Review of The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
The Beauty Myth
by Naomi Wolf
One of the nice things about writing reviews on a place like Goodreads is the audience. I can pontificate about a book, and about subjects like feminism, for as long as I like, which is something I can’t do with my friends in person—at least, as I discovered empirically, not if I want to have friends in person. (Call me!) But you people, you crazy people, are different, because no one is forcing you to read my reviews, so I am going to assume that if you are still reading, it’s because you are generally interested in what I have to say about The Beauty Myth, or perhaps you are some kind of search engine spider indexing this review for Google. (Hello there.)
I’ve thought for a long time about what I want to say about The Beauty Myth. I am a young, white, reasonably well-off male who performs gender in a conventional way, which means in general my life is not all that bad. Part of my ongoing relationship with feminism and gender studies involves acknowledging the privilege and social capital I have in our society, and learning how I can act to mitigate the effects of that privilege. Also, I’m young. Like, I was a year old, if that, when The Beauty Myth first came out. A lot has happened in the past twenty years, and although many parts of this book still ring true, it’s important to note that I have no baseline for comparison. Anything I know about the world of the 1980s is second-hand knowledge. So I had no choice but to read The Beauty Myth as someone firmly grounded in today: this is the only world I have ever known.
For someone like me, who is so young and technophilic, the absence of Internet and World Wide Web in this book is conspicuous. I could not stop thinking about that while I was reading, because it’s a technology I take for granted; I’ll even go so far as to contend that the mainstream adoption of the Web is the most fundamental social change since The Beauty Myth was written. And so how has this change affected the Beauty Myth that Wolf outlines?
In some ways it hasn’t, of course. The double standard of dress, the professional beauty qualifications, is still there. Ads on television and now the Internet are still relentlessly gendered. (Pink beer, anyone?) Cosmetic surgery has only gotten more complicated and more accessible, while botox treatments and tanning parlours abound. The beauty myth is still in operation.
In some ways, however, the advent of the Internet has had a huge impact, particularly when it comes to how the media influences the beauty myth. Wolf criticizes women’s magazines for running so-called “editorials” about a product next to ads for that type of product, lamenting the fact that this is often a condition of getting the advertising. (She quotes Gloria Steinem as saying that advertisers are dubious of the idea that women will look at ads for shampoo without an accompanying article about hair washing!) Yet she adds an interesting counterpoint: we can’t condemn such magazines entirely, because
they represent something very important: women’s mass culture. A woman’s magazine is not just a magazine. The relationship between the woman reader and her magazine is so different from that between a man and his that they aren’t in the same category: A Man reading Popular Mechanics or Newsweek is browsing through just one perspective among countless others of general male-oriented culture, which is everywhere. A woman reading Glamour is holding women-oriented mass culture between her two hands.
This preciousness of media that we otherwise want to criticize for supporting the beauty myth is an interesting point. However, the Web has resulted in an explosion of available spaces for women to congregate and converse. True, it’s not without its disadvantages: by and large websites and blogs continue to be a male-dominated phenomenon. But just the fact that any woman can create (often for free, which removes the need for beauty-related advertising) spaces for discussion among women is something that did not exist twenty years ago. Now there are countless blogs devoted to feminism or other issues of women’s, gender, and sexuality rights. The Web is certainly not an equal space or a level playing field in any sense of these terms, but it is, for the moment, open. That is incredibly uplifting, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of ways the Web has exacerbated the effects of the beauty myth. In the same chapter (“Culture”), Wolf mentions that the pornography industry has the unfortunate side effect of creating unrealistic standards of beauty. Men watch pornography and get this idea of what women are “supposed” to look like nude (and what sex is “supposed” to sound and look like), which puts pressure on women to conform to these fantasies. Of course, we all know that the Internet is for porn, and so in that capacity it has only made the spread of this misinformation easier.
I’m focusing on the media aspect of The Beauty Myth because this is what grabbed me, both because of my fascination with the Internet and because I’m taking an Education, Media, and Gender class right now. One week the professor asked us to come to the next class performing gender differently, to “break the gender dress code”. I wore tights with my shorts; many of my other male classmates wore articles of feminine clothing or even makeup. What about the women? Well the class concluded the exercise was more difficult for them—I don’t know what fashion was like at universities in the 1990s, but these days sweat pants and a T-shirt are quite acceptable for members of any gender, especially given the late nights one stereotypically expects of students! It was more difficult for the women to break a dress code when no such code really existed at the university; some wore jerseys or baggy clothing, and one wore her Carhartt overalls. Nowadays women can wear pants without anyone blinking, but it is still rather uncommon to see men wearing a dress.
Now we enter the dangerous waters of feminist discourse. When I drop the F word in casual conversation, quite a few of my friends (who are mostly women) wince: “feminist” still connotes “man-hating woman” or, less extremely, someone who is concerned with women’s rights more so than rights in general. There is a great deal of resistance to the connotation of feminism as gender equality for all, and at the risk of making a straw man, I think this is why we get “men’s rights” advocates. I have come to the conclusion, however, that there is no proper way to consider feminism except as a movement for total gender equality. Wolf herself makes this point in The Beauty Myth: the myth needs men to continue dressing in very bland, restricted ways, because this prevents men from expressing themselves. It reinforces the false dichotomy of man/stoic and woman/empathetic. If we are to defuse and deconstruct the beauty myth, Wolf opines, then one thing we have to do is start accepting that men can dress up, wear colourful clothing, etc. Suddenly something that was a “men’s rights” issue actually turns out to be a women’s rights issue when considered from a different perspective: it’s not about one gender “winning” over any others; it has to be about equality.
That’s as prescriptive as I’m going to get though. I have been reading a lot about discourse around feminism—the “meta-feminist” discussion, if you will—both because I feel that it better equips me to participate in these discussions and because, as a lover of language and philosophy, it provides insights into where feminism has been and where it is going in the twenty-first century. And I want to avoid attempting to lock my idea of feminism or anyone else’s idea of feminism into a strictly-defined, concrete role. That way lies trouble! However, I just wanted to express the reasoning that let me put to rest any latent concerns about the role of feminism vis-à-vis alternative terms to describe gender equality. Whew. Semantics can be exhausting!
I could probably go on at quite a length about The Beauty Myth. As I said above, I focused mostly on what Wolf says about media. As a future teacher, I am keenly interested in the effects media will have on my students, as well as how our society in turn influences those media. So that was the perspective with which I read The Beauty Myth. There is a lot more to this book, however, then just a treatment of media. Wolf covers so many different aspects of society! This is not a niche book but a broad picture, one which she has organized into eight different chapters. I only wish the chapters themselves were better organized; their internal structure borders at times on the incoherent. The Beauty Myth is not an easy book to read, because some of the facts and stories that Wolf relates are quite visceral in their effect—but she also seems to have so much to say that she can get carried away. The result is both fascinating and frustrating at the same time.
I am reluctant to attach any type of recommendation to this book, because I feel like there would be far too many qualifiers. This is probably not the best introduction to feminist polemics; it is not that accessible and quite academic. Moreover, although it still remains relevant, it cannot but help being dated by now; I think people would be more satisfied seeking out more recent books first. That being said, if you’re like me and interested in questions of standards of beauty, then this could be a rewarding experience. My schedule and my own reading habits made me plough through this book in days when it would probably be something best lingered over while one reads other material, but that’s up to you. As it is, The Beauty Myth definitely earns its memorable status, but how you judge and remember it will depend entirely on the effect it has on your personal philosophy of feminism and gender.