A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth coverTitle: The Beauty Myth
Author: Wolf, Naomi
Length: Around 350 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction
Original Published In: 1991

It’s getting nearer to the end of the year and everyone is getting busier and busier, and participation has been dropping off. I know I found it hard to finish the book this month as I’ve been on the road for work. That being said, I’m still so excited to be part of this project and I’m glad I made time to read this book. I still can’t really wrap my head around my full thoughts on it so I’m hoping that some of you have joined me in reading along to discuss some points with me!

Firstly, the idea of the beauty myth as a force – definitely something I agree with. I think that culture definitely affects us in a myriad of ways and the way that beauty is displayed so frequently and in only such a limiting number of ways has definitely contributed to the way things are. I agree with Wolf that the timing of it all seems rather coincidental (or rather, not so coincidental!) and that it is largely a political idea.

That being said… in many cases I found myself thinking Wolf was going a bit too far or exaggerating a bit. I can’t decide if this is because it has been 20 years since she wrote the book, or if even at the time it was a bit extreme. Speaking of which, in some ways it’s hard to believe she wrote the book so long ago, as so much of it is still so relevant. And some of her points have definitely come to pass, like cosmetic surgery becoming more common for men.

At the same time, other ideas, as I said, seem to go too far for me. She takes away the idea that women can still be varied and have multiple reactions to different things in their lives. For example, the idea that women would only like S&M because of the images we see in advertising seems a bit offensive to women who may like S&M (odd example, but I found she just kept going on about it!). Another place where I was a bit unconvinced was the section on religion and how beauty has become like a religion.

My other problems with the book were Wolf’s reliance on gender stereotypes (that men and women are different, and this is how, and that we react differently, there are always different expectations, etc) and her firm views of history. If there is no actual evidence of things jumping to conclusions or using ideas because they fit seem too easy! Lastly, this book and Wolf’s views are aimed, really, at middle- to upper-class white women almost exclusively. Although there was a reference here or there to the damage of the fact that beauty is often considered as “white”, this is mostly ignored. And the book focuses on women who only started working in the 60s and 70s, and who can afford these surgeries and products – which certainly excludes a large percentage of people. I’d have liked to see more about everyone instead of just this privileged group.

In terms of our project I was interested to see how heavily Wolf was influenced by Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Simone de Beauvoir. It was neat to see other ideas and books we’ve discussed this year feature in the discussion and arguments that were presented in this title. Definitely made it more interesting to have the background that this project has given me!

I’d like to know from you:

  • How did you react to her idea of the beauty myth as a political construct – do you agree that it exists?
  • What struck you the most (for me it was the section on work and how we are expected to look a certain way, and also the insinuations that we got something because of our looks – always frustrates and upsets me)?
  • What bothered you the most?
  • Do you think we’ve improved or regressed in terms of the beauty myth since Wolf wrote this book?

Finally, please do add your review to the InLinkz collection below to create an easy database for participants to use to find your review and keep the discussion going!


19 responses to “Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

  1. wolfshowl September 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I remember I read this book once upon a time……but that’s about all I remember. Says something about the content probably, eh?

    I will say, though, that my mom was one of the women who totally bought into the whole beauty culture and always had these insane women’s magazines laying around the house, and those really did a number to my teenager self-esteem. What do you *mean* I look hideous without make-up? What do you *mean* my hair must be wavy but not curly or straight? So yes, that’s definitely there, and we see images on tv all the time of women getting plastic surgery like it’s no big deal. I think the best thing we can do is love ourselves and value every body type and shape and see beauty in everything. As women we need to stop policing other women for how they look or choose to dress. Easier said than done, I know. But this is definitely one of those rare instances where I feel like a book on the issue won’t help much.

  2. Catherine September 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Like wolfshowl, I was hoping to rely on my memory from having read this book a few years ago, but I find I’m really fuzzy on the details. I think that the parts that resonated most with me had to do with products and procedures that are actually harmful being marketed to women. That is most certainly a feminist issue and more broadly a consumers’ issue.

    But…I also feel like a lot of “space” in feminism is taken up with beauty issues, and that’s not something that is a huge issue for me personally–which gets a little weird because it’s a “personal is political” type of issue, you know? My mother spent a lot of energy trying to teach me not to be ugly, but it was all about not having “ugly mouth” or low self-esteem. (Maybe that is actually one of the problems I have in approaching the beauty issue is that I did inherit my mother’s low tolerance for people with low self-esteem. “Ugly mouth,” by the way, was basically casual swearing, name-calling, and unconstructive whining–especially when done at high volume in public spaces.)

    In feminist “appearance” rhetoric, I have some trouble understanding either side. You are afraid to stop wearing make-up? Look around–lots of women don’t. I haven’t worn it in adulthood, and no one has ever said a word. You don’t understand how I can walk in high heels? Millions of people can do it, so chances are you could learn, too. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but what’s the point of declaring yourself incompetent at something. I really have trouble understanding these issues as personal identity crises, even though I know the reality is that for some people they are. (Or, more likely, that some people have crises related to their overall self-image.)

    I do believe that advertising really affects us, and I do think that our appearance choices send social messages. So it’s not that I think these issues aren’t real. But I am left with the impression that Wolf’s banner was what could be called “Break Free!,” which, to me, is a very Boomer sentiment. (As an aside, every time I see a photo of a man in a hideous 1960s outfit, I can’t help but remark, “He threw off the shackles of conformist men’s fashion!”) “Break Free!” isn’t a terrible idea, but I think it led to the idea that feminists *must not* look conventionally pretty and that it was okay to question not just the reasons particular women made those particular choices but their very commitment and authenticity. I’d propose a banner of “Be Intentional.” Appearance choices are not moral ones, but think through your feelings surrounding them and make deliberate choices for your context. Make deliberate choices about commenting on other people’s appearance. (I actually lean toward Just Don’t.) Provide an alternate experience to advertising.

    I’m curious about the impressions of those who have more immediate and specific memories of the book, and what stood out for you?

    • amymckie September 30, 2011 at 4:01 am

      All fantastic points Catherine! I rarely wear makeup but still enjoy wearing heels and dresses and etc and people find it an odd contradiction, which I find odd! I love what you say about be intentional. Wolf does close by saying she thinks women should have a choice and are welcome to dress however, get surgery or anything else, as long as they are doing it because they want to and not because they are coerced. Difficult to tell, of course, but she was against all the coercion and lying in the marketplace as well. Of course the movement certainly hasn’t embraced that as much has it?

      Consumer issues and advertisement that lies or sells one specific image of beauty definitely are a big issue but not only a feminist issue either, you are right!

  3. dangermom September 29, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I’ve had the book for a few weeks, but as soon as I started reading it I got annoyed. Partly because I have read most of the feminist books about advertising and the marketplace and all that (I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one, but no longer remember specifically), and I already know all the arguments. Partly because I really did feel like she exaggerated a lot; I wanted to argue with or challenge almost every statement she made.

    So I still haven’t gotten very far with it. I will try to do better!

    I need to define “the beauty myth” a bit more before I agree or disagree that it exists, but on the whole I do think that a beauty myth exists. More on that later. Certainly a competent woman in the working (or political) world gets judged far more on her appearance than she should; the way we treat women CEOs and politicians is beyond horrifying. If they’re pretty, they must be incompetent; if they’re not, they’re vilified–only of course there are layers and layers to it.

    I think we’ve improved in some ways and regressed in others. The standard of beauty is gaunter and more unrealistic than ever–now I can look at the popular beauties of the 80’s and marvel at their lush curves! The standard also appears to require having cantaloupe halves bolted to one’s chest in the most unnatural manner possible. OTOH, it’s not quite so white-and-blonde with one way to dress. Fashion has diversified a bit, I think. There are more images of non-white beauty, even if they’re not as common as we would wish for.

    • amymckie September 30, 2011 at 4:03 am

      Ah Dangermom I am SO GLAD to see someone else thinks she exaggerates and wants to argue her on lots of her points as well. I was wondering if it was just me and feeling extra judgmental!

      It’s definitely good that there are more options in terms of images now, but you are right, mostly way too thin and big breasted 😛

      I wish you luck with the book!

  4. Nana Fredua-Agyeman September 30, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Enjoyed the conversation here, Amy. Thanks for the link

  5. Tammie September 30, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I really hope you don’t mind me jumping in her. This was one of the first feminist texts I read, and I think it’s important to remember that Wolfe is a pioneer in her particular brand of feminism (liberal feminism, which is the brand that I think fits me best if you want to call me a feminist). So while the topics might seem archaic now, it’s because of her, in large part. She adopted the title “feminist” while also feeling comfortable wearing make-up and heels – she’s very publicly debunked a lot of myths about what a feminist *is*. And for that I have a great deal of respect for her.

    Within this book particularly, I remember the discussion of what a woman wears as part of a court case regarding rape, and I remember her pointing to specific cases where this was called into question when it came to the victim’s culpability. It was an “of course” moment for me, but the messages all around me still said that you could be “asking for it” if you wore a short skirt and tube top.

    The thing I appreciate most about her now is that she dances in the grey areas. I don’t tend to be a black and white person when it comes to most issues, and I love how she says “this is my position, but in saying that I also want to acknowledge that is okay too.” She seems to be often criticized for this, but I really do think our society would do well to listen to and acknowledge other ideas as being valid, even if we don’t necessarily agree (speaking in general terms – though there are definitely issues that are black and white too).

    • amymckie October 4, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      Thanks for jumping in Tammie. I agree, she definitely did a lot that wasn’t being done. I just couldn’t ignore her current brand of “feminism” which really colored my view I think and made me read more critically than I sometimes do. I still too don’t think that writing 20 years ago is an excuse for focusing only on one group of women to the exclusion of all others – I wish she had been more gray about that. But yes, given the time, fantastic that she wrote it!

  6. Pingback: The Beauty Myth: Women in Public | onereadleaf

  7. onereadleaf October 10, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I rambled on about it for a while at my blog, but am not sure I got at what I really wanted to say. I think my point is mostly that you wrote a great post, Amy, and said most of the things I wanted to address, only more succinctly 😉

  8. dangermom October 15, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    OK, I’ve read some more and…I’m just not feeling it. I have a hard time believing that beauty is a religion, even though she makes some really excellent points about it (and now that plastic surgery is so routine, her points are even more true). Her assertions about Adam and Eve are weird, though I might be seeing them through a different lens, not having been raised in an Eve-hating denomination. I’m white and middle-class, I was around (if young) in the 80’s, but I’m not the right demographic or something.

    I was also annoyed by some of her literary assertions, about the pretty-plain pairing: yeah, it exists, but some of her examples were a stretch. Who ever said that Mary was pretty and Martha was plain? It was Veronica and Betty that were paired–even though Betty was not actually plain, nor was Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island or Janet on Three’s Company. See, I told you I was around in the 80’s…

    In other news, my mom saved a pamphlet for me that was donated to her library, all about preparing your daughters to be helpmeets for their future husbands (very patriarchal/fundamentalist). It also said we need to teach our daughters to avoid the poison of women’s magazines (I’m successful in this! I don’t read them!). So *everyone* agrees–women’s magazines are evil.

    I will write a blog post but it will be kind of lame. On the bright side, my October books are on their way, through the magic of ILL!

      • Jean October 19, 2011 at 5:36 pm

        OK, I know I’ve taken over the comments thread, but I just got the book of essays about 3rd world women–does anyone know what the selections are? The whole thing? I only have it for 3 weeks and October’s half over so I’m wondering…thanks! 🙂

        • amymckie October 25, 2011 at 3:27 pm

          Sorry sorry for being so late in responding to you here! Love your points, I also had issues with what you mention, as I said above. The whole religion thing? SO WEIRD. Also, really interesting to hear about that pamphlet. Hilarious but also interesting.

          Off to read your post now, which I am sure is not lame at all!

          As to the essay collection, I just asked Iris and she said she was planning to read Under Western Eyes but was really hoping that people would read and write about any essay that interested them to get a variety of perspectives from it.

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