Naomi Wolf’s book is a classic. It was written as a feminist manifesto in 1990 to wake the world up to the fact that as some restrictive laws and practices have given way to more rights for women, so other – more hidden – restrictions have appeared to take their place. Wolf describes the beauty myth as a powerful belief system where a woman’s worth is measured by her beauty, and where the standards of this beauty are set so that a woman has to spend extreme amounts of money and effort to achieve it, yet still inevitably fail in the end because she cannot stop aging. The point, Wolf proposes, is to keep women preoccupied, insecure and most importantly, away from any real power in society.
The book becomes a bit repetitive after the first chapters, but is an easy read so I still recommend reading the whole thing. It gives a good insight into feminist critical thinking, and, because of it’s manifesto-like character, has a really clear message. I do think it’s important to remember that what Wolf is proposing is something between theory and opinion, and that although it is based partly on research, it also makes some logical leaps and some sweeping generalizations. But sometimes the clarity of the message demands some artistic freedom. And the message is as important today as it was when the book was written.
Wolf follows the impact of the beauty myth on phenomena that range from a micro- to a macroperspective. How it influences both real work opportunities (i.e. women being sacked from jobs as news anchors because they have lost their looks) and the most intimate sphere of identity and self-esteem, both how women are judged by others and how they judge themselves. She compares the beauty myth to cults and strict religions, where nutritional purity has replaced sexual purity and vigorous exercise and self-starvation has replaced religious self-flagellation. The sins of today, according to Wolf, are not explicitly sexual, but nutritional pleasures with sexual undertones. To atone for those sins, and to conform to the ideal, women are expected to endure severe discomfort and pain, in the name of beauty. Because she’s worth it?
According to Wolf “the beauty myth countered women’s new freedoms by transposing the social limits to women’s lives directly onto our faces and bodies. In response, we must now ask the questions about our place in our bodies that women a generation ago asked about their place in society”. Twenty-three years after the publication of The Beauty Myth, where are we when it comes to myths about beauty, youth and their connection to the idea of success and high status? Cosmetic and weight-loss surgeries have kept increasing. Eating disorders, although partly because they are better understood, have shown an increase in both women and men, just like Wolf predicts in her book. Is it getting better, or worse?
I feel tempted, in one way, to say that things are worse. I would say that the beauty myth has morphed with something that today we could talk about as the “health myth”, where we are led to believe that thinness and fitness equals health and any kind of imperfection easily translates to unhealth or abnormality. That’s dangerous and skews our understanding of what health is really about. Sometimes, when I explain to personal training clients that an overweight person can be fitter and in better “shape” than a normal-weight one, I feel like I am met with a blank stare. When health and beauty are intertwined like this the myth can be defended against earlier arguments – it’s not about something as silly as appearance, it’s about health. It’s sinful to be unhealthy, causing huge costs to society through health-care. So the myth keeps it’s moral normativity.
On the other hand, when Wolf wrote her book, we didn’t even have the internet yet. Twenty-three years is a long time in that sense. Although the huge proliferation of the computer and web-industry has made it easier to globalize the beauty myth and thin ideals far faster and further than before, it has also created a platform for all those speaking against it, connecting people from different cultures, demanding attention across the planet. Alternative rolemodels and ways of thinking can easily be found online if you look for it, and publications from all over the world can spread rapidly. There are positive signs everywhere, from photography-projects depicting beautiful, ordinary naked bodies, to discussion groups and posts on facebook that depict the growing wish of both men and women to be seen and heard as humans, not as objects. More and more people get into yoga and meditation to find a new relationship between mind and body. Is the time coming when men and women together will fight the big, invisible and greedy powers that have managed to keep up barriers between the genders for such a long time? Is this the new wave?