The Beauty Myth
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women is a nonfiction book by Naomi Wolf, published in 1990 by William Morrow and Company. It was republished in 2002 by HarperPerennial with a new introduction.
The basic premise of The Beauty Myth is that as women have gained increased social power and prominence, expected adherence to standards of physical beauty has grown stronger for women.
In her introduction, Wolf offers the following analysis:
|“||The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us... [D]uring the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty... [P]ornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal...More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.||”|
Wolf also posits the idea of an iron maiden, an intrinsically unattainable standard that is then used to punish women physically and psychologically for their failure to achieve and conform to it. Wolf criticizes the fashion and beauty industries as exploitative of women, but claims the beauty myth extends into all areas of human functioning. Wolf writes that women should have "the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women's appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically". Wolf argued that women were under assault by the "beauty myth" in five areas: work, religion, sex, violence, and hunger. Ultimately, and Wolf argues for a relaxation of normative standards of beauty.
Wolf's book was a quick bestseller, garnering intensely polarized responses from the public and mainstream media, but winning praise from many feminists. Second-wave feminist Germaine Greer wrote that The Beauty Myth was "the most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch", and Gloria Steinem wrote, "The Beauty Myth is a smart, angry, insightful book, and a clarion call to freedom. Every woman should read it." British novelist Fay Weldon called the book "essential reading for the New Woman", and Betty Friedan wrote in Allure magazine that "The Beauty Myth and the controversy it is eliciting could be a hopeful sign of a new surge of feminist consciousness."
With the publication of The Beauty Myth, Wolf became a leading spokesperson of what was later described as the third wave of the feminist movement.
Christina Hoff Sommers criticized Wolf for publishing the claim that 150,000 women were dying every year from anorexia. Sommers claimed that the actual number is closer to 100, a figure which others, such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, claimed to be much too low. In the same interview, Sommers stated that Wolf had retracted the figure. Jeanine Cogan, PhD, claims that the death totals may be underreported because death certificates don’t cite eating disorders per se as a cause of death.
A scathing 2004 paper compared Wolf's eating disorder statistics to statistics from peer-reviewed epidemiological studies and concluded that 'on average, an anorexia statistic in any edition of the The Beauty Myth should be divided by eight to get near the real statistic.' Schoemaker calculated that there are about 525 annual deaths from AN, 286 times less than Wolf's statistic.
Connection to Women Studies
The Beauty Myth is simply a myth, but its existence is a powerful force in keeping women focused on the purist of beauty and providing both men and women with a way to judge and limit women due to their physical appearance. Magazines, posters, television ads and social media sites are only some of the many platforms today that perpetuate beauty standards for both men and women. The daily presence and circulation of these platforms makes escaping these ideals almost impossible. Women and men alike are faced with ideal bodies, bodies that are marketed as attainable through diets and gym memberships. However, often times for women many of the beauty standards are neither healthy nor achievable through diets. These unattainable goals are then attributed to the increase in plastic surgery. Women’s ideals often place a larger importance on weight loss than on maintain a healthy medium. A common belief of women is that the lower the number on the weight scale, the prettier she’ll be regardless of what sacrifices her body needs to make. These ends to the sacrifices often outweigh the means as failing to embody these ideals leaves women targets to criticism and societal scrutiny.
Anorexia nervosa is one of the most prevalent eating disorders in Western countries “affecting an estimated 2.5 million people in the United States alone”. Of this number, more than 90 percent of anorexics are girls and young women. Anorexia nervosa is a “serious mental health disease that involves compulsive dieting and drastic weight loss”. This weight loss is the result of deliberate self-starvation to achieve a thinner appearance; an ideal that is heavily policed for young women today. Anorexia nervosa’s deep psychological roots make it difficult to treat elongating the recovery process to a life-long journey.
Many feminist believe that the beauty myth is one of the last and most successful systems in place to keep male dominance. According to Naomi Wolf, as women increasingly focus their attention on their physical appearance, the focus on equal rights and treatment takes second priority. The same is argued in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in which she recounts the effects of societies conditioning of young women into performing femininity. The focus of this passage is on a young girl who’s unaware of the differences that exist between her body and that of her male friends. During her adolescent years, the girl realizes not only to what degree her body is physically changing but also how these changes have begun to impact her freedom. According to Beauvoir, these changes encompass a “huge array of social expectations including physical appearance but unlike the social expectations on boys, the social expectations on girls and women usually inhibit them form acting freely”. In her argument, Beauvoir cites things such as clothing, make-up, diction and manners as subjects of scrutiny women face that men do not.
Studies reveal that women today strive to achieve beauty ideas because they understand the correlation between aesthetic beauty and social standing. According to Dr. Vivian Diller's book Face it: What Women Really Feel as their Looks Change and What to do About It, "most women agree, reporting the good looks continue to be associated with respect, legitimacy, and power in their relationship s". Basing hiring, evaluations and promotions off physical appearance is only further policing women to place aesthetic beauty before their work and skills.
Over the course of history, beauty ideals for women have changed drastically to represent societal views. During slavery, race and skin color were the main factors for being considered beautiful. White women and women with fair skin were seen as the ideal body further segregating women into subgroups and justifying the unfair treatment of black women. In the early 1900’s, the ideal female body type changed to represent the pale complexion, cinched-waist ideal; freckles, sun spots, and/or skin imperfections led to scrutiny by other. In 1920, women with a thinner frame and small bust were seen as beautiful, the desperation to reach such a standard led to an increase in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The ideal body time we have today of full-chested and hourglass figures began in the early 1950’s and has since led to a spike in plastic surgery and eating disorders. As illustrated by the aforementioned changes, beauty standards are shifting socially constructed ideas imposed on women.
- The Beauty Myth. pp. 10
- The Beauty Myth, pp. 17-18, 20, 86, 131, 179, 218.
- Kim Hubbard, The Tyranny of Beauty, To Naomi Wolf, Pressure to Look Good Equals Oppression, People, June 24, 1991.
- "Has Feminism Gone Too Far?". Retrieved 2007-07-27.
- "If you want to see what’s wrong with Ivy League education, look at The Beauty Myth, that book by Naomi Wolf. This is a woman who graduated from Yale magna cum laude, is a Rhodes scholar, and she cannot write a coherent paragraph. This is a woman who cannot do historical analysis, and she is a Rhodes scholar? If you want to see the damage done to intelligent women today in the Ivy League, look at that book." Paglia, Camille (1992). Sex, Art, Culture: New Essays. New York: Vintage, ISBN 978-0-679-74101-5
- "A critical appraisal of the anorexia statistics in The Beauty Myth: introducing Wolf's Overdo and Lie Factor (WOLF).". Eat Disord 12 (2): 97–102. 2004. doi:10.1080/10640260490444619. PMID 16864310.
- Parks, Peggy J (2009). Anorexia. San Diego, CA: ReferencePoint Press. pp. 6–10. ISBN 9781601520425.
- Scholz, Sally J. (2010). Feminism : a beginner's guide. Oxford: Oneworld. pp. 158–164. ISBN 9781851687121.
- Willens, Vivian Diller with Jill Muir-Sukenick ; edited by Michele (2011). Face it : what women really feel as their looks change and what to do about it : a psychological guide to enjoying your appearance at any age (3rd ed. ed.). Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House. ISBN 9781401925413.
- Ryle, Robyn (2012). Questioning gender : a sociological exploration. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE/Pine Forge Press. ISBN 9781412965941.