Naomi Wolf Redeems Herself: Talking about The Beauty Myth, Pt. I

When Naomi Wolf started writing nonsensical, victim-blaming screeds about rape accusers, I thought, “Too bad I never got around to reading The Beauty Myth, because there’s no way I’m subjecting myself to more of her foolish blubbering.” I’m glad that I abandoned my initial boycott of Wolf, because I’ve found the first half of The Beauty Myth to be, if not necessarily eye-opening (I’ve been living with America’s extreme vanity for 22 years, after all), a very encouraging, needed work that taps women on the shoulder and says, “You know that frustration you feel? That’s legitimate. We all feel it.”

Just as the power of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique lay in naming a collective misery that was already eating away at millions of American housewives, The Beauty Myth derives its clout from debunking fallacies that millions of Western women already secretly doubt–that beauty is attainable for everyone, that it’s an inherently positive trait, that it’s universally recognized and objectively appraised, and that pursuing beauty above all else is a noble cause.

The introduction compares the beauty myth (which I’ll just refer to as TBM) to earlier myths of chastity, purity, and domesticity, which the patriarchy scrambled to replace once they were toppled by the women’s movement. I found Wolf’s most compelling comparison, however, to be to the Iron Maiden torture device.

Like the Iron Maiden, TBM is a seemingly inescapable trap, which can starve a woman slowly, by degrees, or simply destroy her individuality with one fell swoop. TBM drains a woman’s money through expensive, generally worthless products and eats away at her time through the vast swaths of preparation needed to blow-dry, condition, wash, tone, conceal, and highlight oneself into a more socially acceptable form. Worst of all, it drains her drive by chipping away at her self-esteem and re-directing valuable energy to worrying about a strictly losing battle.

Though there have always been standards for beauty, Wolf argues that standards have become increasingly stringent as women find themselves gaining more ground in the workplace–which takes us to the first chapter, titled “Work,” the premise of which is that women are held back in the workplace by misogynistic standards of appearance and dress, which were established because men would prefer not to compete with us. The ability to eliminate over 50% of one’s potential adversaries must be irresistible.

[pullquote]Women are held back in the workplace by misogynistic standards of appearance and dress, which were established because men would prefer not to compete with us.[/pullquote]

Before we press on, I need to address the fact that Wolf is not exactly an excellent researcher. Frankly, she cites lots of vague figures, like “women work twice as hard as men,” then either doesn’t examine those ideas/figures all, or backs them up with a flurry of anecdotes (including, in this instance, a quote from the Duchess of Newcastle”¦?) and only quasi-related statistics. Additionally, she’s prone to drawing exaggerated comparisons, as when she writes that aerobics classes are like Hare Krishna dances.

Usually this type of writing and lack of strong supporting documents chafes me, but I understand the difficulty of trying to quantify a reality that the majority of Westerners sweep under the rug. Because Wolf is consistently engaging and her work has the ring of truth, I’m just going to give her a pass.

“Work” examines the unique double standard women face of looking either too “professional” or too “feminine,” which basically translates into constantly being accused of dressing like a man or dressing like a slut. And employers have the ability to dictate virtually every detail of their female employees’ appearance, from hair to makeup to clothing, in a way that goes far beyond the standards of dress codes.

I had no idea how many lawsuits were fought in the 80s and 90s over the rights of female employees to make such basic personal decisions as whether or not to style their own hair or submit to the aging process. And I’m shocked by how many employers won, from the Playboy Club successfully firing an aging waitress to television stations booting female anchors deemed “unattractive,” on the basis of a legalized “professional beauty qualification” which can be applied to virtually any job. The PBQ, as Wolf dubs it, is deeply ingrained in the legal system (in one of her examples, a judge overrules two juries in order to protect the rights of a discriminatory employer) and ridiculously ill-defined, so it can be manipulated to mean practically anything.

Despite some cities and states instituting anti-discrimination laws, an employer’s right to fire women for their looks persists to this day. Just last year, Hooters fired a waitress because she was “too fat” at a whopping 132 pounds, and CitiBank fired an employee who claims she was harassed and reprimanded for wearing “sexy” clothes that fit most standard definitions of professional attire.

One of the more insidious aspects of TBM is how it can direct women’s bitterness towards one another, instead of against the offending employer. Having to compete on a sliding scale of beauty, in addition to comparative skill and experience, can breed enmity towards women who seem to be unfairly (or simply more successfully) exploiting “beauty.” This just feeds into the negative cycle of wasting energy and time to keep in line with TBM, which effectively prevents professional women from developing more concrete skills and advancing in the workplace.

My first and, thankfully, worst encounter with workplace discrimination happened when I was 17 and working at Baskin Robbins on a military base in Germany. Firstly, we didn’t have air conditioning and the temperature in the restaurant climbed as high as 100 degrees on some days. Secondly, the uniform they gave me was an oversized men’s shirt (because they apparently couldn’t be bothered to order something in a women’s size), and I was told to wear khaki pants/shorts and sneakers.

I followed the dress code to a tee for weeks, while my male coworkers constantly wore jeans and sandals. Sweltering, I finally gave into the temptation to wear sandals, as apparently no one else took the dress code as seriously as I did. I was immediately, harshly reprimanded. Additionally, I was told that a pair of shorts I wore, which hit right at my knee and were fairly loose, were too “distracting” and “inappropriate.” I was extremely embarrassed because they implied I was purposely dressing provocatively, despite my intentions to do the exact opposite, and I wound up wearing a pair of my brothers’ cargo shorts for the rest of the summer.

[pullquote]I was told that a pair of shorts I wore, which hit right at my knee and were fairly loose, were too “distracting” and “inappropriate.”[/pullquote]

My example is a fairly mild one when it comes to workplace discrimination, but I find it interesting that even in a minimum-wage food service job, men will find ways to criticize and distort the appearance of their female coworkers.

The second chapter is titled “Culture,” but unfortunately doesn’t address any part of pop culture except mainstream women’s magazines. I wasn’t impressed by this chapter, in part because I would have appreciated more analysis of how TBM effects the portrayal and success of actresses/musicians/other cultural figures, and in part because I disagree with Wolf’s assessment of the magazine industry.

Wolf foists most of the blame for Vogue and Cosmopolitan filling page after page with waif-like models and innumerable endorsements for beauty products onto advertisers, whom she rightly identifies as being distrustful of female tastemakers and far more controlling over women’s content than they are over, say, ads for men’s shaving cream. But Wolf defends the magazines themselves, claiming that they are one of the only media outlets catering to women, that their content is often feminist, and that most of their writers and editors have good intentions.

Be all that as it may, I feel that the fashion industry at large is captivated by their own unattainable standards of size and beauty, and people like Anna Wintour will continue to fetishize and publicize those body types with or without the explicit direction of the advertising industry. And I wholeheartedly disagree that most mainstream magazines are publishing content that nourishes women; instead they’re telling us how to please men, how to dress to get that promotion, how to flirt. It’s always the same mindless, beauty-myth-infused drivel.

[pullquote]Anna Wintour will continue to fetishize and publicize those body types with or without the explicit direction of the advertising industry.[/pullquote]

One point I don’t disagree with is that women’s magazines and, by extension, TBM serve as a proxy for “a solidarity movement.” Women, who are so often isolated or goaded into competition in their personal and professional lives, can immerse themselves in magazines and feel like they’re participating in a global movement of women struggling with the same problems. TBM’s chameleon-like, pseudo-noble qualities make it that much more difficult to combat.

The third chapter (and last one we’ll be covering today) is called “Religion” and it was by far my favorite and the most esoteric topic covered yet. Rather than drawing on very many examples from the Bible or other religious texts, Wolf posits that the void religion leaves in women’s lives has to be filled by something else, something with mystical components that required the suspension of disbelief.

My favorite quote from the book thus far:

But in the secular age that paralleled the women’s movement, though women no longer heard every Sunday that they were damned, they very rarely heard anymore that they were “saintly.” Where Mary had been “blessed “¦ among women,” and the Jewish Woman of Valor heard that “her price is beyond rubies,” all the modern woman can hope to hear is that she looks divine.

And my second favorite:

Women’s flesh is evidence of a God-given wrongness; whereas fat men are fat gods. “¦ this religion is not about whose body is fat, but whose body is wrong.

Wolf goes on to equate several aspects of religion with the pursuit of beauty, including original sin with the belief that women are naturally ugly, the cycle of devout purification with attempts to purge one’s body of flaws, and the fatalism of the medieval memento mori with the obsessive fear women have of their beauty fading.

One quibble I have is that I don’t think Weight Watchers is necessarily the demoniacal cult that Wolf portrays it as, but I understand the emphasis she places on how TBM encourages women to form unhealthy “support” groups that only spur members towards self-destructive tendencies. My first experience with disordered eating was when I went to college and had several friends who would propose we diet together, we “hold each other accountable” for what we ate at the cafeteria, even that we take swimsuit photographs to shame ourselves into losing weight. It was truly maniacal how we could make obviously unhealthy behavior seem acceptable by participating in it together.

To that end, one of the biggest take-aways from The Beauty Myth is that we have to replace the solidarity of TBM with the solidarity of a respectful, inclusive women’s movement. I think/hope that blogs like this one can successfully co-opt the narrative from mainstream magazines and establish safer, truly helpful, more accepting places for women to plug into a wider community.

[pullquote]We have to replace the solidarity of TBM with the solidarity of a respectful, inclusive women’s movement.[/pullquote]

Some questions I’m left with and am hoping get answered in the next half of the book–what are the consequences for shunning the beauty myth? How does pornography intersect with TBM (porn has been mentioned several times already, but I’m assuming Wolf will delve into it more in the “Sex” chapter)? Is it reasonable to suggest that certain aspects of beauty are universal, i.e., symmetrical features? Is our contemporary culture’s move towards “natural” beauty any better than emphasizing heavy makeup/elaborately coiffed hair?

I’m sure many of you have already read The Beauty Myth, and I would really enjoy a chance to discuss it more in the comments–as usual, one blog post is way too little space to address all the issues covered in the book.

3 replies on “Naomi Wolf Redeems Herself: Talking about The Beauty Myth, Pt. I”

I’ve been reading the Beauty Myth right now too! Talk about kismet. I usually don’t mark my books (to me, that is sacrilege) but with this one, I have been highlighting passages the entire way through. It is, as you said, very much a feeling of ” Yeah, that is it exactly! That’s what I mean! God, this is ridiculous!”.

Love the book, and love this post.

I’ve been thinking about the beauty myth recently, with an eye toward what I might write about it. I discovered that Duke University has a digital archive of magazine ads from the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries. I was pretty surprised to find that women’s advertising really hasn’t changed that much in a hundred years. There are some exceptions, ads that are grossly patronizing, but 80% of what I saw sounded very familiar. The most notable exceptions were the ads for a product called Zonite. Apparently women in the early 20th century smelled like dirty pirate hookers and no one knew how to tell them. Check it out, its funny and creepy at the same time:

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