The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf

What is beauty? And why are we so obsessed by it? If you’ve ever suffered to make yourself more “beautiful”, as...

What is beauty? And why are we so obsessed by it?

If you’ve ever suffered to make yourself more “beautiful”, as I suspect you have if you’re a woman alive today, then those questions are worth asking. Not only because of the massive amount of accumulated pains, and moments of physical or emotional discomforts you’ve put yourself through, but more importantly because of the effect it’s had on your personal development, and your position in the world.

I remember my first leg waxing experience as if it was yesterday. I was fifteen, and had just entered puberty. Over the course of a school year I went from flat chested to busty teenager, from boyish hips to curvy, and from hairless girl to hairy lady.

At first I didn’t think much of it. At home beauty wasn’t a thing. My parents were struggling with many issues, for sure, but their appearance, or that of my siblings and I, wasn’t one of them. Actually, if it wasn’t for my then best friend, a girl I did absolutely everything with in total Barb Holland style, I could have walked around like that much longer (OMG imagine that!).

When social pressure turns nothing into something

So one Summer day that year, while we were hanging out my friend looked at my legs, pointed with her index finger towards my tibia, and articulated a alarming “eek!”. Following my friends’ “good advice”, a plan was immediately put in action. She would make an appointment for me to have my legs waxed. A few days later, by then convinced that having hair on your legs was a terrible thing, I laid my faith, and my legs in the hands of a beautician.

I don’t know if you were around in the nineties, but getting a wax back then was a real adventure. It wasn’t quick, or easy. In fact, it was an excruciating process with lukewarm wax paste that could only be pulled off your legs slowly, and little by little.

So I cried, and screamed the entire time. And I also learned a thing or two that day.

First, that when it comes to pain for beauty you’re not supposed to scream, or cry about it, but instead be a brave girl and take it. The beautician made me well aware of this by rolling her eyes about a million times, puffing almost all the air out of the torture chamber, to eventually – when I didn’t get her subtle social cues – telling me to shut up. By the end of the session I must have gotten it, because as I was leaving with my brand new pair of legs, I apologised to her for my seemingly unacceptable behavior.

Then I got a glimpse of what suffering to be beautiful really meant: real pain. There was nothing self-loving or self-caring about the experience, it was just painful. Writing these words as I think back on it I feel for my younger self, and shiver at the thought that our society has managed to brainwash girls, and women into believing that such an act of self-hatred towards the body, and the self is – in fact – self-caring.

The sad thing is, it was my first time going against the nature of my body, but certainly not my last. And so many years later, among many other “self-caring” beauty treats I endure, I’m still having my legs waxed. Aren’t you?

Finally, I noticed the difference. Boys my age were also starting to show hair on their legs, but nobody was telling them to lay down on the torture rack to fix it. In fact, while I was worrying about hair growing on my body my male counterparts were competing with each other to see who was getting the most facial hair…

What about the book?

A long but kind of necessary intro to get to the central premise of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, written by the incredibly talented Naomi Wolf when she was only 26 years old.

The book, whose first edition dates back to 1990 (how appropriate), poses the thesis that, as women found a way out of the house, and into the workforce corporations shifted their sales efforts away from women’s homemaking and onto women’s bodies. Where previously advertisement had focused on tyrannizing women into being good homemakers, the pressure is now coming from within as much as outside, with an entire industry telling women to live up to unrealistic beauty standards. This pressure, still present today, then leads to an exacerbated preoccupation with physical appearance both by women, and men, unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders, and eventually undermines the position of women socially, economically, and politically in society by stealing away their power. Wolf writes:

A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.

Throughout the book, Wolf addresses different areas in which beauty is used against women: our workplaces, the cosmetics, and the diet industry. She also discusses the elusive notion of beauty in relation with aging, and states that when women grow old the grow invisible.

The economic animal cares about profit, not women’s rights

Unlike Wolf I don’t believe there’s someone, or a group in particular out there with cunning plans to keep women oppressed, but I do believe there’s an economic animal living a life of it’s own that has been thriving on our insecurities, and that those insecurities are the result of social norms created, and upheld by a masculine – not to say misogynist – society.

This animal feeds on our desire to be loved, and appreciated by feeding us the same lie over and over again: that we’ll never be good enough.

You have to go back to a time before time almost, to an era where the world was ruled by goddesses instead of gods to find societies where feminine qualities were revered instead of shunned, and where being a woman was enough to be called beautiful. I cannot imagine that in such a time women would have the same issues with feeling good enough as we do today.

And so I follow Wolf when she sees this obsession with appearance, and beauty as the current expression of a long lineage of instruments of oppression against women.

Right after the myth of the immaculate home now comes the myth of the immaculate beauty. Especially when you understand how elusive a concept beauty really is

Reform cures the symptom, but doesn’t fix the problem

In a recent conversation between Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey (a Netflix original that I can only recommend you watch), DuVernay talks about how the criminal justice system in America (following her incredible documentary 13th, another one you really have to watch), is the modern-day equivalent of slavery, only disguised by law, perpetrating an system of inequality primarily affecting the poor, the black, and the brown (as she calls them). DuVernay says:

Historically reform has always led to further repression. Because reform is really people reshaping these mechanisms, these systems to their own end. (…) Which is basically just change it and make it so that it benefits me. And so reform isn’t really what’s needed.

I believe that the same mechanics are at play where the beauty myth is concerned.

Ever since women started being oppressed by men we have fought back. And when the fight was long, and hard enough things (seemed to) change. But why then are we still fighting? One of the reasons lie in the concept of reform.

What we are given every time we “win” isn’t really what we asked for, but a reshaped version of what we had before.

In a way, it’s a problem of semantics.

We get what we seemingly ask for, nothing more, and quite literally.

For instance, women had to fight until the 20th century to be granted the same voting rights as men, but we’re still waiting for the first woman president in the USA, and in countries where women attain the top politically, they still only represent a very small percentage of available positions. So we got the right to vote (literally) but the implied right to participate in the political system… not so much. Wolf writes:

As soon as a woman’s primary social value could no longer be defined as the attainment of virtuous domesticity, the beauty myth redefined it as the attainment of virtuous beauty. It did so to substitute both a new consumer imperative and a new justification for economic unfairness in the workplace where the old ones had lost their hold over newly liberated women.

Or what about this “new” social fixation on how women look, born almost exactly at the same time that women entered the workforce, some 50 odd years ago?

In her conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay goes on to say that she is in favor of prison abolition as it exists today. Again, I see the parallel with the beauty myth. As long as the oppressor has a say in what the reform will look like, the inequality – how well-disguised it may be – will remain. The only real solution is for the oppressed to take charge.

How do we fix it?

Wolf ends by stating something similar when she says that it is not men who will change what society dictates us to look like, but that if we want real change we’ll have to do that ourselves. By loving ourselves more, but also by reshaping the relation women have with one another. She writes:

By changing our prejudgments of one another, we have the means for the beginning of a noncompetitive experience of beauty. The “other woman” is represented through the myth as an unknown danger. “Meet the Other Woman”, read a Well hair-coloring brochure, referring to the “after” version of the woman targeted. The idea is that “beauty” makes another woman – even one’s own idealized image – into a being so alien that you need a formal introduction. It is a phrase that suggests threats, mistresses, glamorous destroyers of relationships.

This makes The Beauty Myth an ode to sisterhood, and a plea to reframe the relationship we have with each other back into what I believe is our natural state: one of friendship, compassion, support, and love for one another.

Only then will we be able to challenge the status quo. Only then will we achieve women empowerment, gender equality, and peace on Earth. Wolf ends:

Let’s be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. Tolerate other women’s choices. Seek out the sex we want and fight fiercely against the sex we do not want. Choose our own causes And once we break through and change the rules so our sense of our own beauty cannot be shaken, sing that beauty and dress it up and flaunt it and revel in it.

What about you? How do you feel about beauty, and our society’s fixation on appearance? Let me know below, I’d love to know.

52 books in 52 weeks is a self-improvement goal I’ve set for myself, and my business this year. You can follow my progress here, and/or offer a book suggestion here.

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