Book Review: The Beauty Myth

I just finished reading The Beauty Myth for the first time. Wow. Wolf certainly did a lot of research in order to write this book, and I appreciate much of it. The chapters “Work,” “Culture” and “Sex” were especially interesting reads, as they cited statistics on beauty standards at work (and how women lose by either being “too beautiful” or not “beautiful” enough) and how “beauty pornography” is linking beauty with sexual attraction and performance in very wrong ways.

I do have many issues with this book though. Broad generalizations are rampant and cisgender, white, American, middle-class women who can afford $400 face creams and expensive cosmetic surgery operations are treated as the status quo. I think Wolf could have delved more deeply into the longing (or non-longing) of not-as-ridiculously-privileged women to conform to beauty ideals that are primarily set for white wealthy women.

Another problem I found was a personal issue of mine: her use of the word “cult” only with a very negative connotation. I don’t deny that there are new religious movements that are emotionally damaging and even dangerous, but adding this stereotype to legitimate new religions is completely uncalled for, especially as I doubt that Naomi Wolf is well-versed in any of these new religions, their followers or their effect on the spiritual lives of their members. Likewise, I thought comparing the beauty myth to a religion was a bit of a stretch, considering some of the quite clearly uninformed commentary she had on religions in general. I found she pushed her points so far as to appear grasping for anything that *might* fit under her thesis. This undercut some of her stronger arguments. Though most of her points were valid, the feeling she was “grasping,” ruined much of the book for me. Some comparisons just cannot and should not be made.

Overall, I’d give this a 3.5/5 because despite its problems, I think this was and is an important book for raising awareness about the beauty myth and its effect on the lives of both women and men. Some of the statistics on the workforce were new to me and I’m sure anyone who saw me reading this on the Metro could note how visibly agitated I became while reading some especially troubling facts. I think Wolf’s points on cosmetic surgery are right on (though I did not like her comparison of boob jobs to male and female circumcision), as are some of her points on anorexia and body image in women. She could have highlighted here how body weight awareness and borderline anorexia affects MANY more women than the ones we see as extreme cases or those treated for the condition. I think she’d find that number much higher than those typically reported.

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Claire S. Gould

Claire is a social justice communications nerd by day and a bookish feminist blogger by night. She runs the popular blog Bibliofeminista as well as Today in Women's History, a project celebrates a woman in history every day. Outside of work, blogging, and volunteering, Claire enjoys consuming caffeine, making and appreciating art, watching classic films, and endlessly discussing progressive politics.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Beauty Myth”

    1. Haven’t read Wolf — and won’t, now that she’s become a rape apologist — so I don’t know what cults she talks about, but “cult” comes from the Latin cultus, and in academic circles still refers to the same thing that word did: a group engaged in and responsible for the worship of a particular deity and/or the enactment of a specific set of rituals. The Mystery Cult at Eleusis, for example, which enacted the famous rites of Demeter and Persephone. There are modern pagan groups which refer to themselves as cults in the same sense. I personally have been involved with or know people who have been involved with cults of Hecate, Dionysos, Asclepios, and others. They can be a little hard to find, though.

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