The Beauty Myth
by Naomi Wolf

Reviewed by Laura Bryannan

Note: while Wolf admits that many of the statistics she put forth to support her thesis were overstated, the main premise of The Beauty Myth remains sound. Thus, I have decided to post my 1991 review of this book.

This month's column is for women who believe their thighs are too big, their breasts are too small, their hair is boring, their skin is flawed, their body is shaped funny, or their clothes are outdated. This month's column is for women who believe their life would improve if they could lose 15 pounds; if they could afford contact lenses, that new perfume or anti-cellulite concoction; if they got a nose job, a face lift, a tummy tuck, etc. This month's column is for women who feel shame or unhappiness when they ponder some part (or all) of their body. In other words, this month's column is for 99.9% of the women reading it!

Why is it that so many women feel they just don't measure up when it comes to their looks? A new book entitled The Beauty Myth--How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, provides some answers. If you are a woman who recognized herself in the above paragraph, or if you are a man who wants to understand more about the dynamics of media vs. self-worth, then run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore or library and read this book.

The author, Naomi Wolf, has provided us with a very thoughtful and well-researched treatise on the feminine experience. It is full of studies and statistics to back up her claims, which makes her message hard to deny. The issue she is bringing to our attention needs to be addressed by both sexes, for women are not the only ones being manipulated by the media into feeling insecure and unhappy with themselves. This book will hopefully spark more discussion and research on how our culture cultivates the stereotypes of women as sex objects and men as success objects, to the detriment of all of us.

Wolf's basic thesis states that there is a relationship between female liberation and female beauty:

"The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us...During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty...pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal...More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers."

Wolf's research shows that there is a cultural backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty to keep women in their place. How many folks have succumbed to the idea of the ugly feminist activist who is only a feminist because she's too undesirable to get a man? That popular concept first showed up on the scene to describe suffragettes lobbying for the vote. Wolf shows that, throughout the years, there have been forces in culture that attempt to punish women who seek more control over their lives and their environment.

The Beauty Myth is the last (and most dangerous) of a long line of lies concerning the rules of feminine attributes and behavior. It is the most dangerous because it has succeeded in effecting women's internal sense of themselves. It has created a standard of femininity that is impossible to attain, and women are reacting with increasingly obsessive behavior in their attempts to measure up. Energy that might be used to further positive goals is turned inward instead--dissipated in guilt, shame and unhappiness at one's physical faults.

Wolf traces the historical path of these lies:

"A century ago, normal female activity, especially the kind that would lead women into power, was classified as ugly and sick. If a woman read too much, her uterus would 'atrophy.' If she kept on reading, her reproductive system would collapse and, according to the medical commentary of the day, 'we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid'...Participation in modernity, education and employment was portrayed as making Victorian women ill...Victorians protested women's higher education by fervidly imagining the damage it would do to their reproductive organs...and it was taken for granted that 'the education of women would sterilize them' and make them sexually unattractive: 'When a women displays scientific interest, then there is something out of order in her sexuality.'"

The attitudes toward women at that time are pretty obvious: women were seen as walking wombs, and anything they did to expand their usefulness in the world was attacked as a threat to this reality. That women could have had more to offer society beyond the children they bore was not conceivable or allowed.

The advent of the two world wars changed the rules. It now became important to society for women to leave their homes and work for the war effort. Advertising in women's magazines jumped on the bandwagon:

"A Pond's cold cream ad of the time read: 'We like to feel we look feminine even though we are doing a man- sized we tuck flowers and ribbons in our hair and try to keep our faces looking pretty as you please.'" A cosmetics ad "admitted that while the war could not be won by lipstick, 'it symbolized one of the reasons why we are fighting...the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely.'" The propaganda in women's magazines of that day emphasized that it was okay to work in the factory, live on your own and earn your own salary, so long as you stayed feminine. And, of course, the goal of all women's magazines was to be the sole source on how to be feminine. "Women's magazines needed to ensure that their readers would not liberate themselves out of their interest in women's magazines."

After each war, the propaganda in women's magazines took a drastic turn in emphasis. Forces in culture were concerned about finding work for the returning soldiers and fueling the consumer economy. It was important to put pressure on working women to get them back into their homes again, buying household products. How to do this?

"The marketers' reports described how to manipulate housewives into becoming insecure consumers of household products: 'A transfer of guilt must be achieved...capitalize on guilt over hidden dirt...stress the therapeutic value of baking, they suggested...make housework a matter of knowledge and skill, rather than a matter of brawn and dull, unremitting effort...identify your products with spiritual rewards...for objects with added psychological value, the price itself hardly matters.'"

The ramifications of this social propaganda were reflected in the television shows of the day: Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, the Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, etc. In these shows we saw the image of the happy housewife, who didn't seem to do anything but waltz around her beautiful home in her pretty dress, immaculately made-up, looking after her family. We rarely saw her visiting with friends, we never saw her involved in school, civic or other cultural activities. She was blissfully serene in her safe, clean suburban bungalow full of modern appliances.

During the 1960s, the second wave of feminism began to make itself felt. New avenues for women outside the home emerged, and women left in droves.

"The women's movement nearly succeeded in toppling the economics of the magazines' version of femininity...As women abandoned their role as consuming housewives and entered the work force, their engagement with the issues of the outer world could forseeably lead them to lose interest altogether in women's magazines' separate feminine reality...and the magazines' authority was undermined still further with the fashion upheavals that began in the late 1960s, the end of haute couture and the beginning of what fashion historians call 'style for all.'"

In 1969, Vogue made the breakthrough that has evolved into the cast-iron Beauty Myth of today.

"Vogue began to focus on the body as much as on the clothes, in part because there was little they could dictate with the anarchic styles...In a stunning move, an entire replacement culture was developed by naming a 'problem' where it had scarcely existed before, centering it on the women's natural state, and elevating it to the existential female dilemma...The number of diet-related articles rose 70 percent from 1968 to 1972...The lucrative 'transfer of guilt' was resurrected just in time."

We are bombarded today with images of the "perfect" woman. She is usually a gorgeous blonde, although sultry brunettes, redheads and exotic women of color are also shown. She is tall and willowy, weighing at least 20% less than what her height requires. She rarely looks older than 25, has no visible flaws on her skin, and her hair and clothes are always immaculate. One perfect woman looks pretty much like the next; she is essentially not human, interchangeable and disposable. In fact, quite often she is presented in bits and pieces like a mannequin- -a torso, some legs, a shapely fanny--completing the assembly- line metaphor.

Our culture judges women, and women judge themselves, against this standard. We forget that "beauty pornography," as Wolf calls it, pictures underweight models that are usually between 15-20 years old. We never see a picture of a woman who is not wearing makeup applied by an artist, hair professionally coiffed, clothes professionally designed or chosen. Any natural flaws or wrinkles in her skin are airbrushed out. Unsightly lumps or anomalies in her body are also airbrushed out. Even when we see a photo of an older actress we know must have character lines on her face, they are never shown--the focus is fuzzed or the airbrusher strikes again to remove them. These are the pictures they show us of the average woman. Yeah, right!

The Beauty Myth standard of the perfect weight is especially interesting to explore. If you watch a movie made before 1970 you'll see what I mean. Women and girls shown in the hottest, cutting-edge movies of the 50s and 60s actually have hips and a fanny!!! They actually look like real women!!! Judged by today's standards, we look at these movies and think that the women in them look a little fat. It's striking to notice that the beautiful women shown in movies and TV these days never have round, feminine, bottoms and thighs. We've all been trained to believe that this boyish silhouette is the way healthy women should look, but the reality is that healthy women rarely, if ever, look this way.

The attitude portrayed by the media in the 80s and 90s "includes and aspirational, individualist, can-do tone that says that you should be your best and nothing should get in your way." This attitude contributes to women's guilt about their bodies by saying that if you don't look perfect you have only yourself to blame: If you don't look as gaunt as the fashion models, then you should starve or exercise to get that way; if you have lines on your face, you should have them cut or burned off; if your breasts are small, inject them with chemicals; if your thighs are round, have a doctor stick a vacuum cleaner under your skin and suck the fat out. In other words, the culture of today puts incredible pressure on all people, and women in particular, to look beautiful, whatever that really means. And it maintains that if you don't look perfect, there must be something wrong with your willpower, because if you really wanted to you could.

Although most obviously fueled by advertisers, Wolf states that there are political and economic forces that act to maintain this standard.

"In drawing attention to the physical characteristics of women leaders, they can be dismissed as either too pretty or too ugly. The net effect is to prevent women's identification with the issues. If the public women 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."

Wolf carefully walks us through the various realms of life in which the Beauty Myth has taken it's toll. I'll discuss two of them: In the workplace, a woman has no clear legal recourse--her beauty, or lack of it, can be used against her: In one 1986 case, a woman lost a sexual harassment claim because she dressed "too beautifully." In another, a woman was denied partnership in a top ten accounting firm "because she needed to learn to walk, talk and dress more femininely." In another case, the judge ruled that the woman rightfully lost her job because it was "inappropriate for a supervisor of women to dress like a woman." Over and over, Wolf supplies precedent law in which the woman is judged to be too beautiful, too ugly, too old, too fat, dressed too nice, not dressed nice enough. In other words, it is legal for a woman to be hired or fired generally on the basis of her physical appearance.

The Beauty Myth has made it's most serious impact in the realm of women's health. 90 to 95 percent of anorexics and bulimics are women.

"The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association states that anorexia and bulimia strike a million American women every year...Each year 150,000 American women die of anorexia." It is estimated that one woman student in five is anorexic. Cosmetic surgeons are having a field day, with women seeking out the knife for every conceivable flaw. The Beauty Myth preaches that normal, round, healthy women's bodies are too fat; that cushy, soft women's flesh is really cellulite; that women with small breasts aren't sexy; that women lacking the "perfect" face aren't attractive; that a woman over 30 who shows signs of life on her face is ugly. No wonder women are either not asking, or disregarding the dangers of cosmetic surgery in their quest for this holy grail of "beauty."

The power of Wolf's observations leads one to hope that someone will do similar research concerning the media's impact on men. Our culture teaches women they can't be happy unless they are beautiful, but it also teaches men they can't be happy unless they are rich and/or powerful. Men have gotten off somewhat easy so far because there is no generic rich and powerful look to portray in the media--rich and powerful men come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. The only way to portray it is to put a man in rich and powerful-looking surroundings and hope the connection is made. However, now that the baby-boom generation is growing into middle age, I believe we'll see men being targeted more and more to look a certain way. We're already seeing ads for men's hair coloring and hair replacement.

This book is important to all because we need to become much more aware of how prevalent and damaging this kind of media influence is. It is very insidious--so much so that we accept it's pronouncements without a thought. Energy that could be used to further personal and cultural goals is dissipated in feelings of self-doubt and self-hatred. How many people have gotten excited about a new project and then thought, "Who am I to do that? They'll think I'm too old, too fat, too wierd-looking..." We are often turned away from our true soul paths toward worshiping false gods instead: the perfect face, body, or the brass ring at the top of the corporate ladder. Women and men need to wake up to the fact that there are forces in our culture whose only goal is to make you feel bad about yourself--so you'll buy the new season of clothing, hair coloring, or membership in the health club, etc., etc., etc. Who's gonna win folks? Us or them???

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan