The Beauty Myth: Women in Public

Cover of The Beauty Myth

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

Naomi Wolf

Published 1991 (1992 edition consulted)

HQ 1219 .W65 1992

I often use a popular ad-supported music streaming service, which for the most part I like very much. However, it occasionally serves me ads that make me shake my head and guffaw mockingly.  The worst offender begins like this:

Woman #1, with pronounced “valley girl” inflections: I’m so frustrated! My workouts are leaving me buff but not slender, and I can’t afford yoga lessons on top of my gym membership!

A second woman, her friend, reassures she can get a discount on yoga lessons by using a coupon service targeted specifically to women.

I’m tempted to respond as follows: “OH NOES! Buff but not slender! So you can run marathons, lift furniture and bend steel bars, but you can’t fit into clothing of a smaller size!  Clearly this is a serious problem on which you should definitely spend more of your limited time and money!” I also find myself wishing her friend would say something like, “Yeah, it sucks to feel insecure about your body. But you know, I thought it was pretty cool when you bent that steel bar! I mean, that was superheroesque! “ instead of magically finding a way to bring more such work within her budget.  Of course, this is a commercial, so she has to fulfill her role as the promoter of a product.  This is also a commercial that men never hear—this streaming service knows my gender (female) and uses that information to select the ads I’ll hear.  I suspect they also realize that many women listen to music while exercising, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that this ad is intended to make women feel insecure about their exercise regimes.

So of course the beauty myth is still with us.  I read The Beauty Myth for September of The Year of Feminist Classics. It’s actually my second time through the book; I’d read it a few years ago on a whim, and I think I noticed different things this time because I’d been previously exposed to the essential strangeness of some of Wolf’s arguments.  The point of The Beauty Myth is that, as women have gained more social and political power, the demands of maintaining an acceptable appearance have risen, undermining women’s self-confidence, siphoning off their time and money, and making it more difficult for women to be taken seriously.

Because I’m writing this late, I find that Amy McKie has already done a great job of making many of the points that I wanted to make. I agree that Wolf oversells her point throughout the book, writing as if beauty is the last barrier holding women back from full equality and participation in society.  Do I even need to say that this is overly optimistic? Women still make less money than men, are concentrated in less prestigious professions, still do the second shift, and are still underrepresented in public office.  Reproductive rights and access to good health care are limited.  Violence against women is widespread. And then of course there’s racism, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, various class-related stigmas, etc, etc, etc, and a lot of this is really ignored in Wolf’s analysis as she argues that beauty is the last hurdle that needs to be cleared.  This last is a serious problem in her critique, because the pressure to conform to the beauty standard is not independent of class status.  I don’t wear makeup or high heels because, well, I’m an academic and I don’t have to do that.  (Many academics do wear them, of course, but I’m able to get away with not doing it more easily in this setting).   If I were a retail clerk or a secretary or a waitress, I would very likely feel more pressure. On the other hand, beauty compliance can also be easily enforced at the highest end of the spectrum; in the 2008 election, it was very interesting (and by interesting, I mean depressing) to watch how beauty standards were applied to Clinton and Palin—a certain degree of beauty compliance is required for women as public figures.  Melissa McEwan has done a good job documenting media fascination with Clinton’s lipstick… the idea that idea that wow, she is a woman! She wears lipstick! Let’s make sure we don’t forget about that!  But at the same time, imagine if she didn’t wear lipstick and the barrage of she-looks-terrible-and-washed-out-and-if-she-were-taking-this-seriously-she-would-do-a-better-job-with-her-appearance-and-why-is-she-rejecting-her-femininity? that would come as a response. Male politicians wear makeup too, but we never talk about that. So the beauty myth is stronger at the high and low ends of the social scale and the political ramifications of that deserve some attention in this analysis. But Wolf is focused pretty squarely on upper-middle class women, so we don’t see a lot of this, which is a shame. She does have one paragraph about race. It’s a pretty good paragraph, but it’s not nearly enough.

On the other hand, both the ad above and the example I’ve just given show very clearly that Wolf is onto something when she says that the beauty myth exists , that it eats up women’s time, money and energy, and that its effects are political.  There’s a lot of anger in this book, and I love Wolf’s fierceness when (for instance) she writes about the lack of consumer protections around beauty products and cosmetic surgery, or about the pressure even on young girls to be as thin as possible.  I also appreciated the care with which she directs her anger against the companies that are responsible for promoting feminine insecurity and not against the women who are put into a position where every mundane decision they make about their appearance has meaning in one way or another.  Like Amy, I was struck by Wolf’s description of the wardrobe dilemma—that there are expectations for women to meet a certain standard of attractiveness, but that the insinuation that attractive women have only achieved success because of their looks will always exist.  Wolf writes:

The professional insecurity that this situation generates cuts across the biological caste system that the PBQ [Professional Beauty Qualification, Wolf’s shorthand for the requirement that women perform beauty in the workplace] sets up: It is found in “beautiful” women, since often no amount of professional success can convince them that they themselves, and not their “beauty,” have earned them their positions; and it’s found in “ugly” women, who learn to devalue themselves. (51)

Now this is interesting because if we look at beauty as a form of privilege, the same can be said for any other form of privilege.  Being middle class or white or able bodied or whatever means that it’s never clear that one has gained anything on one’s own merits.  Beauty is different because of its interaction with gender.  If women are successful in an arena where they are not assumed to belong, reasons for questioning the legitimacy of this success become useful, so instead of remaining invisible like other forms of privilege, beauty becomes highly scrutinized.  At the same time, Wolf also shows that wardrobe and grooming choices have been used against women in legal cases, regardless of what those choices are, and this is where you get the conversation going on in the head of the woman she uses as an example. The ideal for which this prototypical woman strives is to achieve an acceptable degree of beauty compliance while simultaneously avoiding being sexualized. Good luck with that.

Again like Amy, I noticed a lot of connections to other readings of the year; in particular, Wolf’s invocation of Gloria Steinem’s statement that “all women are Bunnies” (33) reminded me of de Beauvoir’s hetaeras—only the idea is now extended to women generally.  The hetaera was a public figure; the obvious conclusion is that as women became public figures, they were assimilated to this model.  This is very much what Wolf is getting at, but de Beauvoir anticipates it a little.

The book certainly has its failings.  Amy already pointed out Wolf’s general lack of comprehension of consensual S&M, which contributes to a stigma.  I also found myself wondering if Wolf really needed to draw connections between eating disorders and concentration camps; her own language as she introduces the idea indicates that she knows better.  And of course, the book feels very second wave in both its optimism and its focus on a particular class of women. But I certainly appreciated it more on a second read, and I found her anger bracing.


Filed under Literary thoughts

3 responses to “The Beauty Myth: Women in Public

  1. Fantastic review here. While you agree with much of what I said, you say it so much better 🙂 I already agreed that the beauty myth itself is still so present but wow, that add is terrible and should convince any doubters 😛 Eecks.

    I think that like you a second read later on might help as the absurdities could take backseat to the anger and truths. Thanks for participating again!

  2. After reading this I dug through some books and papers I have saved from my college years. I was looking for some notes I took at a conference on feminism and gender studies I attended at NYU in the early 90’s. Naomi Wolf was on a panel about feminism, and I wanted to see what I had thought of what she had to say. My notes are pretty spare as I was 19 and a little overwhelmed to be in New York City listening to Gloria Steinham. But the funniest thing was that next to Naomi Wolf’s name on the program I had written, “Man, she is so pretty.”

  3. Thanks, Amy 🙂 I really did enjoy reading it through a second time; the stuff that was off-putting the first time through was much less noticeable. Or maybe I was just in a different place.. that could be it too.

    And Kat– That is funny. I wonder if she gains more credibility from that? Depressing. It’s pretty great you got to go to an event like that, though. I missed an opportunity to see Margaret Atwood a few weeks ago… maybe next time I should go.

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