I knew my parents wanted me not to starve because they loved me; but their love contradicted the message of the larger world, which wanted me to starve in order to love me. It is the larger world’s messages, young women know, to which they will have to listen if they are to leave their parents’ protection. I kept a wetted finger up to the winds of that larger world: Too thin yet? I was asking it. What about now? No? Now?The larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them. Until our culture tells young girls that they are welcome in any shape – that women are valuable to it with or without the excuse of “beauty” – girls will continue to starve.In this, her first book, Naomi Wolf examines the way in which (Western, primarily middle class) women are oppressed and controlled by the imposition of beauty requirements on every aspect of their daily lives.Culturally, little has changed for the middle class Western women about whom Wolf has written since the publication of this book in 1990, except that the beauty myth she explored and documented has if anything intensified and has been charged with a heavy dose of pornsex. Where Wolf wrote of a beauty culture in 1990, Ariel Levy writes in 2006 about a raunch culture – but essentially these are two sides of the same coin, and much of what Wolf says is still bang on. I just cannot over-emphasise how important a book this is. Very, very, very.
At times, at least on a first reading, some of Wolf’s assertions did strike me as a little wild, going a bit too far – at least until I got to the end of the chapter and realised that she had merely anticipated and jumped to her conclusions in a way that was perhaps not always helpful. Another niggle is the overt coining of phrases, which got on my nerves a bit I must confess: the “PBQ” or Professional Beauty Qualification, the Rites of Beauty, the Surgical Age, and so on.
Still, leaving niggles aside, Wolf’s analysis is devastating, her critique uncompromising, as she tackes a range of aspects of women’s experience in modern Western culture.
Work covers the ways in which the Beauty Myth undermines the huge strides that women have made in the wokplace.
Wolf discusses how women – held back by having to work two shifts (one of paid work for an employer and another unpaid at home for the family) compared with the single shift worked by men – still made strides; and how the addition of a third shift (the beauty shift – all that shaving, plucking, painting, curling, styling, toning and trimming) serves the purpose of keeping them down by keeping them tired and distracted. Too tired and distracted to be successful at work, and too tired and distracted to become involved or even interested in unions or other political action that might help to change the situation. The beauty myth also serves an important function in undermining women’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, so as to reduce their aspirations, ambitions and expectations to what the system can cope with.
Wolf also describes how, despite the introduction of bans on sex discrimination, women have been subjected to all manner of continued, permissible discrimiantion in the matter of their appearance – what Wolf calls the PBQ. Naturally, the PBQ only applies to women. Male newsreaders for example need not be youthful, charming, elegant or graceful; male newsreaders acquire gravitas with age, not their P45. But the same does not, alas, apply for women who find that when sacked because they are too old or too ugly to read the news (a complaint rarely made against men in the same job), the courts charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws find ways to uphold their employers’ right to do this. It is treated as just the unchangeable way of the world, that viewers like to see young, beautiful women with their breakfast news, and therefore that older, less beautiful women can justifiably be sacked, however good they are at the job. Thus women’s worth comes to be judged on their beauty, not their skill or experience – in ever increasing degree. When the only professions in which women are consistently paid more than men are prostitution and modelling, what does that say about the worth of women at work?
Culture focusses mainly on women’s magazines, the only real women’s space in modern mass culture – although it is to be hoped that the Internet is makings its own way now, there is still some way to go before it overtakes the weekly or monthly glossy magazine.
Wolf charts how the beauty myth supplanted the myth of domesticity (Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”) exploded by second wave feminism. Women who, cutting their ties with the role of domestic goddess in favour of a career and independence might otherwise have been lost to the magazine publishers (and their advertisers) were dragged back by the beauty myth to find something in these magazines that would speak to them.
Magazines are controlled by the needs of their advertisers – as Wolf evidences in her book – and the needs of the advertisers are to control women so that they will Buy Stuff. If they cannot be sold cleaning products, then they must be sold beauty products instead. We explore why women can be and are controlled in this way when men are not. The answers are complex but can be boiled down to this: the magazines are as already mentioned a vital piece of mass media created solely to speak to and for women, from their perspective, so they are very important to women despite the manipulation and condescension for which the advertisers work so hard; and at the same time – softened up by generations of isolation, poor education and limited encouragement or opportunity for critical thinking, women are conditioned to lack the skills they need to separate the useful content of their magazines fro the harmful, manipulative elements dictated by the advertisers.
Religion was the chapter that I found the hardest to take seriously but, on the whole, I have to say that a second reading has more or less convinced me.
Wolf argues that the beauty myth has replaced religion in women’s lives, and performs the same role. The idea that there is some “objective” ideal of perfect beauty replaces the idea of an objective ideal of purity. The modern religion demands of women not that they be chaste, but that they be beautiful. Advertisers selling “beauty” products (anti-aging potions, weight loss products and the like) do so by setting up this new moral imperative to be beautiful. Compliance with what Wolf calls the Rites of Beauty provides modern women with the same satisfaction as compliance with the church rituals and demands provided to women a hundred years ago. There are indeed an astonishing number of parallels between the culture, language and symbols of beauty and those of religion. Moreover, the techniques used by the beauty industry – particularly but by no means only the “weight cult” of diet classes – are frighteningly like those used by religious cults.
The blind faith that women have in the power of beauty, the helpless resignation with which they pursue this “objective” ideal of beauty despite knowing that their (“sinful”?) bodies can never achieve such perfection, the critical analysis and self-loathing which this inability inspires, the guilt they suffer for each transgression – yes, they do call to mind, and powerfully, the beliefs and attitudes of saints. Saints, at least, have their reward in heaven. But, asks Wolf, where is our reward? If you are young, and thin, and beautiful, what does it actually bring you – in the end?
Sex is an analysis of the way in which the beauty myth contains and suppresses female sexuality (in the same way that religion used to do). Wolf recounts how our culture treats sexuality, and the way in which – not just through our advertising industry but through our art, literature, films, music and just about everything – we are taught to think about sexuality.
Men are the do-ers and the watchers. It is women who are done-to and watched. And the women who are desired, who are desirable, must be beautiful. Sexuality and beauty are conflated so that a woman cannot feel desirable if she does not feel beautiful. If we are struggling over whether or not we are desirable, working hard to be beautiful so that we will earn the desire of a man, what energy will we have left to think about what we desire? If we are unable to conceive (because there is no example in our mass culture) of an active female sexuality, what will move us to find that energy?
Wolf also recounts how “beauty pornography” eroticises and normalises sexual violence against women. She talks about how the way women are encouraged to obsess about their own beauty, as essential to their desirability and sexuality, creates a field of total misunderstanding between men and women which keeps the sexes apart. She talks about how men lose out because, in being trained to view women as two-dimensional erotic objects rather than fully realised, exciting human beings, they can – if they are unable to throw off their training – lose out on sexual fulfillment and joy. Following this thread, Wolf wonders what would happen if women and men were free to love one another, to appreciate and eroticise one another exactly as they are: as human beings; as people with a past, present and future; as equal partners; as unique, beloved individuals. That would be a revolution. That would change the world.
Hunger was the chapter in The Beauty Myth that was, to me, the greatest revelation. In it, Wolf cites horrifying statistics* on the prevalence of anorexia and bulimia in the affluent West. She looks at the sheer number of women who think they are overweight, when they are not, the number of pre-pubescent girls on a diet, the number of girls and women routinely going hungry.
[* Based on these current statistics, the position with anorexia at least may now be less horrifying. But it’s still pretty shocking. For example, it states that 1% of female adolescents have anorexia and 4% of young women (college aged) have bulimia. That’s effectively one young woman in twenty who has an eating disorder so bad it needs treatment. Uncountable others have deeply troubled relationships with food – and obesity where caused by compulsive eating is a part of this problem, too. Another shocker: 20% of women with anorexia die of it, and another 20% never recover. Here’s another one (and see here) – we can still say that over half of us, at pretty much any age, are unhappy with our weight; and we can still say that more than half of all girls are trying to lose weight (by exercise or diet) or think that they ought to be.]
Wolf then looks at the long term health effects of dieting and hunger – preoccupation or obsession with food (including binging and compulsive eating which can, ironically, itself lead to obesity); emotional disturbances including depression and hysteria; apathy reducing the level of function in all aspects of life including work, social and sexual; guilt and fear.
Even ignoring the extreme consequences of starvation and death (anorexia is the mental illness with the highest mortality rate) – hunger messes people up seriously. It messes with their minds, bodies and hearts.
If you want to subdue and oppress a large group of people, it is well known that you must keep them hungry: history has proved it time and again. If you could not actually make food physically unavailable, the only solution would be to convince them somehow to do the job themselves – to submit to hunger, voluntarily. Wolf argues that the beauty myth does just that. It holds up thinness as beautiful, desirable – and a moral imperative – precisely so that women will submit to hunger. So that they will police themselves, deny themselves, deprive themselves, starve themselves. Those who constructed thinness as beautiful did not do so, Wolf argues, because it was necessary for women to be thin, but because it was necessary (and remains necessary) for them to be hungry. Thinness is incidental. Indeed, given the sensual power of a voluptuous, fleshy woman – thinness is pretty unattractive, too.
This chapter hit me hardest because it touches on a deep fear that I have for my own daughter – that she will be driven to a place where I cannot intervene to save her, where nobody could intervene to save her. For Wolf declares that anorexia (and by extension, any dieting for reasons other than a genuine health need) is not about irrational self-loathing of a distorted self-image or a crossing of wires in the desire to be beautiful. It is much, much less, she says, about the private, individual circumstances of one person than about the wider demands of our culture and the indifference with which the epidemic’s damaging effects are treated by those who have influence. It is, even, a rational response to such demands and indifference.
Yes, this chapter hit me hardest and never is Wolf more persuasive in her suggestion that the beauty myth is more than just a phenomenon arising by accident through social forces, that we can do little more than document, than she is in this chapter. At other times, she can give off a faint whiff of the hysterical conspiracy theorist (which, as far as I can tell, she is not). In this chapter, though, her “conspiracy theory” of an actual conscious or half-conscious purpose behind the Beauty Myth is at its most plausible.
The rise of thin beauty coincided with women’s political and legal emancipation, and has intensified as women’s other freedoms (and therefore their threat to the established order of society) have grown. As the recent “size zero” backlash has dramatically proved, nobody really thinks that emaciation is beautiful – fat is definitely sexier than thin – so why does the Beauty Myth demand such extreme thinness? Surely the economy would do just as well selling the neverending pleasures of food as it does selling the neverending pain of dieting – so why does the beauty myth demand that women be always on a pointless diet? If it isn’t for the PURPOSE of keeping us hungry – keeping us compliant, submissive, apathetic, self-absorbed and unlikely to do anything that threatens the social order – then it really is hard to think of a neutral reason why everybody should want us all to go on a diet.
Violence is not, as you might expect (I did), an exploration of criminal violence against women – perhaps a discussion of sadism in beauty pornography or something along those lines. It is about the perfectly legal violence to which women are encouraged voluntarily to submit themselves in the name of beauty. Yep. It’s about cosmetic surgery.
Wolf draws a parallel with Victorian doctors who were happy to glamourise and normalise the female invalid and to cast femaleness as sickness because they could then make money tending to hypochondriacs. In modern times, cosmetic surgeons are happy to glamourise and normalise superhumanly (inhumanly) perfect beauty and to cast femaleness as ugliness as sickness, because today they can make money performing unnecessary surgery on perfectly healthy women, merely to “beautify” them. (Some cosmetic surgeons even argue that their surgery is medically justified on the basis of the “psychological benefits” it can bring.)
In both cases, wider society has allowed women to be targeted by the “healthcare” industry in this way, because as long as women are blaming their unhappiness and discontent on medical causes – and seeking medical solutions – they will not be placing the blame where is truly lies, and they will not be demanding political solutions to their problems.
Cosmetic surgery is horrifying. People die. (Remember this 20 year old young woman?) Other bad stuff happens all the time. Surgery is dangerous. Sometimes it is even experimental. And doctors – doctors, who must promise first and foremost to do no harm – are carrying out unnecessary and dangerous procedures without any real regulation and with no real protection for the vulnerable women who are seeking a private, surgical solution to what is so clearly a public, social problem. Wolf compares the modern vogue for breast surgery with female genital mutilation, and with the cliterodectomies and oophorectomies (removal of clitoris and ovaries respectively) of the Victorian era. These last two were procedures routinely performed to remedy such illnesses as masturbation, adultery, or just plain uppitiness. These days, we see the rise of cosmetic surgery to the vulva too.
Extrapolating from what is already happening, what has already happened, Wolf offers a starkly horrible glimpse into a future in which she sees no limits to what society, in the grip of the beauty myth, will do to women. Perhaps we will be drugged into a numbly compliant docility. Perhaps poorer women will be paid to bear children, for the sake of the youthful looks of the richer women whose babies they carry. Perhaps poorer women will be harvested, selling their breasts, hair, teeth, clitorises or other body parts for transplant to other, less “beautiful” women. Perhaps everybody will be doing it, darling, because perhaps what seems totally out of control now will go on and on, escalating to the point where nobody can actually remember, not even the women, that we and our bodies ever used to be human…
Or perhaps, we can imagine a better life, Beyond the Beauty Myth. This is what Wolf offers in her final chapter: an imagined life of freedom. No more pressure to conform to any generic, anonymous ideal. No more value judgements based on the shapes and sizes, textures and colours, tastes and smells of our bodies. Freedom instead to be what we want, to be ourselves, and to dress adorn and decorate ourselves – or not – purely as the fancy takes and purely for our own pleasure, our own joy in play, unburdened by judgements or consequences.
How do we get from here to there?
There has been little serious change since publication of The Beauty myth back in 1990 – the Internet has enabled us to create body-less women’s spaces where our words and ideas and personalities are paramount, but on the whole the beauty myth is still astonishingly strong. It seems therefore to me that Wolf’s suggestions for counteracting and exploding the beauty myth are just about as valid now as they were when she wrote them.
We need to create a real, thriving, all-encompassing women’s culture free of the clutches of advertisers. Bloggers like us are a start, but we need more. We need to celebrate ourselves, our bodies, our individuality. We need to value ourselves and our lives from beginning to end, from youth to old age, from folly to wisdom. We need to connect with our mothers, sisters and daughters and learn from the insights of both older and younger generations. If we can learn to turn away from and ignore the demands of the beauty myth, if we can see clearsightedly through the flat, boring, two-dimensional facade of beauty imagery, then we stand a chance.
And if we stop hurting ourselves with futile efforts to create a man-made, plastic version of beauty – and start getting on with our rich, wonderful, interesting lives instead – then, at last, in rejecting the demand that we ape a false beauty, we will accidentally find a true one.