The Beauty Myth

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The Beauty Myth
The Beauty Myth.jpg
Author Naomi Wolf
Language English
Publication date
Media type Print
ISBN 978-0-385-42397-7

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women is a nonfiction book by Naomi Wolf, published in 1991 by William Morrow and Company. It was republished in 2002 by HarperPerennial with a new introduction by Wolf.

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.[1]

Wolf also posits the idea of an "iron-maiden," an intrinsically unattainable standard of beauty 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, Wolf argues for a relaxation of normative standards of beauty.[2]


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."[3] British novelist Fay Weldon called the book "essential reading for the New Woman",[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Humanities scholar Camille Paglia also criticized the book, arguing that Wolf's historical research and analysis was deeply flawed.[7]

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.[8]


  1. ^ The Beauty Myth. pp. 10
  2. ^ The Beauty Myth, pp. 17-18, 20, 86, 131, 179, 218.
  3. ^ Reviews
  4. ^ Kim Hubbard, The Tyranny of Beauty, To Naomi Wolf, Pressure to Look Good Equals Oppression, People, June 24, 1991.
  5. ^ "Has Feminism Gone Too Far?". Retrieved 2007-07-27. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "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
  8. ^ "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. 

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