on 11 November 2000
Think women are finally equal? Think feminism is passe? Think again. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf puts forward startling and controversial arguments to suggest that women are still, even now, obstructed and held back by society in a systematic and organised way. The key idea in this book is that as women fought for freedom and equality, and broke down so many barriers in the mid twentieth century, society responded by creating the Beauty Myth: an increasing obsession with beauty and appearance which consistenly hampers women from fulfilling their potential. The Beauty Myth, suggests Wolf, is the one single lasting inequality that holds back women today. This obsession with beauty arose massively in the last half of the century as a direct reaction and back-lash to the emancipation that women were finally achieving in other areas of their lives. In a enlightening and sometimes shocking read, Wolf answers questions like: why do women wear make-up? Why are so many women obsessed with their weight and constantly dieting? Why are there no greying, older women in respectable positions in the media? Why are women so afraid of ageing? Why, above all, are these preoccupations seen to be normal and correct, even obligatory to have the 'proper' experience of womanhood? The Beauty Myth diverts women's time, money, energy and intelligence into something that does not challenge the status quo. $20 billion a year is wasted on trying to achieve the impossible goal of 'beauty'. Women living in western society have an extra burden imposed on them that men do not have: they must be beautiful to succeed in work, love, sex, and life. The myth affects all aspects of a woman's life. It affects the way women are treated in work, it affects the way female sexuality is viewed, it affects young girls psychologically, it infuses our culture totally. Striving after the myth, a woman shows all the signs of being taken in by a cult religion. Under the myth, femaleness is inherantly wrong and flawed and must be continually corrected. The female body is seen as an ugly mistake. Alone, it is just not good enough and needs artificial methods to make it acceptable. The amazing thing is that this fact has not been realised by women in modern society who in every other way consider themselves free individuals. Reading this book may at last open our eyes. 'Men' in general are not to blame here, the myth debilitates them too. It surely must be true that if women, more than half of the population, are not free, then men are not really free also. They are shut out from having relationships with women as they really are. Wolf also points out that the myth may be starting to attach itself to men. It is in their interests to demolish it. This book was published in 1990, and perhaps some things have changed a decade on (however I doubt it - the ludicrous furore about Julian Roberts' armpits(?!), herion chic, the recent ad for eyeshadow "shout without opening your mouth"). I also think that Wolf does not always succeed in convincing the reader of her more controversial ideas; I could not always relate to some of the more extreme claims. However, I guarantee that if you are a woman there are parts in this book that are so blindingly true you will be almost shouting out agreement as you read. The book opens our eyes, it is a wake up call, reading it takes us out of our own culture to see its craziness from the outside. After reading this book I promise you will see western culture differently and hopefully you will be inspired to change things, even in your own life. I recommend this book to everyone, male or female. If you are a man, reading this book may shock you and make you see women differently. If you are a woman, this book will probably change your life.
on 13 November 2011
... especially twenty years on now that things are not better but worse, and ordinary men are now being sucked in as victims of the beauty myth too. It was always done to all of us - though the damage was worse to women's self-esteem this impacted hugely on the kinds of relationships women were able to have even with men who truly love them for themselves - and now it's even worse for women because men are falling for it too. Some parts of this left me angry and shaking, others with a tear in my eye. A few bits seemed not quite right or under-thought to me, but not many, and basically it's full of nuggets of utterly terrifying truth.
Like I said. Essential.
on 22 June 2010
So, Wolf's basic argument is that much of the direct sexism of the past has been replaced with sexism based on the nebulous idea of "beauty" - while women have theoretically gained virtual legal equality with men, the structure of patriarchy has increasingly deployed myths about "beauty" as a means of preventing women from realising this equality in any real sense. What is promoted as a universal ideal of beauty is in fact linked to particular kinds of behaviour - kinds of behaviour, of course, useful to the perpetuation of male dominance - and so freedom and success for women are constructed to be at odds with the ability to meet this ideal. As long as we accept the idea that our worth is defined by our attractiveness, and that this attractiveness is defined according to the imperatives of patriarchy, we can never achieve freedom.
All of which is a perfectly fine argument - a little self-evident in ways, but Wolf fleshes it all out reasonably competently, with a decent sprinkling of the kind of shocking examples and statistics that aren't particularly difficult to find in a world which remains deeply sexist (which fact I'd have thought is pretty obvious, but which can easily be proven by a zillion studies for anyone who remains doubtful of it).
However, beyond this, Wolf's privilege shows painfully. It is impossible to create a meaningful discourse around the way in which the idea of "beauty" has been constructed without having at its core the ways in which sex and gender intersect with race, class, sexuality, disability etc. The false universal ideal of beauty isn't only one which constructs women as passive, subservient etc. - it is also one which is very strictly white, middle-class, heteronormative, non-disabled and cisgender. Wolf pays the barest amount of attention to any of this; indeed, she often specifically talks only of middle-class women, and her first significant mention of race amounts to little more than "sure, Black people have it bad, but women have it *worse*". Playing different kinds of oppression against each other, and ignoring that for example "Black" and "female" are not mutually exclusive, and that Black women are in fact uniquely affected and excluded by the beauty myth? Not cool, Naomi.
Moreover, Wolf lacks any analysis of the role of capitalism in patriarchy and the beauty myth, even though many of the examples she gives make it painfully clear. She makes clear at numerous points that her ideal world leaves capitalism and the class structure fundamentally untouched and relies on the idea of absolute meritocracy - so while someone doesn't deserve less in life because of her appearance, it's totally okay to penalise someone for less natural aptitude (or quasi-natural aptitude; Wolf gives no indication of awareness that the class structure for men is anything other than entirely meritocratic, with inherited privilege, educational advantages etc. playing no significant role) at creating wealth.
The identification of the beauty myth is, then, a necessary part of feminist analysis. However, in her virtual erasure of those who aren't white, middle-class etc., and her refusal to acknowledge anything exploitative about the existing capitalist system, Wolf's work is in many ways a fundamentally conservative one.
on 4 April 2002
I loved this book. I completely recognise the world that Naomi examines as being where I live even though she is American and I am English. I already knew a lot of what she wrote (esp. about the diet cycle) but had felt that my feelings must be to do with excusing my failure to fit the mould - you know size 10 (US6), hoards of male admirers, job to die for, facial features just so, boob size just so, bottom size just so, the list is endless, etc. I am now confident that I am not a failure - far from it, I am succeeding at not being manipulated and bullied by the institutions and organisations that are ultimately only interested in making money out of people (mostly, but not only, women) by playing on artificially created insecurities.
This book should be a must read for all women and they should re-read it over the years. As you age it is more difficult to fit your body (and mind) into the beauty mould and the truth of the beauty myth becomes more apparent.
As a reasonably politically aware woman who is financially self supporting this book was fantastic cos it articulated so well the constant pressure on women that affects my life all the time. If you protest against this pressure you are labelled as a woman with a chip on her shoulder. This is not the case. There is a conspiracy - however inadvertent most of the conspirators are.
on 13 November 2011
I'm not going to say this book is perfect, or was perfect when it was written, but it is nevertheless empowering to anyone who has ever felt inadequate in the face of advertising or peer pressure, or anyone who constantly strives for 'perfection' in their image. There are parts of it which took things too far - likening beauty to a religion, for example, which makes a good point about the idolisation of glamour, but doesn't necessarily deserve an entire chapter. Also, she never really addresses why mankind has it in for women; she makes the assumption that politics and corporations don't want women in their ranks - which may well be true, but would encourage incredulity in someone who didn't already share that sentiment. Also, the book is growing out-of-date - it doesn't acknowledge the pressure put on men to the same ends that is increasingly true today.
However, for the most part, Wolf was incredibly persuasive, and it's great to hear my own thoughts fired back in such an eloquent manner. I doubt I will ever diet again. By the end, it gave me a sense of how I can remove the pressure to be an 'ideal', at least from my own life, and finally feel confident in myself - Wolf writes in a way which makes you feel as well as think, and I'm very glad I read The Beauty Myth.
on 28 August 2008
An interesting and insightful look at the way modern society uses beauty ideals to undermine women socially and psychologically, in order to keep its politics and economy in order. The book covers various aspects of this repression, from sex and work, to surgery and dieting. It occasionally veers into slightly OTT territory near the beginning, but by the final section, 'Beyond the Beauty Myth' the reader is fully on the side of the achievable vision Wolf presents of a united womanhood in which competition and striving for acceptance via beauty is replaced with sisterhood, freedom and confident sexuality. Thought-provoking and very relevant in today's size 0-obsessed culture.
on 11 January 2013
As a sufferer of Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the age of 14, the topic of physical beauty has been a very sensitive and poignant subject for me for quite a long time. I have made quite a lot of progress over the last decade since my diagnosis, but still have far to go. "The Beauty Myth" attracted me because I thought it might give me some insight into why physical beauty is such a big deal in today's society. Although the book is now over 20 years old, the subject is more true now than ever before.
The question "why is beauty so important in today's society?" is very complicated. Everything from attraction to misogyny seems to be an answer, and so this question continues to have people confused. This book offers a few explanations which to some may seem far-fetched and even conspiratorial. To others, they may be a startling realization which may free them from the trap of the beauty myth.
I enjoyed the book. The chapters did feel a little long and drawn-out to me, but I found this book enlightening. Instead of seeing the images of "beauty" as a universal ideal that all men love and desire, I can start to see them as simply advertising for profit. Instead of seeing long glossy hair, clear skin, big eyes and small, slim curves, I can start to see hairspray (just £8 to improve your whole day), face wash (£5 for beautiful, clear confidence), mascara (£6 for unbeatable attitude), and diets (I'm thinking of you, Jenny Craig). Models and celebrities, made up for hours, then airbrushed, not because we should ideally look that way, but because if we THINK we should look that way, we will SPEND money on products by brands that are featured in the magazine. There are other reasons for the beauty myth, that I will not go into here in too much detail, but include Naomi Wolf's assertion that the beauty myth was created when women no longer responded to the message that they should all be "the perfect housewife," in order to keep women from realizing their full potential.
Overall, the book has a feel that it encourages women to be confident, strong, smart, independent, and wise, and to support one another instead of seeing eachother as competition. (Which, sadly, is honestly something a lot of women do.) It is a good feminist read and I recommend it to any woman who feels suffocated by the pressure to be beautiful in today's society. I recommend it alongside Female Chauvinist Pigs and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.
on 17 March 2011
I was given this book as it is deemed to be in the top 30 books of all time (a rather thoughtful present for my 30th birthday!)
My overriding view - it has aged. The most up to date reference is 1991, and therefore at best it is 20 years old, and therefore whether you still believe in the examples of equality or not, that is now down to your personal beliefs and opinions, which will vary dramatically depending on a multitude of factors.
Nonetheless, it is an education. It will give people the scenarios in which to develop their own opinions, rather than bein conditioned through media. There are some particularly interesting points about the acceptability of rape as a result of soft porn advertising, a great section on "miracle face creams" and what we are really being sold, and some insightful comments on the cult like behaviour of the dieting industry. One great theme comes out during this section - that women are striving for an ideal body shape that is physically impossible!
I'm off to burn my bra!
on 20 May 2011
Whilst I realize there are more modern editions of this book, this is the version I've read and I wish to convey how interesting a read it is, for both men and women. This has certainly gave me a new respect for feminism and a new regard for the daily struggle women face against advertisement, mixed messages of the media and social pressure to look and act a certain way.
The chapters are well titled and broken down, you don't have to read this book cover to cover but can dip in and out and read the aspects of the beauty myth that you most associate yourself with. For me, the chapters on Hunger and Sex were the most poignant, they gave me a serious shock as to how widespread eating disorders are among college students, which I imagine hasn't improved over time.
I recommend this book to anyone who has suffered for beauty, has loved someone who has suffered for beauty or anyone who has an interest in how the world shapes us. An excellent and thought provoking read.
on 4 April 2004
Wolf is a highly effective writer, and I was unable to put The Beauty Myth down. I wonder if those who have claimed the book will fuel "inferiority complexes" have actually read it from cover to cover. As a young woman who suffered in high school with what doctors call "Body Dysmorphic Disorder", where the patient is obsessed with flaws in her body that she perceives as hideous deformities, often to the point of delusion, I found The Beauty Myth to be liberating and would recommend it to any woman who has dealt with eating disorders or insecurity.
This book is not a diatribe against men; it is an enlightening read for both women who are tired of adhering to damaging gender roles, and men who want to better understand the female psyche. Criticizing Ms. Wolf for her chosen occupation is ignorant in light of the content of this book. Wolf does not say that women should refuse to be models or to dress provocatively; what she does say is that women should be free to have the choice to pursue whatever occupations they like, and to dress however they like, without feeling pressured. So what if Naomi Wolf is goodlooking? Does that mean she isn't allowed to write a book that "ugly" women can relate to? That attitude is exactly what she is addressing in The Beauty Myth.