Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Title: 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)
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!