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Cover of "The Beauty Myth: How Images of ...

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Book Review

Published: 2002

Author: Naomi Wolf

There is a lot to say about this book.

A feminist polemic about the damage caused to post-second wave feminism women, Wolf’s offering focuses on “the beauty myth.” Defined by Wolf as the potent lie in society that all women must aspire to an unattainable ideal of youthful, skeletal beauty, she argues that it has replaced the ‘feminist mystique’ (the 1950s emphasis on the importance of the domestic realm for women) as an agent of social control.

According to Wolf, it has arisen as a backlash against the female liberation era of the sixties and seventies when women began to obtain more social equality. The institutions of social control in society and advertising industry stand to benefit from the masochistic behaviour of women that results from the pursuit of an unobtainable beauty ideal.

She divides her discussion into several areas: work, culture, religion, sex, hunger and violence, presenting the reader with detailed discussions of each. Wolf’s grasp of the society of her time (about fifteen years ago) is imbued with a rich clarity, and I know this because it is the world into which I was born.

Eating 1200 calories a day keeps you physically weak, and constantly aspiring after a teenage body figure keeps you distracted from any issues of importance. Anorexic women are docile, she maintains, drawing on her own experience of the disease to support her theories, and yet anorexia is a sane response to an insane society. Competing with other women for the attention of men keeps you divided, and means you will never form a cohesive feminist movement.

Her name brings to mind one of the other great feminists of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf. Wolf is American and a very different sort of writer to my long time hero, but the influence of past feminists on her writing is pleasantly evident. She updates feminism’s message for present-day consumerist society and beyond.

I am now inspired to pursue my feminist research again, after leaving it asleep when I graduated university. Perhaps believing it to be a sterile academic tradition that belongs in those halls of learning, I am reminded again that it’s goals are uniquely relevant to myself as a woman.

In three hundred pages, Wolf succeeds in revealing a few important truths. One, that women should actively welcome one another and bestow on other women some of the attention normally reserved for interactions with attractive men.

Two, female sexuality has been repressed by a barrage of violent sexual images and having been poised as only responsive to male sexuality. In a few words, women don’t know how to be sexual because they are never taught, and are alienated from their own bodies which are “flawed” and “too fat”. On the other hand, men are provided with positive images of their own sexuality from a very early age.

Three, it is not attractive to be very thin, not at all. This is a complete cultural construction with no basis in reality, and even men don’t really like very thin women on the whole. This image of women serves the advertising industry by fueling self-hatred and desire to consume. According to some reviews I read, her book actually inspired some sufferers of anorexia into recovery.

This is a very positive book, though the subject matter is sometimes difficult to deal with. Often moving, always captivating, The Beauty Myth is still ahead of its time. I would recommend it to all readers as a very considered, well-supported and impassioned argument about the beauty myth’s coercion of women into a lesser role in society.