The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

As I promised last week here is my blogpost on the above. This entry is a review and some my own thoughts on arguments and feminism. If you are looking for a straight book review without the extra stuff, have a look on my Goodreads account where a shorter abbreviated version is available. In terms of marks, I really struggled to decide on a rating. I am going for a 3.5 out of 5 though.

This is a long one!

The book starts by outlining what the author means by the ‘Beauty Myth’ and outlines the historical context for this. She then breaks down the book into different sections such as ‘Beauty’, ‘Culture’, ‘Sex’, ‘Religion’ each of which is elaborated on and deconstructed before demonstrating how they are utilised to control women and maintain the status quo.

The arguments and facts that are presented to us are powerful and I found myself agreeing with about 50% of what she was saying, but throughout she seems to imply that there is a conscious and united effort to exploit women and maintain current power structures and this I would have to disagree with. I can see the links that are being made and how all that has come before has caused this modern day beauty myth, but I don’t think it is as conscious and purposeful as she is implying and this argument didn’t convince me.

My personal thoughts on the issue of feminism is that those in power. i.e. men have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo. Plus, I think so many of us accept what is fed to us by the media (me included) that the things women feel they have to do to maintain their appearance, to comply with social expectation isn’t questioned, that is just accepted as the way things are. While this book was written during the 3rd wave of feminism it is slightly out of date, but it makes some relevant and prescient arguments, and that we are now within the 4th wave of feminism which is questioning these assumptions and saying ‘this isn’t acceptable’ is fantastic and all those niggling feelings that so many of us have had, that we’ve ignored, now feel justified and real and we are able to give voice to the outrages that so many of us have experienced. I really admire women bringing this to the fore, it takes so much bravery, far more than I will ever have, yet I reap the benefits of their work.

The main issue is that so many of us buy into this beauty myth and in order for many of us to be taken seriously, to succeed, we have to play the game. If we stop for just one second we get abuse heaped on us. Bitch, witch, shrew, lesbian, aggressive etc. I do it, I play the game, I take part I judge women on these arbitrary rules, a fast judgement and opinion. I have to actively stop myself doing it and I am getting better, I catch myself at it and try to remember that everyone is fighting a hard battle.

The argument is also made that only in modern times has ‘the stronger that women grow, the more prestige, fame and money’ is accorded to the display professions. This I would disagree with, female actors for example still get paid less than their male counterparts, women who work at beauty counters will get paid less than comparable typical male jobs and even if women did get paid the same amount our outgoings are still higher than the typical male, which is also a point Wolf raises.

Wolf does present many truths, for example women feel compelled to keep consuming their advertisers products in pursuit of the total personal transformation in status that the consumer society offers men in the form of money. There is constant encouragement from all directions for women to constantly maintain an expected, society agreed level of appearance, and despite the fact women’s appearances are used against them, I am not sure whether this is always entirely conscious. As I said above I find myself doing it without even thinking how many more of us do that?

Employers have the right to set appearance standards and it is incredible that I never realised before how much more this impacts more on women than on men. I have previously just accepted this. For example when I am looking for work, if a company, (retail stores in particular) ask for a photo I would never consider applying. In fact, focus on appearance is why I feel I could never work in retail. I always feel that I would be rejected based on appearance.

Wolf’s examples of reasons why women have been dismissed in the past completely infuriated me, particularly the example where she details a case where a woman was dismissed due to refusal to submit to her employer sexually harassing her. The woman was required to wear a uniform of which a short skirt was required, but when she challenged the dismissal it was judged that because the skirt was so short it was deemed suggestive and therefore allowed their employer to sexually harass her. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

The point is also made about how women’s internal image of themselves feeds into the job market, how that in itself impacts women’s goals and ambitions, how it impacts whether the feel capable enough to be successful. I said above about how I would never apply for a post in retail due to my appearance, in the same way, because I feel I don’t fit the image of ‘Successful Business Woman’, I don’t feel as though I have the capability to be successful and this prevents me from putting myself forward or being assertive enough to get what I want. I am not blaming all of this on the beauty myth, but it certainly feeds into it.

I feel as though this ties into the point made about women’s representation in media, she refers to Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In this book things only happened to Tess because she was found beautiful, which in turn feeds into women’s perception of themselves. I.e. Interesting and good things only happen to women that are beautiful and unless I am seen to be beautiful then this will not be reflected in my life. One of the key strengths of this book is that she verbalises that which is internal and not acknowledged and not questioned, things that are simply accepted by so many people.

Part of this could be down to an argument that Wolf makes about how women’s culture is nearly all experienced though magazines. I remember as a teenager being grateful that I was female as I had these resources available to me to answer my questions and to guide me in a way that just wasn’t available to boys, but so much of this was focussed on appearance and appearing attractive to males and there were so few other ways that women’s culture could be experienced. So much media content is focussed in only appealing to men. Look at TV shows, movies, books and even then, anything that is considered a female interest or pursuit is considered lesser until a man takes it up. Granted, once again, the book is showing its age here, because of course, there was no internet at the time and when I was a teenager, as now, there are additional resources available online, however, so much of this is still focussed on our appearance and there still isn’t much available in the way of other media.

The implied assertion that so much of this is a an active attempt to ensure women don’t achieve equality is unfair, and I disagree with this, in my opinion I’d say it is more accurate that companies are utilising techniques that have worked in the past rather than saying “Let’s use the tenets of religion to sell more beauty products and make women miserable about themselves.”

Wolf makes a point about the use of religious phrases by beauty companies to encourage women to buy into the myth of ‘A new you’ which is promised by their products. However, I don’t believe that advertisers have actively said or thought ‘Let’s turn the use of our products into a religion/cult’, it would be far more likely that they have utilised those methods which have been found by religions to be effective.

She also outlines the fact that so many of the claims made by beauty companies are wholly unsupported, assertions for which they just have no evidence. We, of course, all know that many of these scientific sounding words used in advertising are total horseshit, but yet we continue to buy these products at great cost and in vast numbers. It did cause me to reconsider my use of moisturiser, I spend fortune on it, money that I really can’t afford, yet I continue to do so and have done for well over a decade now and I can’t see me giving it up. It is in my psyche now that I need to use it and if I don’t my skin feels dry and yes I could use a cheaper moisturiser that would probably do the same thing but I have, and will continue, to buy into the claims that the one I use is effective and is making a difference.

Taking it back to the religious subtext that Wolf asserts is used primarily to get us to buy these products is important in this context as it is used to justify so many things, not just subjugation of women, but also discrimination against homosexuals, justification of racism and it has a place within the argument, however, ‘The Beauty Myth’, exploration of the role of religion has a distinct Christian slant and I think it would have added to the strength of argument had she examined a number of religions.

In addition, I find it hard to believe advertisers have said “let’s sell these products by making it into a religion/cult” it’s far more likely that they have seen that this method works and utilised it. Sometimes I feel Wolf portrays everything as far more sinister than it actually is. People are making money, that is why they are doing this. Not purposeful subjugation of women, that’s just convenient for them.

She also makes a lot of assumptions and pulls conclusions from scenarios without explaining how she got there. For example she describes the female aesthetic of the ‘Punk’ era and ties it back to the fetishism of sexual assault ‘painting their lips bruise blue and ripped their clothing to suggest sexual battle’. Is that the reasoning behind this look, is that what caused it? She certainly says so, but what evidence is there to support this? This happened fairly frequently through my reading, I would find myself nodding along to something, but then she would pull a conclusion forward which would just baffle me.

Wolf also makes the point that equality would benefit everyone, regardless of what gender they identify as and this is true, it would benefit everyone. Very few, if any, people benefit from hyper masculinity or femininity, and more equality would certainly equal a better world for all. However, she seems to imply that all the world’s evils would simply disappear which is extremely unlikely.

Throughout Wolf is full of outrage which is understandable, but it becomes exhausting to read after a while this barrage of terrible news, indeed it almost numbs you to it, as by a certain point you wonder whether we should all just give up now.

The book is long, dense and quite difficult at times for a variety of reasons. It has taken me nearly 4 weeks to get through it which is a long time for me. There are really compelling points which have caused me to stop reading, consider these and the implications and feel able to draw something useful which I can apply to my life. However, she spends too long labouring on one point and extrapolates it until it has mutated into a horrible dystopian vision. You can understand why she does, it makes the horror much more real and causes outrage over how such a thing can happen. You can understand how it might happen, slowly, gradually like all other horrors that seem impossible in retrospect, however, I feel this expansion on many of the points detracts from the argument she is making at times. I feel that if she had taken the time to make arguments more concise, that if she had referenced her facts and figures more clearly the book would have been more compelling. It is a fantastic read, and it breaks down so many truths and questions things I would never even have considered questioning (also, it has convinced me never to get plastic surgery, the description and exploration of this is grotesque), and it is an important part of the feminist literary canon and I would recommend you read it. A lot of the book is drawn from personal experience and the problem with this and a lot of theories is that it comes from one interpretation of the issues, but of course, no theory is ever going to be perfect.

Within the conclusion she sums up all her points succinctly and offers practical advice on what steps we can all take to try and make the world more equal, so much of it is common sense that I found myself wondering why I didn’t do these things before. A lot of them I have been trying to apply to my life, but it can be quite difficult, but I enjoyed that at the end of the book she offers real, practical everyday solutions that we can all take part in to make things better for everyone.