The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1991) by Naomi Wolf is another book from my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40–a list that I’m trying to finish before April. I have mixed feelings about The Beauty Myth. On the one hand, it was often challenging to read. Written almost thirty years ago, it sometimes felt dated. In addition, Wolf uses a lot of sweeping generalizations that I found frustrating. On the other hand, I think Wolf was something of a pioneer in writing about this topic and her take was often unexpected and powerful.
When I was younger, I had a horrible self image. With the height of the average man and tiny breasts, it was clear that my body did not fit what I had been told a woman’s was supposed to be. I could not imagine that any man would be attracted to me when there were so many other women around that were so much more appealing. When I was in law school, I met women who were taller than me and, more importantly, comfortable with their height. I think it helped that they were athletes in sports where their height was an advantage. Their example was a remarkable lesson for me.
Anyway, I’m sorry that my younger self had to feel that way, and I’m curious if getting my hands on this book when I was in high school would have made a difference. I’m not sure. After all, one book may not have had enough power to overcome everything I’d seen and been taught my entire life. I have become much more accepting of myself since high school and college, but I’m sure I still have a problem with body acceptance. I can look around and see beauty in all the women around me, but I am much harder on myself. I am still surprised, and I don’t entirely trust, when men show interest in me.
The Beauty Myth is separated into eight chapters: The Beauty Myth, Work, Culture, Religion, Sex, Hunger, Violence, and Beyond the Beauty Myth. I thought I had a good idea what was coming from each chapter title, but Wolf often surprised me. She began her book by arguing that men, society, or the powers that be (I didn’t think she was very clear on this point) reacted to women gaining more power in the workforce by more severely restricting what women could look like. I had a little trouble with this explanation because women’s strict beauty standards were around way before the 1980’s, and I did not wholly buy the causation in Wolf’s argument.
The next chapter, “Work,” was surprisingly powerful. Wolf’s most remarkable point was that women were put in an impossible position at work where they had to look good enough to be hired, but not so good that they would be harassed. Most striking were the numerous court cases Wolf cited showing women being fired for looking too old and/or frumpy compared with numerous other court cases that had women losing cases of sexual harassment because of dressing or looking too sexy. The judgments were absolutely ridiculous, and, I hope, not good case law anymore. However, the examples did a very good job of showing the insanity of expectations surrounding women’s appearance.
Another chapter that initially surprised me was “Religion”. I assumed that it would delve into how religion has affected the beauty expectations of women. Instead, Wolf argued that, as society became less religious, women turned to beauty and the beauty regimen as a new kind of religion. Interestingly, she compared the language used in religion with the language used in make-up and beauty product advertisements. It was something I’d never considered before, but the similar wording was remarkable. It did make me think about beauty products in a different way.
I had a hard time relating to Wolf’s “Hunger” chapter. Obviously, I agree that women are held to an impossible standard when it comes to thinness. But Wolf discussed how hard it is to diet and what losing 25% of your body weight does to your mind and body. But that’s pretty extreme. Not every woman who is dieting is losing 25% of her body weight. I thought Wolf was taking anecdotal evidence a little too far without really showing that it affects the majority of women in that way. I was more impressed with Wolf’s “Sex” chapter. I found it refreshing that Wolf persuasively severed the connection between our modern idea of beauty and sexual attraction.
“Violence” was another chapter that went in an unexpected direction. In it, Wolf compared physical violence against women with the uptick in cosmetic surgical procedures. “The surgeons’ market is imaginary, since there is nothing wrong with women’s faces or bodies that social change won’t cure; so the surgeons depend for their income on warping female self-perception and multiplying female self-hatred.” (232) It was chilling to read the almost identical descriptions of the bruising from a victim of domestic violence and the bruising of a recent cosmetic surgery patient. Of course, there are dramatic differences between these two when it comes to choice, danger, and fear, but I still felt that Wolf made a powerful point.
Sometimes this book was difficult to read, sometimes if felt dated, and sometimes I was frustrated by the lack of substance in Wolf’s arguments. However, Wolf made some vivid points that have shifted my perspective. When I let go of the details and simply allowed Wolf to show me an idea, The Beauty Myth could be very powerful. Wolf ends the book with the idea that women can wear make-up and dress up all they want, but they shouldn’t have to do that to be seen. It’s all about women getting along, empowering each other, and doing what feels good.
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