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The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women Paperback – September 24, 2002
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The bestselling classic that redefined our view of the relationship between beauty and female identity. In today's world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women's movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It's the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society's impossible definition of "the flawless beauty."
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Wolf's book explores 6 areas of life in which problems result from the beauty myth. Each has its own chapter that can be read on its own and still make perfect sense. I suggest starting with whichever interests you the most. They are as follows:
* WORK. Here, the author details the way the concept of "beauty" can be used to discriminate against women in the workforce. If women are too pretty, we're not taken seriously; if women aren't pretty enough, we can legally be fired for their perceived "homeliness." Then again, if we're too pretty, it's our own fault when they're sexually harassed; if we're not pretty enough, people doubt men would have actually harassed them. The author offers a dizzying list of legal cases lost by women which demonstrate the extent of this catch-22 -- compelling stuff.
* CULTURE. This focuses on the role of women's magazines (the sole arbiter of women's culture) in shaping our lives, by selling us on the need for beauty products by making us feel bad about themselves. It also notes that advertisers pressure the magazines into this, because only if women feel terrible about themselves will high-income women spend a quarter (yes, a quarter) of their each paycheck on beauty products.
* RELIGION. Convincingly argues that the quest for thinness has replaced the quest for moral virtue and heavenly salvation, and shows how this quest has the same effects that religion once did -- of keeping women submissive and preoccupied.
* SEX. Demonstrates that the beauty myth actually supresses female sexuality by making many women too self-conscious to engage in sex freely and comfortably, and moreover, that excessive dieting leads to a diminished sex drive. It also argues that the beauty myth hurts men by making them unaware of what real women look like, and by giving them the role of "appraiser of beauty" instead of the role of "partner" -- further impacting sexual relations.
* HUNGER. The beauty myth convinces women to "willingly" go hungry, to eat fewer calories per day than famine victims in third-world countries, which results in ironic weight gain and/or in eating disorders (compulsive eating, anorexia, and bulemia). Includes a compelling account of the author's own battle with anorexia.
* VIOLENCE. This is not about domestic violence, but rather the self-inflicted violence of cosmetic surgery, which is so painful and damaging to the body. Interesting comparisons with Victorian sexual surgery and with potentially deadly experimental medical research (which is unethical). The author questions why so many women are willing to risk diminished erotic responses and even death in order to be made thin or small-nosed or large-breasted or whatever. Her conclusion is that culture implies that women are better off dead than old or ugly-looking, making it a reasonable risk.
In conclusion, this is a very strong, compelling book. At times, some of what Wolf says is a bit hard to swallow -- but read as a whole, it presents a solid argument about the sickness of our society today. Men, read it for your wives; parents, read it for your daughters; and ladies, read it for yourself.
As a relatively aware male still trying to overcome his deeply ingrained sexist ways, I have no personal axe to grind here, I bought the book seeking to be further enlightened, but in the interest of thoroughness, it must be said that this tract ignores all that is most important about the background to the historical conversation itself: that most western white women base the whole of their self esteem on a foundation of the twin towers of beauty and race. These two concepts are not just "throw-a-way" categories, or terms to be batted about like so much social confetti, or as is done here, tucked away in the subtext as if they do not exist. They must be treated openly and seriously with the proper degree of rigor as key variables in any analysis of western and American social processes.
In point of fact, it must be said that it is incontrovertible that race and beauty go hand-and-hand and get to the very heart of what white womanhood means in western culture. And since the standard of beauty for all women is assumed to be the universal -- "white womanhood"-- the issue of race cannot be slyly confounded in the generic term "woman." Any serious reader clearly "over-understands" that in this context, the generic term "woman" actually means "white woman" only. The larger point being, that without the two concepts of race and beauty being properly analyzed, one cannot reasonably answer the question: what meaning does "being a white woman in Western culture really have anyway?
"Well, of course this author has fixed this hole in her "non-analysis" by jumping over it entirely: restricting her concerns to "accomplished middle class (white) women." But it is all but self-evident that the modifier "accomplished" lies on the same logical and social plane as the term "beauty" itself. Should we not do a further analysis on the "myth of accomplished white women?" Indeed, what does the term "accomplished" mean in this context? Is it supposed to be self-evident and beauty is not? Once those questions are answered: What then for instance do we do with "poor," "unaccomplished," "ugly," "non-white, "lesbian" women, in this analysis? Surely we are not to just leave them out altogether? Or worse, (as has been done here and which is the only other alternative) hide them passively under the generic rubric of "woman?" That may be a clever way to dispatch the problem, but it cannot be taken as serious analysis.
Put simply, the historical and structural aspects of the "beauty myth" along with "being white" are the twin towers of a societal hierarchy that controls much of Western society's behavior, and this holds true for both genders. Given that this is indeed the case, what then is the justification for concentrating only on one narrow aspect of this phenomenon: aggrieved accomplished middle class white women? This sounds more like an analysis of an entitlement than a serious analysis of a demanding sociological problem?
Equally, I am sure that the author realizes that "The Beauty Myth," is just the flip side of "The Handsome Myth," and that together, along with the concept of "race," they constitute perhaps the most important and dominant societal aristocracies in western culture. Together they are used to shape, channel and pressure not just women, but both sexes into a dependence on meaningless values. Clearly, the beauty myth constitutes a two-sided hierarchy, which work its magic and its poison on both sides of the gender divide. Handsome men benefit and suffer the same tyranny of the beauty myth almost as much as women do. So why not include that in aspect in the analysis too?
But in a larger (less rhetorical) sense, the "beauty myth" and the "handsome myth" are trivial concerns because "assigning irrational meanings" to societal "constructs" and then raising them to the level of societal ideals is primarily what societies do: They develop psychological and societal "constructs" based on the deeper mostly irrational fears running in the undercurrents of society and then assigns meanings to them in ways that tend to objectify and control its members. Beauty is just one such concept. And it is neither the "best" nor the "worse" of them. In fact, since the author used only anecdotal data to support her thesis, one could argue that nearly as many women benefit from this aristocracy as are harmed by it. And without question, it is women, not men, who keep the meaning of beauty alive in western culture. I defy her to produce hard data refuting this claim.
In the end, the "beauty Myth" is like all societal games: everyone must play; no one gets a pass or the option to "opt out." Thus it reduces to just another case of "don't hate the players, hate the game."
What Ms. Wolf is asking, is for all women to ignore this powerful hierarchy upon which most of their self-worth is built and the prism through which most of Western social values are seen, channeled and tied to. Does that mean we have a shallow culture? Of course it does. Women want to be beautiful just as men want to be handsome because there is survival value in being perceived as such. It is no different than the aristocracy of race: Whiteness has value that blackness does not have. And while it is certainly the case that women suffer from discrimination due to beauty, many also benefit from it, and do so purposefully and strategically, the same as men do.
Ugly People of the world unite! Two stars
Whatever I may think of the author and her philosophy, as a rule I like a book that makes me see things in ways I hadn't before. This was one of those books. I don't agree with everything the author writes, but after borrowing it from the library, I had to buy it for myself so I could write in the margins about all the "a-ha!" moments it prompted. Sadly for those who like black and white, beauty, like most things, is on a continuum. People cite Etcoff's "Survival of the Prettiest" in opposition to this book, but if the premises of "Prettiest" were completely true, then after thousands upon thousands of years of evolution, why aren't we all collectively lovely? Why aren't the women who have the most offspring (ie, the fittest) also the Cindy Crawford clones? One of my former evolution professors, David Wilson, just published a study showing that people who shared common goals and interests rated each other as more attractive than they rated strangers.
I'm short, overweight, and past my prime in years, but I'm evolutionarily fitter than average (3 children), and have a strong husband who is a good provider (the biologically desired currency for males), and he even loves me!--from where I stand, it looks like most women can safely drop a lot of their beauty obsession, and I think Wolf says a lot that would encourage us to.