Assessing ‘The Beauty Myth’: Strengths and Shortcomings of Wolf’s Approach to Femininity

Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth was the first book she wrote after graduating from Yale in 1984 and Oxford in 1987 as an English major and Rhodes scholar (“Naomi Wolf”). The book is a call to arms for women of all backgrounds with regard to feminism (whether they are seasoned feminists or simply interested; Wolf uses accessible language to convey her points), to open their eyes to the way their oppression manifests within a paradoxical social standard of “beauty”. Wolf writes from her own devastating perspective, as a young woman growing up the victim to anorexia and sexual assault in 1970’s San Francisco, as well as engaging with the work of other feminist scholars, landmark court cases, the world of modern advertising, etc. to bring to female and feminist audiences the manifesto of the “Iron Maiden” – the beautiful, the rigid, the silent woman; the physical embodiment of internal punishment. The Beauty Myth was well received among such audiences, earning the title of “international bestseller” after its first publication in 1991 (“Naomi Wolf”). While not without its flaws, the extensive coverage and critical analysis in The Beauty Myth succeeds in breaking new ground with regard to the demystification of incessantly toxic beauty standards in the contemporary Western world.

The Beauty Myth is divided into several chapters, each covering one aspect of a woman’s life which is afflicted by the myth itself; in chronological order: Work, Culture, Religion, Sex, Hunger, and Violence. Wolf demonstrates in each one of these categories (which are astonishingly interconnected) her furious thesis: that the beauty myth is a falsity – a malicious construct – that destroys the capacities and livelihoods of women. “Work” explores the many trials of the professional woman, as it pertains to sexual discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace; “Culture” addresses the ways in which a male-defined culture attempts to oppress women to the point of invisibility; “Religion” likens the “rituals” of the beauty myth to a church, whose authority presides over the lives of its followers and whose purpose is the fulfillment of some deep inner lack; “Sex” confronts the objectification of and violence done unto women in a pornographic age; “Hunger” discusses the violent self-destruction of women in response to the beauty myth’s insistence on a skinny body; and, lastly, “Violence” addresses the self-mutilation of women in response to the beauty myth’s insistence on women having large breasts, among other such particularities that may be open to correction by cosmetic surgery.

While the text does ultimately succeed in its purpose (again, to encourage women to recognize this tool of oppression and “make the beauty myth their own”), it also faces some weaknesses, which fall under the category of generalizing the female experience (8). In all fairness, Wolf does address this lack in the introduction of the second edition of The Beauty Myth; She writes: “Now there is much more pluralism in the myth; it is now, one can almost say, many beauty myths” (6). However, this does not seem like an admission of having left something to be desired so much as a defensive declaration of the newness of difference. Wolf does leave something to be desired; there had to have been differences in the experiences of queer women and women of color facing the myth. The word ‘lesbian’ only appears in the entire work twice, and both times it is used in reference to radical straight women being called lesbians by straight men in order to undermine their femininity (8, 36). The ultimate impact of this lack of representation is that it leaves us to wonder where queer people fit into this equation, especially as it pertains to the heterosexual dynamic of the male gaze against female submission – could their sexuality be, in some part, a rejection of the myth? It would certainly be worth exploring. The experiences of women of color are addressed (hardly), but not as a separate experiences. It is perhaps telling that in one of two mentions of women of color in the body of the book (not in the introduction), Wolf loops them in together with Caucasian women. She writes: “White women, together with black and Asian women, undergo…” (264). While it would be impossible for Wolf to address every single variation of the beauty myth to a reasonably elaborate extent, the lack of almost any representation does make the book appear somewhat dated.

This issue, however, is far outweighed by the strengths and nuances of Wolf’s writing. Wolf tells in her introduction to the second edition of The Beauty Myth: “… today you would be hard-pressed to find a twelve-year-old girl who is not all too familiar with the idea that ‘ideals’ are too tough on girls” (3), and it would not be implausible to imagine that this effect has been due in part to the 1991 publication The Beauty Myth, given the strengths of Wolf’s writing and its national success. Her prose is unforgettably potent. In the chapter entitled “Violence”, for example, she describes the experiences of a woman who has undergone cosmetic surgery, writing: “Once you have been cut into, no amount of good living can ever erase what you know about how easy, how accommodating death is” [italics mine] (257). The imagery here is nothing short of haunting; beyond acting as an account of the pains of cosmetic surgery, it states that the myth of female beauty has transformed the female world in such a way that to die would seem a most comfortable pastime. This is a perfect representation of Wolf’s writing. It is permeated with meaning and connection. The book is also littered with intriguing “Iron Maiden” imagery, using the German torture chamber as a motif in every chapter, representative of the “ideal woman”. In the chapter entitled “Sex”, for example, Wolf discusses the upsetting implications of normalizing – especially sexual – violence towards women in the worlds of advertising, television, and pornography (among others). She says: “

The purpose of the beauty myth of the 1980s was to people the sexual interior of men and women with violence, placing an elegantly abused iron maiden into the heart of everyone’s darkness, and blasting the fertile ground of children’s imaginations with visions so caustic as to render them sterile.” (141).

Wolf does not risk making understatements about the threat that the beauty myth poses. It is not ever only degrading to women in Wolf’s world – it is a tool of genocide, of intrapersonal death. She says herself in her section on female “Hunger”: “Nothing justifies comparison with the Holocaust; but when confronted with a vast number of emaciated bodies starved not by nature but by men, one must notice a certain resemblance” (207). Another strength of Wolf’s writing is her use of evidence. Her personal accounts only appear in the “Hunger” section of the evidential body, and because they are so limited, they are allowed the full and honest extent of their power. Wolf writes of experiencing anorexia amongst her peers:

“When I was told her strength had run out, I remembered one bright blue afternoon in autumn, when a group of students came out of a classroom, arguing, high on words. She dropped her books with a crash. Flinging back her shoulders… she turned in a slow pirouette, and leaped right up into the knot of the group. A boy caught her before she fell, and offered her to me, wriggling like a troublesome baby. I held her between my forearms without strain. She’d made it. She had escaped gravity. Her limbs were as light as hollow birch branches, the scrolls of their bark whole, but the marrow crumbled, the sap gone brittle. I folded her up easily, because there was nothing to her.” (207).

Wolf’s nonpersonal evidence is also elaborate and succinct. There is a line of evidence in Wolf’s “Work” section that shines for individuality: She creates a dialogue between the voice of the working woman and “the disembodied voice of legal counsel” wherein the two try to make the impossible decision of what she should wear as a professional woman in light of numerous contradictory Supreme Court decisions (38). It is excellently demonstrative of the impossibility of the beauty myth in the working world, and innovatively engaging.

The fundamental innovation of The Beauty Myth is that it does not undermine the suffering caused by the patriarchal construction of the myth itself. It is viciously honest, creating an image of torment in the interconnected spheres of an average woman’s life. It may at times appear outdated or non-inclusive, but the clearly impactful message of The Beauty Myth ultimately succeeds in inspiring progress with regard to feminine beauty standards.