Feminist Book Review March 2013: The Beauty Myth

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde


beautymythMarch 2013: The Beauty Myth, 1991; 1st Anchor Books Paperback Edition

Author/Editor: Naomi Wolf

Purchased: Open Books, Chicago, IL (signed copy for $4.00!  It’s made out to a man called Tim, but hey!)


The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf’s best-selling 1990s feminist manifesto on the ways in which female behavior is constrained in the pursuit of “beauty,” is so powerful and absolutely spot-on that it makes it hard for us to pan her 2012 book, Vagina: A New Biography even though the text stinks of gender essentialism and new-agey yoni worship best left to the coffeehouse open mic night.  So, for the purposes of this review, let’s pretend The Beauty Myth, Wolf’s first novel for which she gained international fame as a spokesperson of third-wave feminism, is all we know about her.  Because in the beginning were these words and these words are good indeed.

“The beauty myth is actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.”

Wolf asserts throughout Beauty Myth that as women gained power outside the home as a result of second-wave feminism and began to enter the workplace in droves, more exacting standards of appearance were imposed upon their further success.  Want to get hired?  Land an important client?  Snag a promotion?  Simply keep your job? Better have your hair, nails, skin, weight, and wardrobe in flawless condition.  A set of constantly-shifting standards combined with a no-win balancing act between looking “too attractive” and opening oneself up to legally-protected sexual harassment and “not attractive enough” to keep one’s job is the result.

In the section entitled, “Work,” Wolf takes the reader through a number of American and British cases where this phenomenon demonstrates itself . . . such as Maureen Murphy and Eileen Davidson v. Stakis Leisure Ltd., where waitresses but not waiters were required to wear revealing uniforms, makeup, and nail-polish to, by the management’s own admission, “sexually draw male customers.”  The case was dismissed as de minimis — too trivial to consider.

And indeed, before reading through a book like The Beauty Myth, perhaps these considerations of whether a feminist shaves her legs, applies lipstick, or visits the salon seem trivial.  But Wolf’s goal is not to have her readers dump their make-up bags in the bin and ride happily into the clean-faced sunset.  She herself acknowledges the fun and frivolous quality of some beauty treatments.  I mean, who hasn’t applied hair dye after a breakup during a marathon of Real Housewives while eating ice cream out of the carton?  No one.

“‘Natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are not the terms in question.  The actual struggle is between pain and pleasure, freedom and compulsion.”

tumblr_mif4isFalj1rimcr9o1_500Rather, Wolf entreats us to examine the motivations behind our beauty rituals in an attempt to separate the diverting from the destructive.  On a practical level, we know that even today beauty products are not required to be F.D.A.-approved before market release and that pain or discomfort is seen as a natural price to pay for being a woman.  As Wolf says, “since there is a ‘background noise’ of harm around them, women aren’t seen to be hurt when they are hurt.”  We grit our teeth at waxing time, clench our fists when the gynecologist inserts the speculum, cut ourselves shaving our legs in the shower, our eyes tear when we pluck our eyebrows . . . but we always say we’re fine when someone asks.

Society’s tacit acceptance of our pain, our eating disorders, the structural and physical violence committed against us — all combine to drain women of their energy and desire to connect with other women in order to “get angry or get organized.”  The Beauty Myth, on the other hand, is a wonderfully-readable book that does just that — gets us just angry enough to, as poet Muriel Rukeyser says, tell the truth about our lives and split the world open.

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