December 2004

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Hate Me Because I'm a Bitch, Not Because I'm Beautiful

There comes a point for every feminist when she must decide between what is feminine and what goes against her morals. For some it may be motherhood, for others it may be career choice, and for others it may simply be the decision to put on makeup in the morning. Beauty is an unfortunate and unfair standard by which all women are measured -- a standard that will continue to be in place no matter how hard we fight to rid ourselves of it. Whether it’s how thin we are, how large our breasts are, or how many sexual encounters we can claim, the perception of beauty, and the pursuit of it, remains a divisive factor amongst our gender. What can change, though, is how we choose to respond to it. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf examines the extent to which beauty has affected women’s struggle for equality and how it’s come in play in our personal lives and in greater society. Wolf’s interest in the subject is personal, as it will be for any woman, and is thickened with historical reports and statistics that support her points. Though a bit dense, The Beauty Myth is a well-researched examination of feminine aesthetic standards and, regardless of the reader’s concurrence with Wolf’s argument, is a work worthy of consideration.

Wolf’s central argument is that there is no historical or biological justification for the existence of the beauty myth, a term coined by her to encompass all that compels American society to value women’s appearances over anything else they may possess. She postulates that the beauty myth was born after the second wave of feminism came to fruition with The Feminine Mystique. Since women were no longer limited to the roles of wife and mother, something else was needed to keep them in their places. According to the myth, beauty “objectively and universally exists,” and is something women must want in order to be desired by men. Though based on the idea that sexually attractive women are more reproductively fit and are, thus, more beneficial to society, the myth affects everything from power relations to health standards, robbing women of their ability to live and love their own femininity.

The myth pits beauty, sexuality, intelligence, and power against each other, making it impossible for women to possess all of these things simultaneously. Or, more accurately, if a woman is in possession of a preconceived standard of beauty, she is automatically believed to be in possession of these other traits. Take, for example, the common movie scene in which the intelligent, but plain looking heroine has a makeover, dying her brown hair blonde, replacing glasses with contact lenses, and trading in her sneakers for stiletto heels. She ditches her dorky friends, boys begin to notice her, and she finally lands that newspaper column she’s been coveting. It seems that her life is finally in order. Of course, in the end she finds out that the boy was cheating on her, she slacks off on the dream job and gets fired, and life reaches out and slaps her in the face, forcing her to realize that there’s more to life than Louis Vitton and men with thick wallets. Generic beauty may have given the heroine power and attention for a period of time, but because, as the myth claims, the relationship between beauty and power, or sexuality and intelligence, is dichotomous and polarized, she cannot have all of these things. Simply put, women are either pretty and flighty or intelligent and plain and popular culture’s expression of beauty supports this.

Wolf chastises women’s magazines for doing very little to alleviate the strength of the myth, despite their being “one of the most powerful agents for changing women’s roles.” Her disappointment with this female-targeted medium is not surprising, given the prevalence of emaciated models, airbrushed faces, and ads for makeup companies gracing their pages -– these publications serve to perpetuate the myth rather than serve the women trying to break free from it. However, it is because these magazines represent female mass culture that the messages they convey are so powerful: “What is seldom acknowledged is that they have popularized feminist ideas more widely than any other medium,” Wolf writes. “It was through these glossies that issues from the women’s movement swept out from the barricades and down from academic ivory towers to blow into the lives of working-class women, rural women, women without higher education.” Because the magazines are so prevalent among all types of women, they are able to relay the standards of beauty even more successfully than television and film.

And this is true. It is through these visual media that we learn what a “proper” height/weight ratio may be, even if we end up harming our bodies to obtain it. We learn that filling out that C-cup will make us more confident. We learn that we must not have scars or stretch marks and our genitals must look like those we see in magazine photos, even when we love our men not in spite of their grey hair, their smile lines, and their imperfect bodies, but because of them. Wolf is correct in declaring that women get the shaft because of beauty standards, that we are our bodies and that we are seen as women first and human beings second. However, it’s difficult to tell where the beauty myth ends and where personal enjoyment in beauty products begins. Is it wrong to use mascara and lip gloss? Is it wrong to wear clothes that accent one’s breasts? Is it wrong to lose weight to feel better about oneself? Who’s to say that these are things we do not because we enjoy them, but because we’ve been indoctrinated into some “cult,” as Wolf is fond of calling followers of the beauty myth? Many of Wolf’s claims are similarly militant and she resorts to using a memoir style of writing to describe her own battles with eating disorders, hoping to endear herself to her audience. Instead, the tone serves to turn off the reader who isn’t so sure she’s done anything wrong.

If the myth is as pervasive as Wolf claims it to be, it seems impossible to partake in any sort of beauty ritual without questioning the intentions. Even moisturizers with wrinkle-preventing ingredients she likens to “holy oils,” a point at which she reads so much into the myth that she claims the pursuit of beauty to be a religion in its own right. It would be nice to believe that we’ve come far enough to realize that with or without these beauty conventions, we’re still women who want to feel good about ourselves. Whether or not Hollywood or Cosmopolitan present a completely realistic vision of femininity, we should have faith that our own pleasures in beauty will prevail. When Wolf speaks so combatively against any notion of enhanced beauty, when she stretches her rants and anecdotes and claims beyond reason, she is only detrimental to her own strength. And this is unfortunate because behind all of this, Wolf has shed light on an important feminist issue. The worst part of the myth is that it sets women in opposition to each other. It creates and every-woman-for-herself battle that goes against the very nature of the feminist movement. We must be humans first and we must believe that what is good for one woman is good for all women; we must separate sexuality, femininity, intelligence, beauty, and power from each other and value them in their own rights. The beauty myth is still in full force -- the persistence of “extreme” makeover shows will attest to that –- and will continue to be as long as women allow it. Will it ever be possible to appreciate one’s own beauty while appreciating every other woman’s individual beauty? That’s the pivotal question posed in Wolf’s Beauty Myth and it’s a question we still have yet to answer.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Anchor Books
ISBN: 0385423977
291 pages