Friday, 7 January 2011
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth addresses all of these concerns. It's about how our society and culture perpetuates a very slim idea of what beauty is and then leads us to a kind of obsessive pursuit of this definition of beauty. Through the circulation of images and adverts, women end up constantly comparing ourselves to a standard of beauty that is unattainable. This leads to low self-esteem, which is where the beauty, diet, cosmetic surgery and advertising industries come in to profit with expensive products that promise to make us more beautiful. Beauty is seen as a responsibility and goal that can be achieved through hard work and the selection of the right products - 'ugly' and ageing women only have themselves to blame.
Wolf's real argument, that permeates the whole book, is that beauty myth is about more than appearance - it spreads into all areas of life. Women that conform to standards of beauty are more likely to receive promotion. Women in the public eye can be dismissed as 'too pretty to be taken seriously/have a brain' or 'too ugly for attention'. Diet programs encourage women to think of their natural bodies as damaged and lead to semi-starvation - some recommend less calories per day that prisoners were given during the Holocaust. Beauty is linked with sex in that it's believed that only beautiful women are sexually desireable and enjoy sex. This encourages women to see themselves from the outside and desire only to be desired, not wanting sex if they do not meet a certain standard. Female fat is repulsive. Healthy women are encouraged to risk dangerous cosmetic surgery to become more beautiful. Older women disappear from our media completely unless they make concessions by fighting the ageing process. Women who do not go along with it all are labelled "ugly feminists with hairy legs" and surely no one would want to be a feminist as it makes you completely undesirable.
Personally, I found Wolf's arguments to be very thought provoking. I didn't agree with everything she said, and it got a bit conspiracy theorist for me at times, but I do agree with the general argument. I do believe it is in the interest of lots of industries for women to feel ugly, and to feel like there is some kind of hierarchy or caste system of beauty. If we all accepted that beauty means different things to different people, and that beauty is not a threat to others, then sales of beauty products would dramatically fall.
I found particularly interesting the strand of the argument that covered how women perceive themselves to be in competition with each other. Surely we've all heard comments like "Don't you hate women who can eat like that and not put on weight?" Beautiful women are seen as threats. I've also been in the situation where, wanting to cheer someone up or show appreciation, I'll say something like "you look really nice today" or "what a pretty dress", which just goes to show how much of our self esteem is tied to how beautiful society thinks we are and our ranking in the beauty hierarchy. I'm not so sure of her argument that the beauty myth purposefully keeps women divided to prevent women becoming more politically aware and focussed - that's a bit conspiracy theorist for me. I'm not sure there is some phantom male organisation out there deciding these things.
In some places, the book did feel a bit over-long and main arguments were repeated a bit too much. It was originally published in 1990 and therefore the research was a bit dated, although it could be argued that the theories are even more relevant today. For example, in one part of the book Wolf imagined that eventually surgery would exist to make a "tighter vagina" - 20 years later it does.
For thought-provoking-ness, I give this book 4 out of 5.