If you’re a woman in 2016, chances are you’ve probably, at some stage in your life, seen a picture of another woman – whether it be in an advertisement, in a film, or just on the street – and thought, ‘Geez. She’s so much prettier than me’. You’ve probably done something painful or inconvenient or expensive to your body at least once – whether you’ve plucked, scrubbed, scraped, steamed, smeared, or even laid down on a table and let someone put a scalpel to your skin. And if you haven’t, then chances are you’re either: a) living outside human society as a cultureless hermit, in which case you probably won’t be reading this anyway, or b) you’re one of the rare people who are actually happy with their bodies, in which case I applaud you and beg you to kindly TELL ME HOW THE HELL YOU DO IT thank you please and kind regards.
The central premise of Naomi Wolf’s 1990 book is that a ‘Beauty Myth’ has emerged in full force over the second half of the twentieth century, as women are entering the workforce, earning university degrees, and enjoying the social reforms ushered in thanks to the feminist movements of the 1970s. She suggests that the Beauty Myth is a “political weapon against women’s advancement”, one which takes the place of the domestic ideal of the 1950s and earlier decades (Chapter I: ‘The Beauty Myth’). It is not actually about appearance, she asserts; what it actually proscribes is female behaviour, from the way that women think about their own bodies and identities to the way that they think about other women’s bodies and identities.
Yes, it’s certainly true that contemporary society has become obsessed with appearance: perhaps because images of ‘beautiful’ people are so hard to escape – whether you’re sitting at the bus stop and reading feminist literature, or just hanging out at home and checking your Facebook feed.
Which is why Wolf’s book – which is twenty-six years old – has the potential to be disturbingly current. Because I doubt that there’s many people who would stand up and try to assert, honestly and without a trace of sarcasm, that the narrow ideals of beauty upheld in Western society are a good thing for women. Eating disorders, the rise of surgery, and the billions of dollars the cosmetics industry yearly reaps from women desperate to conform to an ideal almost impossible to achieve – these are everyday facts to us in the twenty-first century. They’re so present in our society that they have become almost mundane, a part of everyday life, ‘the way things have always been’.
The Way Things Haven’t Always Been
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. For Wolf, the tyrannical insistence on women’s ‘attractiveness’ is a product of the 1970s and 1980s. Although she does hint at the way that images of ‘beauty’ have been used to dictate female behaviour in the past, her focus is mainly on the way that social pressure on women to look a certain way has emerged in the past few decades as a way to neutralise women’s increasing political and social awareness and continue to dictate which ‘feminine’ behaviours are acceptable to society and which are not.
There are obvious problems with Wolf’s arguments throughout the book. While the existence of a ‘Beauty Myth’ is indisputable, the social function of such a myth may not always be as clear-cut as Wolf suggests. For one thing, female appearance has been a central preoccupation of Western societies for centuries. Wolf herself writes that, “male culture has silenced women by taking them beautifully apart: The catalog of features, developed by the troubadours, first paralyzed the beloved woman into beauty’s silence” (Chapter III: ‘Culture’). In other words, woman is just made up of beautiful bits; take them apart and there’s absolutely nothing left.
Wolf has a literary background, so her chapter on ‘Culture’ does go into the treatment of beauty in literature on a superficial level; she notes, for instance, that female writers throughout history frequently tried to challenge the ‘Beauty Myth’; they engage instead in a desperate search for “a beauty that has meaning”, a heroism that the story’s heroine espouses, which is often internal, personal, and spiritual. Books such as Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park are prime examples of such texts, and Wolf’s point is a compelling one.
Yet what I missed most from the first part of Wolf’s book is a more complex and detailed historical analysis which might trace the complicated nature and function of the ‘Beauty Myth’ in society. It’s not that I didn’t agree with the existence of a ‘Beauty Myth’ in the late twentieth century; only that I was a little reluctant to agree that it was a purely twentieth-century phenomenon.
I think this was my major problem with Wolf’s text: it has a tendency to be very black-and-white. It works on the premise that the ‘Beauty Myth’ exists, that it permeates all levels of society, that it always has the same effects, and that it is solely a method of social control by male institutions of power. Wolf doesn’t consider the problem that different people will naturally interact (and it is usually an interaction) with the ‘Beauty Myth’ in different ways; that even living in society we can choose to actively challenge it, to toy with it, to parody it. Wolf’s text, in other words, focuses on suggesting that all women are dupes of the beauty myth, that it is the ‘Iron Maiden’ that we cannot escape. She doesn’t consider the reasons why women might choose to behave in accordance with the ‘Beauty Myth’; does it perhaps present women with some benefits? I’m not saying it does, mind you – just suggesting that this is the kind of question I might be asking if I were writing a book about the ‘Beauty Myth’. Her book might potentially be accused of simply painting all women as victims of the beauty myth, without ever really examining deeply the reasons why women conform to ideals of beauty.
And the other question that was burning in my mind as I was reading was – what else? If the ‘Beauty Myth’ is a reaction to women entering the workforce, are there any other social and historical factors – some perhaps not even directly related to gender – which caused a shift in the way that society thought about female appearance? Is it purely a tool of male institutions of power? Perhaps a deeper historical study might have helped illuminate some of these other issues. What’s important is not just the existence and function of the ‘Beauty Myth’, but its varying uses throughout history, the extent to which people embrace and challenge it.
Fat Gods: Beauty as Cult
The chapter I enjoyed the most was the one entitled ‘Religion’. Here, Wolf draws a comparison between the ‘Beauty Myth’ and religious institutions, and suggests that the ‘Beauty Myth’ emerged as a new way of policing women’s behaviour in the secular age. It’s a compelling point, because the social function of religion is naturally to proscribe certain behaviours, to enforce cultural and social norms. In the same way, images of beauty tell women both how they should look and how they should behave. The ‘Rites of Beauty’, as Wolf says, “designate the surgeon as Artist-Priest, a more expert Creator than the maternal body or ‘Mother Nature’, from whom the woman had her first inadequate birth”. And “the rosary has become a calorie-counter”, she adds, suggesting that for many women the attainment of ‘beauty’ comes with the promise of some kind of spiritual fulfilment once it is complete.
Wolf focuses on the Genesis myth, of women as secondary, inferior to men, as a key part of this ‘religion’ or, rather, this ‘cult’ of Beauty. This of course begs the question of societies which do not emerge from a Judeo-Christian background. Is the ‘Beauty Myth’ a purely ‘Western’/Judeo-Christian/American phenomenon? Undoubtedly not, and a study which considers such questions would doubtless be valuable as well.
However, Wolf’s suggestion that the female body is always considered secondary does seem to have a lot of historical validity. She writes that “the female body is always in need of completion, of man-made ways to perfect it”. In contrast, “Men […] since they made gods in their own image, feel that their bodies are essentially all right”. This is perhaps an untrue statement, and Wolf does indeed acknowledge in her conclusion that a male ‘Beauty Myth’ probably already exists and is fast becoming entrenched in society. Ultimately, however, the Judeo-Christian influence is still strong. Women’s bodies are constantly referred to as imperfect, as requiring ‘fixing’: “Women’s flesh is evidence of a God-given wrongness; whereas fat men make fat gods”. The ‘Beauty Myth’ is not a natural occurrence; it is a social construct, just like religion, and its rules are dictated by those in charge. And Wolf understands its power, too: “To understand the primal force of this religion, we need to see that men die once and women die twice. Women die as beauties before their bodies die.” The fear of this double-death keeps us buying anti-ageing creams, starting new diets, and avoiding cake like somebody dusted the top of it with arsenic.
Some of the writing in this particular chapter is almost chillingly good; Wolf argues that the ‘Beauty Myth’ is both influenced by religion and a kind of religion itself, and it is by far the most convincing chapter. It is all too easy to see how ‘beauty rituals’ have all the trademarks of cult-like behaviour, how the obsession with women’s appearances is an inheritance from a time when religious authority was preoccupied with women’s sexuality, with regulating women’s bodies. What’s perhaps most disturbing is how so many women believe that reaching their ideal weight will be akin to some kind of spiritual experience, to the kind of rebirth usually associated with baptismal rituals. I’ve fallen for it. My friends and family have fallen for it. It’s this idea that if you just lose those last five to ten kilos you will emerge a shiny, pretty, happy individual with sunshine coming out of every pore, cartoon birds circling around your head, and roses falling out of your butt as you walk down the street chomping down on a Mars bar because You Can Eat Whatever You Want Because You’re Skinny Now.
Like all religions, of course, what we desire is always just out of reach; we will never, no matter how many days we fast or how many lashes we take or how much we deny ourselves, quite reach the ‘Divine’ (whatever we personally believe it may be). Or, if we think we have reached it, the view from the top may not look quite how we expected it. Wolf’s arguments in the chapter on religion may not appeal to everybody, but for me this was the chapter where the entire book began to take shape. As with the entirety of The Beauty Myth, you may find yourself disagreeing, questioning, or just desiring a little more from Wolf as you go through it. But although Wolf’s book is not perfect, many of her arguments remain as compelling today as they did when the book was first published. The Beauty Myth will make you think, and once we begin thinking – seriously thinking – about the way our culture deals with the body, we may begin moving towards the place where the ‘Beauty Myth’ becomes just that: ancient history.
Rating: 3.5 Stars