Skip to content

Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

September 29, 2011

The Beauty Myth coverTitle: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women
Author: Wolf, Naomi
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Women
Publisher / Year: Harper Perennial / 2002 (first published in 1991)
Source: Borders
Rating: 3.5/5
Why I Read It: This months pick for the Year of Feminist Classics project.
Date Read: 25/09/11

As I mention above, I read this book because it was our pick this month, and I was the discussion leader. For my thoughts on the book and to see what others thought, do check out the wrap-up post on the dedicated site. For more on my full thoughts of the book, do check out the link!

I have to start by saying that I am incredibly conflicted about this book. I really love and agree with the idea of the beauty myth as a political tool being used against women. The evidence has been and still is hugely convincing, and Wolf lays out a lot of it really well. However, at the same time, Wolf has some ideas that made me shake my head, roll my eyes, and in some cases really annoyed me.

One huge failing, in my opinion, is that the book seems to be aimed at only middle to upper-class white women. Those who started working in the years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and women who can afford the pricey cosmetics and surgeries which she is discussing. Largely ignored is the impact of the myth on women of color, or the fact that many women were working long before Freidan ignored them in her book, and yet years later they are still ignored in this one.

It was scary though, in spite of my issues with the book, to note how much of it was still so relevant. We still suffer from so much of what Wolf discusses, and we still haven’t been able to really break out. Women are still seen as what they look like, and this affects our work and career. Women’s sexuality is still not acknowledged or really fully allowed. Cosmetic surgeries and the various cures aren’t fully tested as they should be, and more. At the same time, in many ways we’ve almost regressed moving even farther away from where we were in terms of career and in terms of reproductive choice.

In the end, much of what was in the book wasn’t really surprising to me in terms of the politics, but at the same time it was in the levels of dissatisfaction people really feel with themselves and the high rate of surgeries.. Maybe I was lucky: I was raised without much TV or other cultural influences. Or maybe my parents just rock (thanks Mom!). Either way, I’ve never been one to read beauty focused magazines, I detest advertisements and understand that advertising money drives much of what is in magazines and on TV, and I have fairly healthy self-esteem and love of self. For these reasons the reliance on makeup (too much effort to bother), the crazy fashion (I’m lucky to even wear matching colors on a regular basis), and the push to actually have surgery to change how you look seem just ridiculously crazy to me.

A few of my favorite quotes:

On Work, page 29:

[...] as sociologist Ruth Sidel points out, the American Dream ultimately protects the status quo: “It discourages those at the bottom from developing a viable political and economic analysis of the America 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.’” But the myth of entrepreneurial beauty, or women against nature, hurts women in the same way as the original model hurts men – by leaving out the words “all else being equal.”

On Culture and the books kids are give, page 61:

A girl learns that stories happen to “beautiful” women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not “beautiful.”

On Violence, on page 222:

The Victorian woman became her ovaries, as today’s woman has become her “beauty.” Her reproductive value, as the “aesthetic” value or her face and body today, “came to be seen as a sacred trust, one that she must constantly guard in the interest of her race.”

Where Victorian doctors helped support a culture that needed to view women through ovarian determination, modern cosmetic surgeons do the same for society by creating a system of beauty determinism.

And also, still on Violence, on page 259:

Women’s desperation for beauty is derided as narcissism; but women are desperate to hold on to a sexual center that no one threatens to take away from men, who keep sexual identity in spite of physical imperfections and age. Men do not hear in the same way the message that time is running out, and that they will never again be stroked and admired and gratified.

Have you read this book? If so, I hope you’ll check out the discussion (and of course you are still welcome to join in if you haven’t read it yet as well!). If you haven’t, I recommend it as an interesting feminist text, but with the caveat that there are some interesting points in it!

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 11:29 am

    I also try to stay out of the beauty arena. I use a little make-up, and like to wear nice clothes, but I am not constantly anxious about how I look in comparison to other women, or women on magazine covers. I think I have a pretty good sense of self, and self-esteem. I am trying to raise my daughter that way as well, and we hardly ever have the television tuned to programs that would defeat the ideas about self that we are trying to perpetrate. I am not sure what exactly I would make of this book, as it seems that I might not be the target audience for it. I am with you about your feelings on cosmetic surgeries as well. That kind of thing seems crazy to me!

    • September 29, 2011 3:40 pm

      Yeah, I’m the same as you I think zibilee. I mean, I try but meh, usually get side tracked ;) I hope that you are able to raise your daughter well without all the influence – seems like it is so hard to avoid these days!

  2. Tammie permalink
    September 29, 2011 11:31 am

    I’m so glad you’re discussing this book! I read it more than 10 years ago now, so my memory is vague on much of it – except when it comes to women and dress code! So relevant there!. I really enjoyed Promescuities when I read it this past year, but I do agree that she focuses on a particular subsect of women.

    • September 29, 2011 3:41 pm

      Good to know about the other book Tammie, I may have to check it out some time. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one too back when you read it :)

  3. September 29, 2011 1:46 pm

    I actually think the drive for beauty has become worse in recent years. It seems to me that many women think they have to look good to “keep their man.” This book sounds very relevant and rather disturbing.

    • September 29, 2011 3:42 pm

      I think you may be right Kathy. It’s scary and disturbing, I agree!

  4. September 29, 2011 2:23 pm

    OMG, was it really published 20 years ago? Makes me feel OOOOLD. I need to re-read it, but it’ll probably depress me endlessly that things have worsened.
    I’m actually okay with selective sampling as long as the author acknowledges the limitations of the study upfront (can’t remember if she does.) It bugs me endlessly when a book touts itself to be a comprehensive work while ignoring a hunk chunk of the population.

    • September 29, 2011 3:42 pm

      LOL so sorry to remind you of when it was originally published Niranjana :) She doesn’t really acknowledge it which is what bothers me. Once or twice in passing she kind of comments, but it never seemed like she expressly said… unless I’ve forgotten…

  5. September 29, 2011 5:02 pm

    I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to read this. But it’s on the shelves, so someday soon I’ll pick it up. There is just so much that goes into “the beauty myth” and its effect on women. For example, I hear a lot of women say that they aren’t affected – but most who say this are thin, white, pretty women. It’s a lot different when you aren’t already the standard. :)

    • September 29, 2011 11:55 pm

      Yes, that is true Trisha. But I think cultural influences still make a difference too. I hope you get a chance to read it.

  6. September 29, 2011 10:00 pm

    I really enjoyed reading about your thoughts here. I think it’s GOOD when books leave you feeling conflicted- I think in general, those make you think more and consider why you disagree with the author so strongly on some points. I agree that working-class women throughout history have been completely marginalized. That said, though, it seems like women who DID contribute economically to their household did get much more respect and power, and so it’s sad that much of that was lost and is only now being regained in small steps.

    • September 29, 2011 11:56 pm

      Yes, very true Aarti, the respect was lost in a lot of ways. And you are right, conflicted is often a good thing :)

  7. September 30, 2011 8:26 am

    I agree with the concentration on beauty 100%. And I agree with you on every point you’ve raised. I’ll also add that this ‘beauty’ monster is creeping on men too. I went to the University of Ghana’s Campus on Monday. The Univ. has admitted fresh students and there seemed to be a competition for who has the most tightest, thinnest, shortest clothes. Here the competition is about showing and shaking the butts and breasts. This has been the culture and I’ve always worried. Are we training minds or bodies?

    About the men, it isn’t necessary a ticket to good jobs and happy life as women take beauty to be. However, on Campuses, it is common to see them imitating these Hip Hop stars.

    • October 4, 2011 11:10 am

      Yes, she mentions that she sees it moving toward men – and that was 20 years ago Nana! It’s sad for sure.

  8. October 1, 2011 10:15 pm

    I have wanted to read this book since it came out and STILL haven’t got around to it…

  9. October 9, 2011 2:33 pm

    I noticed the same thing you did – the near-complete erasure of the experiences of not only women of color, but other marginalized female groups as well: queer women, disabled women, and poor women. I was also bothered by how she seemed to shame women who were into BDSM (she used the older name, S&M) as victims of patriarchy. The Feministe blog recently did a miniseries on BDSM and it was very interesting. Many female practitioners see it as a way to explore and deconstruct power hierarchies.

    Her writing is still quite powerful, however, and she brings up some very disturbing issues. But I still find myself doubting the extent of the Beauty Myth. I ditched my TV and only occasionally read Glamour and Maire Claire for the real-world articles. I care about my appearance but love vintage clothes rather than the latest fashions and only wear makeup for special occasions. I have never felt socially disciplined for my choices about my appearance. Or maybe I’m unusual.

    Anyway, it’s still a very thought-provoking work and I see it more as a foundation for other women to build upon.

    • October 10, 2011 1:37 am

      Yes, good point about it being a foundation to build upon EL Fay. Like you I personally tend to avoid it but then I do see it affecting others so I can’t decide if it really is that big or not…

      The whole BDSM thing really bothered me as well, she was so dismissive of it. Shaming women for the things they like sexually, or for being marginalized in any way, is not the way to make a feminist argument. Frustrating to see her doing it so much.


  1. September 2011 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

Please share your thoughts, discussion always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 264 other followers

%d bloggers like this: