Authors: Naomi Wolf
In the struggle for women’s equality, there is one subject still shrouded in silence – women’s compulsive pursuit of beauty. The myth of female beauty challenges every woman, every day of her life. The author exposes the tyranny of the beauty myth through the ages and its oppressive function today, in the home and at work, in literature and the media, in relationships between men and women, between women and women. With examples, she confronts the beauty industry and its advertising and uncovers the reasons why women are consumed by this destructive obsession.
Naomi Wolf was born in 1962 in San Francisco. She studied at Yale before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford, and working in Edinburgh.
The Beauty Myth
was published in 1990 and was an international bestseller. This was followed by
Fire with Fire, Promiscuities, Misconceptions
The Tree House
, among others.
Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century
Promiscuities: A Secret History of Female Desire
Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood
The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom on How to Live, Love and See
The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot
Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries
Vagina: A New Biography
FOR MY PARENTS, DEBORAH AND LEONARD WOLF
It is far more difficult to murder a phantom than a reality.
I notice that it is the fashion . . . to disclaim any notion of male conspiracy in the oppression of women. . . . “For my part,” I must say with William Lloyd Garrison, “I am not prepared to respect that philosophy. I believe in sin, therefore in a sinner; in theft, therefore in a thief; in slavery, therefore in a slaveholder; in wrong, therefore in a wrong-doer.”
The fear of freedom is strong within us.
AT LAST, AFTER
a long silence, women took to the streets. In the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970s, Western women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role. A generation on, do women feel free?
The affluent, educated, liberated women of the First World, who can enjoy freedoms unavailable to any women ever before, do not feel as free as they want to. And they can no longer restrict to the subconscious their sense that this lack of freedom has something to do with—with apparently frivolous issues, things that really should not matter. Many are ashamed to admit that such trivial concerns—to do with physical appearance, bodies, faces, hair, clothes—matter so much. But in spite of shame, guilt, and denial, more and more women are wondering if it isn’t that they are entirely neurotic and alone but rather that something important is indeed at stake that has to do with the relationship between female liberation and female beauty.
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. Many women sense that women’s collective progress has stalled; compared with the heady momentum of earlier days, there is a dispiriting climate of confusion, division, cynicism, and above all, exhaustion. After years of much struggle and little recognition, many older women feel burned out; after years of taking its light for granted, many younger women show little interest in touching new fire to the torch.
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical specialty. During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography 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
we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret “underlife” poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.
It is no accident that so many potentially powerful women feel this way. We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth. It is the modern version of a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial Revolution. As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it waned to carry on its work of social control.
The contemporary backlash is so violent because the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women whom second wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively
uncontrollable: It has grown stronger to take over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity, no longer can manage. It is seeking right now to undo psychologically and covertly all the good things that feminism did for women materially and overtly.
This counterforce is operating to checkmate the inheritance of feminism on every level in the lives of Western women. Feminism gave us laws against job discrimination based on gender; immediately case law evolved in Britain and the United States that institutionalized job discrimination based on women’s appearances. Patriarchal religion declined; new religious dogma, using some of the mind-altering techniques of older cults and sects, arose around age and weight to functionally supplant traditional ritual. Feminists, inspired by Friedan, broke the stranglehold on the women’s popular press of advertisers for household products, who were promoting the feminine mystique; at once, the diet and skin care industries became the new cultural censors of women’s intellectual space, and because of their pressure, the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood. The sexual revolution promoted the discovery of female sexuality; “beauty pornography”—which for the first time in women’s history artificially links a commodified “beauty” directly and explicitly to sexuality—invaded the mainstream to undermine women’s new and vulnerable sense of sexual self-worth. Reproductive rights gave Western women control over our own bodies; the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23 percent below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially, and a mass neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of that sense of control. Women insisted on politicizing health; new technologies of invasive, potentially dangerous “cosmetic” surgeries developed apace to re-exert old forms of medical control of women.
Every generation since about 1830 has had to fight its version of the beauty myth. “It is very little to me,” said the suffragist Lucy Stone in 1855, “to have the right to vote, to own property, etcetera, if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right.” Eighty years later, after women had won the vote, and the first wave of the organized women’s movement had subsided, Virginia Woolf wrote that it would still be decades before women
could tell the truth about their bodies. In 1962, Betty Friedan quoted a young woman trapped in the Feminine Mystique: “Lately, I look in the mirror, and I’m so afraid I’m going to look like my mother.” Eight years after that, heralding the cataclysmic second wave of feminism, Germaine Greer described “the Stereotype”: “To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself . . . she is a doll . . . I’m sick of the masquerade.” In spite of the great revolution of the second wave, we are not exempt. Now we can look out over ruined barricades: A revolution has come upon us and changed everything in its path, enough time has passed since then for babies to have grown into women, but there still remains a final right not fully claimed.
The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.
None of this is true. “Beauty” is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.
“Beauty” is not universal or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman; the Maori admire a fat vulva, and the Padung, droopy breasts. Nor is “beauty” a function of evolution: Its ideals change at a pace far more rapid than that of the evolution of species, and Charles Darwin was himself unconvinced by his own explanation that “beauty” resulted from a “sexual selection” that deviated from the rule of natural selection; for women to compete with women through “beauty” is a reversal of the way in which natural
selection affects all other mammals. Anthropology has overturned the notion that females must be “beautiful” to be selected to mate: Evelyn Reed, Elaine Morgan, and others have dismissed sociobiological assertions of innate male polygamy and female monogamy. Female higher primates are the sexual initiators; not only do they seek out and enjoy sex with many partners, but “every nonpregnant female takes her turn at being the most desirable of all her troop. And that cycle keeps turning as long as she lives.” The inflamed pink sexual organs of primates are often cited by male sociobiologists as analogous to human arrangements relating to female “beauty,” when in fact that is a universal, nonhierarchical female primate characteristic.
Nor has the beauty myth always been this way. Though the pairing of the older rich men with young, “beautiful” women is taken to be somehow inevitable, in the matriarchal Goddess religions that dominated the Mediterranean from about 25,000
to about 700
, the situation was reversed: “In every culture, the Goddess has many lovers. . . . The clear pattern is of an older woman with a beautiful but expendable youth—Ishtar and Tammuz, Venus and Adonis, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris . . . their only function the service of the divine ‘womb.’” Nor is it something only women do and only men watch: Among the Nigerian Wodaabes, the women hold economic power and the tribe is obsessed with male beauty; Wodaabe men spend hours together in elaborate makeup sessions, and compete—provocatively painted and dressed, with swaying hips and seductive expressions—in beauty contests judged by women. There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women.