Feminist Fridays #3 The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

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The Beauty Myth is one of the most difficult books on feminism and the women’s movement that I have ever read. And by that I mean that I found it difficult to actually read and having read two of Naomi Wolf’s other works I was surprised by this. I’ve wanted to read this book for a couple of years knowing that I might find some of the content challenging, but it was a surprise to find the writing style so challenging. The Beauty Myth is essentially about (as I have understood it) how the idea, or myth, of beauty has continually kept women back from full liberation and continues to do so. Wolf discusses how the myth came into being (taking over from what was known as the Feminine Mystique which was basically about keeping women in the home) and has pervaded all aspects of our society working as a backlash to the equality movement and various waves of feminism.

This was Wolf’s first book and she is angry. Her anger about the beauty myth practically jumps off the page. Not something I usually mind as these issues make me angry too. But I found the intro pages almost impossible to digest as a million different ideas jumbled the words until the meaning was almost lost on me. However I re-read and persevered and when Wolf began to explain how beauty has been used as a weapon in different areas of life I was able to become much more involved and invested in what she was saying. There was a bit too much assumed knowledge at the beginning which was off-putting too.

However, when I got down to the nitty gritty of the book it became clear how important this book is. It pointed things out to me I hadn’t considered before and made me re-think many aspects of my own life. Despite the above, please consider picking up this book as the ideas in it our vital to the fight for equality.

One section I particularly enjoyed was Wolf discussing the beauty myth in culture. Despite the book being written over 20 years ago a lot of this rang very true. For example the sway that companies have over women through TV and magazine advertising and the language they use to convince women that they need certain products. Wolf makes links between advertising, how women feel about their bodies, the need they then feel to conform and how this holds us back from our true potential. She is totally right about so many things. What I also liked was that, although she criticised some magazine content and the relationship these publications have with advertisers she also acknowledged the positive content magazines produce and the outlet these can be for women. With the ad revenue an ongoing issue, the chance for total change seems slim we do see more positive role models for women in magazines these days…it’s just that they are often right next to the anti-aging cream adverts too…really empowering.

Wolf also has a section on religion which spans a few different topics. One that stood out for me though is the parallel she makes between the role traditional religion played in keeping women down and the role that diets and food have now. For example she points out that weight-loss programmes often have food down as ‘sins’ and how we hear people say they feel guilty for eating something. I know I’ve said that before, but will now never say it again. Wolf rightly points out that guilt implies some kind of wrong doing, some kind of crime to be forgiven. But there is no crime in an extra chocolate biscuit or a takeaway pizza on a Friday night.

There are standout ideas throughout the book, which to be honest do get a little lost in the untidy writing. The same topics are covered in the different headed chapters which can be confusing with very similar examples making for a bit of repetitiveness. This book is so important really, but I think would be almost inaccessible to the people who really need to read it – young women and men who can actually change the world ahead of them. What I would love would be for Wolf to re-visit this book, slim it down to the core ideas made easily readable for the newbie feminist who maybe doesn’t know the background but wants to learn.

With that in mind I was really happy with the way Wolf ended the book, making three points I felt were very important. One that the beauty myth isn’t the fault of men as such – she makes the point early on that men are just as harmed by the beauty myth – but by man-made society which is scared of unleashing the full power of women. She recognises what I see around me – that the majority of men want women to be as free as they are.

the real agents enforcing the myth today are not men as individual lovers or husbands, but institutions, that depend on male dominance

Secondly it was about how women need to bond together in this and support each other no matter what.

Let us start with a reinterpretation of ‘beauty’ that is noncompetitive, nonhierarchical and nonviolent

Finally I was thrilled to read her acknowledge that non of this means she thinks we shouldn’t wear make-up, curl or hair or wear heels of we want to. She says it best:

We can dissolve the myth and survive it with sex, love, attraction, and style not only intact but flourishing  more vibrantly than before…the problem with cosmetics exists only when women feel invisible or inadequate without them

There is honestly too much I could say about this book the ideas are so vast and complex I’ve barely scratched the surface here – sections on violence, cosmetic surgery, relationships and the work place all also held key ideas. I’ve just picked out a few the personally effected me here as I’m not sure I’m even capable of getting my full thoughts into a logical and readable blog post!  I would highly recommend taking time to read this book (I plan a re-read at some point), approach it in stages to give yourself time to absorb each argument, I think you’ll come away convinced.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has read this book – did you find it hard to read? Were you still able to take away some core ideas?

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