Friday 7 January 2011

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

I consider myself to be an intelligent, successful woman.  At the age of twenty-four I have a very good education, a meaningful job, the respect of my colleagues, the love of my friends and family and I'm engaged to be married to a man who loves and respects me inside and out.  I know all of this, but as much as I tell myself that I want to be judged on these qualities alone, I can't help but want to be thought of as pretty too.  I worry about my appearance - the length and colour of my hair, the clothes I wear, my complexion, my glasses and what others think of the way I look.  A negative comment about my level of attractiveness would probably upset me more than a negative comment about the level of my intelligence.  And on top of that, I feel guilty for worrying about all of this physical stuff when I logically know how unimportant it is.

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.


  1. Wow Sam. This seems like a wonderful book. And so true how we are conditioned to think that beauty is an essential part not of our soul, but our face.

  2. Its sounds like an interesting book but what a shame that since it was published in 1990 it appears to have dated slightly already. But depressingly alot of the arguments in your post are true.

  3. @SoulMuser
    It was a wonderful book. And I think you've summed up it all in your second sentence: that we're made to think beauty is essential for our soul as well as our faces. Unfortunately I don't think change is coming any time soon, if anything things are worse than when Naomi Wolf wrote her book.

  4. Hi :) You've been awarded the Stylish Blogger Award (by me)

    Borough of Books

    Also, what an interesting book! I'm almost afraid to read it, cause I'm exceptionally shallow/vain myself :p

  5. @noiashui

    You should read it - it's not judgemental at all and attacks the society/culture that makes women feel the need to be vain rather than vanity itself.