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The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

April 2, 2010

It took me a while but I finished reading what must be one of the most powerful expose’s of beauty that has ever been written yesterday.  As I have gone about my business over the last year someone would always ask me what I thought of this book and I’ve had to say “Never read it” but after a bit of a slog, I now have.

Firstly I found this book quite hard to read in so much as it painted a picture of a world where the majority of  women were  institutionally enslaved by their femininity and at war with their bodies.  Having grown up with sisters and now being mother to daughters you would think that I agree whole heartedly with this premise but I find it hard to do so (naivety? Optimism or pig-headedness, you decide).  Anyway,  as I burrowed through this book with my torch on full-beam I found some pearls of wisdom amongst the darkness.

The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth was first published in 1991 and has since been re-printed with a forward by Wolf who looks at the ‘progress’ we have made in the beauty maze. If she thought that pornography,  music video’s and cosmetic surgery were bad then I would love to know what she thinks of our  post-2000 world.  Change yes but progress? Hardly.

The book takes us on a journey through the lives of women post the suffragist movement of the 1800’s and especially since being granted the right to vote in the 1930’s (America).  In a bid to control the growing political freedom that women had been granted a new ‘iron maiden’  (Wolf’s own phrase) was  developed – an iron maiden that cannot be shed at the end of each day.  The screws on women’s new freedom  were being tightened decade after decade  by the Beauty Myth which I guess in 2010 you could also call “Barbification”:

  • A beautiful woman doesn’t age.
  • A beautiful woman is passive, pliable and pose-able.
  • A beautiful woman doesn’t ‘suffer’ from women’s problems.
  • A beautiful woman is a play object.
  • A beautiful woman doesn’t need a brain.

Chapter after chapter presents the evidence to the witness-box and then cross-examines our experience of it. Our  work,  daily lives,  religion, sexuality and nutrition is controlled and re-inforced by our (societies) love of the barbie woman. The Stepford wife IS the ideal wife and even powerful women with voices are subject to this plastification:

  • How many times have you commented on the clothes that those female news readers are wearing?
  • How often do we read about the hairstyles of our top female pollies?
  • How frequently do you buy a magazine to see the ‘bikini bodies’ of some of our finest actors?

I am ashamed to say that I’ve done it and I am sure that I am not alone.  Maybe Naomi is right, maybe this phantom beauty is REAL and maybe we are all doomed to a life of botox and boob-jobs (and not because we WANT them but because we NEED them). 

Oh my, this is BAD.

That is scary and I don’t want to believe it but that won’t make it go away.

The best bit of the book for me was the last piece that looked at life “Beyond the Beauty Myth” and it is this that I am fascinated by.  The status-quo is a bit like a vortex that exerts some power around the edges (like a whirlpool) but just as long as we don’t  get too close we can stop ourselves from being sucked into it.  In order to do this we need to open our eyes and start to challenge the myth, to speak out and support our sisters and to show that it is OK to be a REAL woman:

  • Real women are passionate, feisty, competitive, loving, bold,  gentle, emotional and rational.
  • Real women’s bodies move, have texture and colour.
  • Real women do age and that is normal and beautiful.
  • Real women can make a real difference.

And so back to my experience as a woman in the world. I know lots of REAL women, I know a few that dip their toes into the beauty myth vortex and I know a couple that are swishing around in the thick of it all.  The phantom is alive because we feed it but that doesn’t mean that beauty is dead.

I know that the Beauty Myth isn’t a black-hole that spits you in and refuses to let you out but that it is a shallow yet powerful vortex that with love, acceptance and confidence any woman (and man) can overcome.   I find that empowering and I have my arm outstretched to help anyone that needs it.

This book shows us that the Beauty Myth waters crept up on us over time disguised as love, empowerment and freedom but with our arms outstretched, our eyes fully open and our resolve strong we can be pulled out of the vortex that is the beauty whirlpool.

I recommend reading it with your girlfriends.


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