-fashioned misogyny, for above all fat is female..." Some fat is unhealthy too? And in this day and age, with obesity on the rise...

+ "Where are the woman activists of the new generation, the fresh blood to infuse energy into second-wave burnout and exhaustion?...up to a fifth of them are so quiet because they are starving to death." Jumping to conclusion much?

+ If you are woman of color or outside the upper-/middle-class bracket, well, I guess you don't suffer from The Beauty Myth, or not like "us poor middle-/upper-class white women". The book is so overwhelming biased towards the white middle-/upper-class woman, it's embarrassing.

And this goes on and on. Generalization followed by conspiracy theory followed by "Woe is me, poor over-privileged middle-class white woman" followed by dubious assertion, all told in the most challenging language possible! It just irritates me to no end to see these great ideas buried and undermined by such faulty sentiments.

There were so many times in my nearly 5 months of reading this that I was tempted to give up. I honestly was doubting I'd ever finish it. If you absolutely must read all feminist works, then you should pick this up, but there have GOT to be better non-fiction books on the subject than this - which is somewhat ironic, given its status as the "go-to manual" for women and beauty.