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Customer Review

40 of 52 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good message, but many of the scientific claims are not true, 12 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Vagina: A New Biography (Paperback)
Naomi Wolf's new book embodies deep problems with pop science publishers and their relationship with the media: her work brings in the bucks, so Ecco Press (HarperCollins) publishes what they refer to in their marketing blurb as "rigorous science" without bothering to double-check her claims with any neuroscientists. The media largely takes Wolf's statements at face value, understandably assuming that no major publisher would gamble their reputation by putting this stuff into print without at least a cursory round of fact-checking. But the "science" in this book is largely misleading or just wrong.

To learn the details, Google for these articles:
- Neuroscientists take aim at Naomi Wolf's theory of the "conscious vagina"
- Naomi Wolf's "Vagina" is full of bad science about the brain
- Pride and Prejudice, by ZoŽ Heller (The New York Review of Books)
- Feminist Dopamine, Conscious Vaginas, and the Goddess Array
- Of Mice and Women: Animal Models of Desire, Dread, and Despair
- Upstairs, Downstairs; `Vagina: A New Biography,' by Naomi Wolf (The New York Times)

Wolf leapt to fame with her 1991 book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which argued that culture's idea of female beauty is entirely socially constructed, primarily by men, in order to keep women down. Following publication, research by Devendra Singh and others confirm that both men and women from a broad spectrum of cultures (even those who don't have magazines or television) uniformly agree that they find women with a waist-to-hip ratio of between 0.6-0.8 the most attractive -- which makes sense biologically, given that a 0.7 ratio appears to indicate optimum physical health and fertility. So while Wolf makes some valid points about the cultural disenfranchisement of women, her central thesis is provably wrong. Wolf also claimed in 'Beauty Myth' that 150,000 women were dying every year from anorexia nervosa, when the real number is closer to 100. Her book gives voice to the genuine frustration many women feel at being judged primarily by their appearance, and so quickly found an appreciative readership; unfortunately the popularity of Wolf's basic message has resulted in a glossing-over of the reality that she often supports her arguments with claims that simply aren't true.

Naomi Wolf is pretty and charismatic, so she plays well on camera, but her shaky claims give the opponents of feminism a too-easy lever to trick impressionable young people into dismissing feminism and feminists entirely. I am strongly pro equal rights for women, I agree that women's sexuality has been swept under the rug (so to speak) for too long, but publishing an edifice of arguments built on a foundation of claims that simply aren't true may not be the wisest path towards a real solution.

I get that some readers find value in the basic message of this book even though many of the technical claims are misleading or incorrect, and I'm all for finding emotional sustenance where you can get it -- if reading this improves your life, great! In the future, though, I hope Wolf takes her hard-won position as a leading voice of feminism seriously enough to check her facts before committing them to print.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Apr 2013 15:56:30 BDT
Eyrie says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 15 Oct 2013 21:33:48 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Oct 2013 21:34:38 BDT
Flora Cake says:
You dispute Wolf claims in The Beauty Myth, but give no ref for your supposed data. The briefest of searches gave me this:
'One in 200 American women suffers from anorexia ... six percent of serious cases die.' I haven't got the time or energy to work it out, but her figure seems much more likely than yours.
Body shape was one of many subjects she addressed, so the waist/hip ratio being apparently 'natural' is a very tiny thing in the broad coverage of the TBM.

Maybe Wolf shouldn't have tried to delve into science for this book, and stuck to social commentary and analysis, but you have not convinced me that this book is so flawed as to be avoided.

Posted on 21 Nov 2013 07:52:32 GMT
chris says:
Thanks for such a well-argued criticism of the book - the links you gave were fascinating and enlightening.
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