Book Review: The Beauty Myth

“We do not need to change our bodies, we need to change the rules. Beyond the myth, women will still be blamed for our appearances by whomever needs to blame us. So let’s stop blaming ourselves and stop running and stop apologizing, and let’s start to please ourselves once and for all. The ‘beautiful’ woman does not win under the myth, neither does anyone else. The woman who is subjected to the continual adulation of strangers does not win, nor does the woman who denies herself attention. The woman who wears a uniform does not win, nor does the woman with a designer outfit for every day of the year. You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all. The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.

A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission — to eat; to be sexual; to age; to wear overalls, a paste tiara, a Balenciaga gown, a second-hand opera cloak, or combat boots; to cover up or to go practically naked; to do whatever we choose in following — or ignoring — our own aesthetic. A woman wins when she feels that what each woman does with her own body — unforced, uncoerced — is her own business.

When many individual women exempt themselves from the economy, it will begin to dissolve. Institutions, some men, and some women, will continue to try to use women’s appearance against us. But we won’t bite.” – The Beauty Myth

Though there are undoubtedly many key statistics and facts and statements, I felt the above quote nicely summarized my most recent reading, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. What an integral piece of reading for women everywhere – and men, too, for that matter; an imperative look into our society and the world around us and how the beauty myth shapes pretty much every aspect of that, and what we must do to fight back against it.

Wolf examines several key pieces of life: work, culture, religion, sex, hunger and violence, and picks apart each one to discuss how the beauty myth is present in that specific topic.

From work, where women often have extremely high beauty expectations to live up to, or else face the possibility of losing their jobs, despite the fact that women have been proven to work harder than men; to the unpaid work women do in homes that often goes unrecognized or unappreciated. From sex discrimination in the workplace to the equation of beauty with money as a form of wealth or currency; to women who literally lost their jobs because their employers found them to be “not beautiful enough.” One topic that is discussed in this chapter: women in TV journalism, and how often beauty is scrutinized heavily in that profession. Think about it next time you sit down to the evening news.

In culture, which realistically encompasses EVERYTHING this book talks about — from how we view female heroines (or don’t) in society; women’s magazines and their portrayals of beauty and advertising, to dieting books, TV shows, porn, aging and censorship, and how all of these topics are tied together, intertwined with the beauty myth, to push women in one direction.

In religion, and how religion views women and ensnares the women’s movement, including its views on virginity and chastity; including subheaders on creation, and how the story of Adam and Eve has also been linked to the beauty myth, including how women’s bodies are almost always seen as inferior to men’s. This chapter also takes an interesting look at how some beauty manufacturers use the idea of original sin to push their products; as if being a woman is, inherently, a sin. It also discusses the relationship between sex and food and the terminology we use to describe both; as well as the fear of aging, being seen as impure, and the ideas of “rebirth” in both religion and the beauty industry, as well as the ideas of religious cults and how some of the same tactics used in those are used in the beauty myth. Yeah, that chapter really packs a couple punches.

In sex, where of course beauty is considered a HUGE factor. From how women’s sexual urges are punished by society, to beauty pornography, to violent sexual imagery popular in the 1970s — this chapter covers a lot. “The myth wants to discourage women from seeing themselves unequivocally as sexually beautiful,” it reads. It discusses the asymmetry of our bodies and how women are told that this isn’t beautiful, while men aren’t told anything similar about their bodies. It touches on the suppression of female sexuality in the world, and the lasting effects of this. It also touches on the effects of the beauty myth on men and how it impacts their views of and relationships with women.

In hunger, which has major ties to beauty in some societies nowadays — particularly when it comes to things like eating disorders. I won’t repeat any of the statistics in Wolf’s book since those stats are likely outdated by now, but it’s a major crisis that so many of us just ignore. There is nothing wrong with female fat — except everything our society says and does to shame it.

Finally, in violence, particularly in the topic of cosmetic surgery and its dangers. Women suffer, undergo violent procedures, in order to be seen as “beautiful.” They risk their health, their lives, their well-being, for a chance to be seen as “beautiful.” But this chapter also discusses the general ideas of women and health, where often things like they are simply healthy and normal have, historically, been treated as what Wolf calls “grotesque abnormalities,” such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Of course, the chapter also talks about the profit of the cosmetic surgery industry in enforcing the beauty myth against women.

Honestly, this book should be required reading. There were so many moments when I had to stop, put down the book, and think “Wow. That… is so real.” As I’ve said, some of the statistics are a little dated, and I’d love to see a newer version of the book with discussions on things like Photoshop and the Internet — this book is from 2002, after all. It’s a heavy book and took me a while to get through, but it was a worthy read.

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