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Recommended Reading: The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf

Posted on: Thursday, 9 August 2012

**no pretty pictures on this one I'm afraid as I'm on holiday and typing furiously on an iPad-I'll add a few when I return to Bruxelles!**

The Beauty Myth was on the periphery of my literary awareness. AOW's Anna K named it, however, in her 'Books That Made Me me' piece, and I therefore registered it internally on my 'Books That I Should Probably Read' list - mainly because Anna seems so well-informed on feminist issues and so enviably 'together' in her sense of self. And so I ordered it and began it and, somewhere between a Eurostar from London to Brussels, a Ryanair flight to Barcelona and a train ride to Valencia, devoured it completely. 

Her formula is pretty simple - and this is one of the book's strengths. After an introductory chapter of some of her key views and her self-coined terminology outlined, Wolf divides her argument into six clear sections: Work, Culture, Religion, Sex, Hunger and Violence. After such bombardment - and, believe me, it does feel a bit like a siege at times - she finishes up with 'Beyond the Beauty Myth', which (thankfully) offers some 'OK, so women have historically had a horrendous deal - now here's how to channel your fury and outrage into some kind of productive change!' pointers. 

'The Beauty Myth' is a term that probably requires definition before I continue, so I'll attempt one and hope that Wolf would proclaim me 'on the money'. The Beauty Myth, the author asserts, is a conspiracy - a sometimes political, sometimes money-making plot - designed to cheat women out of real equality by ensuring that they measure themselves constantly against an ultimately unattainable 'Iron Maiden' gold-star standard of generic beauty. As a result, the average Western woman spends up to a third of her salary on her appearance. She flagellates herself over her weight, her nose, her breasts, her skin tone. She faces a barrage of sexualised images everyday - beauty pornography - where models dictate that only if she looks like that can she feel like the model does, i.e. eyes half-closed and mouth agape in an intimation of sexual ecstasy. She faces constant scrutiny - from men and from other women, similarly conditioned by the omnipresent beauty myth. 'Ahah!' say the Powers That Be. 'Thought you were free? Well, you thought WRONG.' And this is where I hope I don't start to sound a Little Bit Mental. Bear with me.

You see, Wolf says, women have always had a raw deal. It serves male-dominated-society for women to Know Their Place (remember those Harry Enfield sketches?) - to keep quiet, to not rock the boat, to stay at home, to look after the children. And, over time, different organisations and agencies have done admirable jobs at keeping the fairer sex adequately sedated and constrained. The Christian Church did a marvellous job for quite some time with its lectures on its founding principle Original (that is, Woman's) Sin. Victorian doctors spoke sagely of 'women's illnesses' - hysteria, paranoia, nervous exhaustion - and warned women (or rather, warned their husbands) of the inevitable 'atrophy of the womb' that would occur in those women who 'read too much'. Literature told stories of women who met desperate ends because of immoral behaviour - 'immoral behaviour' that might merely translate to a provocative glance and a difficult-to-define attractiveness (see my much-hated A-level text Tess of the D'Urbervilles for further details). Very simply, the high percentages of women's death in childbirth until well into the industrial age provided a constant reminder to females of their fatality, whereas scientific advancements simultaneously tempered this awareness of mortality in men. 

But then there was a revolution. The 70s arrived and women - having burnt their bras, gone into Higher Education and armed with the contraceptive Pill and the right to a legalised abortion - showed real signs of making real progress for the very first time. They banded together in organised Women's Groups. They petitioned for women's rights and causes at universities and in the workplace. They were a force to be reckoned with. They were loud and they were proud. The future looked bright. 

However, this jubilation was short-lived. Now society has adopted a new angle to ensure that, despite recent strides, women still Know Their Place in this supposedly equal Western world. It's adapted its words to make use of the controlling language of those oppressive forces still remembered as potent - the language of religion, the medical language of woman as invalid - but orientated it around 'beauty'. Women do guilt well, says Wolf. It's strong in our collective memory. We have made strides, it's true, but we still feel undeserving of it. You can have your high-powered job, but you need the right clothes, the right face and definitely the right weight to feel like you're doing it well. 

Wolf does a fine line in articulating truths that, once read, seem patently obvious and yet earth-shatteringly profound at the same time. On women's magazines - an issue that's resonates particularly with me, as I'm sworn completely off them - she writes, 'On the one hand, the aspirational promise of women's magazines that they can do it all on their own is appealing to women who until recently were told they could do nothing on their own. On the other, as sociologist Ruth Sidel points out, the American Dream ultimately promotes the status quo: it discourages those at the bottom from developing a viable political and economic analysis of the American system [substitute the Beauty Myth], instead promoting a blame-the-victim mentality...a belief that if only the individual worked harder, tried harder, he [she] would make it.' One of her interviewees puts it brilliantly: 'I buy them...as a form of self-abuse. They give me a weird mixture of anticipation and dread, a sort of stirred-up euphoria. Yes! Wow! I can be better starting from right this minute! Look at her! Look at her! But right afterward, I feel like throwing out all my clothes and everything in my refrigerator and telling my boyfriend never to call me again and blow torching my whole life.'

And where are men in all of this? Frustrated, mainly. I could recount anything from pages 169 and 172 in quotation here but suffice to say you'll be screaming 'HOW TRUE!' Lots of talk on how men don't understand how an otherwise confident, intelligent woman can morph into an unfathomable, unreachable emotional wreck trapped inside something so utterly pointless. And, worryingly, the recent rise in male eating disorders and psychological referrals suggests that this unhealthy preoccupation with an unrealistic, unattainable image sold to us as the only life worth living by fashion and cosmetic brands might take over men, too.

Ok, so sometimes her rhetoric is a little, shall we say, extreme. I suppose her defence would be that she's shocking her readership out of inertia, and that takes some tough talking. Or some cringe-worthy talking, anyway: on skincare, she ponders whether 'women are feeding their skins as a way to feed themselves the love of which many are deprived.' (I wrote 'Come on!' in the margin). I also found some of her stats a little difficult to digest, too - particularly on rape, where she suggests 1 in 6 women have been raped and 44% of women have been victims of an attempted rape. I was left wondering whether all the women I'm close to have been particularly lucky to escape such assaults. I mean, it is possible that we're all just on the right side of fate, and that's bloody great, but I have to admit to a little cynical 'hmm'ing.

So, I recommend that you read it. I hope that your copy ends up like mine - covered in scrawl and underlinings - and you finish it feeling a little bit more cynical about beauty advertising and a little bit warmer about your fellow woman. Hurrah for us. 


  1. I really need to read this book. And Backlash too. *runs off to amazon*
    Have you read Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy?


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