Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

1991, undated later edition, from William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Naomi Wolf
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women
Bought new for $21.95
Good condition hardcover, with slightly worn dustjacket

While Wolf makes some good points about the ways that the media and its allies the fashion and advertising industries use unrealistic "beauty" standards to take women's money and energy, while putting the women's health at risk (notably through anorexia and liposuction), this book is not nearly as good as its peer, Backlash.  (Interestingly, Wolf uses the term "backlash" almost exactly in Faludi's sense, although if I recall correctly, this book came out earlier in the year.)  Among the flaws:

1.  Lack of a true historical sense.  While Wolf (like Faludi) draws parallels to the Victorian period at times, I would've appreciated an acknowledgement of, for instance, the health-threatening "beauty" practices of the Elizabethan period.  Even when Wolf talks about the 20th century, she sometimes seems to see the problem as starting only around 1973.  She should be aware, for example, of the 1950s' distorted images.  (And, as Vidal's Hollywood reminds us, plastic surgery was not unknown among the rich and/or famous of the 1920s.)

2.  Lack of a true (pop-)culture sense, as seen in the chapter "culture."  While I suppose you could argue that Janet is "plain" on Three's Company, no one's going to say that about Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island.  What the pairs represent is actually girl-next-door brunette vs. glamorous blonde/redhead.  That her Riverdale pair is Veronica (glamorous brunette) and Ethel (plain brunette) is revealing, since the standard pair is Veronica and Betty.  And even her literary examples are off.  "Nun-like" Dorothea Casaubon in Middlemarch is just as beautiful as Rosamond Vincy.  Jane Fairfax is not "vapid," just simply more reserved than Emma Woodhouse.  And while I suppose you could say that it's "fashionable, soulless Isabella Thorpe against Catherine Morland" in Northanger Abbey (although note, the girls are not actually in competition), I'm baffled as to who the "manipulative, 'remarkably pretty' Isabella Crawford" is that "self-effacing Fanny Price" must deal with in Mansfield Park.  If Wolf means Mary Crawford, I must point out that both Bertram sisters, especially Maria, are supposed to be more beautiful than Mary, and Henry Crawford comes to prefer Fanny to Maria.

3.  A melodramatic style that is sometimes inappropriate.  I can understand that when it comes to women being brainwashed into harming their own bodies, Wolf is upset.  But there's one passage where she makes a woman in heels and a short skirt sound like she's on the rack.  And there are other overwrought descriptions.

4.  Elitism and yuppie-ism.  The tragedy of anorexia is not that it strikes middle- to upper-class college women more than anyone else.  More women breaking the glass ceiling will only help all women if the successful women feel a sense of sisterhood with less fortunate women.  And so on.

There are times that this book is great, as when she talks about the pseudo-science and quasi-religion of "skin care rejuvenation."  I appreciate her calls for a third wave of feminism, which did in fact emerge at that time, thanks in part to her and Faludi, but also just to ordinary women getting both more pissed off and less discouraged.  Fourth-wavers should read this book, as they should read The Feminine Mystique to understand second-wavers, but bear in mind that we third-wavers had to struggle with not only sexism but the belief that the big battles had all been won and there were no new battles to be fought.  (I'm six years younger than Wolf, as opposed to nine years younger than Faludi.)


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  2. This week's Missing the Point Comment Award goes to....