Beauty Myth, The; Naomi Wolf; 1990; Vintage Canada; 291 pgs, notes, index, bibliography
This was a read of a different nature. I wanted to learn a little more about feminism and a friend recommended this and one other book. It is different for me because it views the world from a perspective that I might try to empathize with, but cannot experience. It is worth noting that the book is 30 years old now, and some things have changed. I also note that Ms Wolf is very "beautiful", or at least she was in 1990. How much beauty-bias she personally suffered is hard to say.
The book has six chapters: Work, Religion, Culture, Violence, Sex, and Hunger,
There are many examples in every chapter (too many at times) of the various burdens women must bear… some external and some internal. For example: the intro points out that the average American woman would rather loose 10-15 lbs than any other goal. That is really sad. It certainly has a strong external component to it. You can blame Twiggy et al for that, but surely part of this issue is internal.
She introduces the concept of the PBQ (Professional Beauty Qualification). She argues that the PBQ is a way to discriminate against women in a safe, litigation-proof way. The standards for on-air female personalities are quite different than for men. One woman lost a case where her employer said she was too, old, too unattractive, and not deferential enough to men. Yikes! The PBQ, Wolf argues, is the currency of womanhood.
Here is a shocking statement from the book: Young professional women spend up to 1/3 of their income on their appearance. Or to put it slightly cruder: Want to keep your job: get your boobs done.
Culture obviously has shaped women. Women's culture is driven by women's magazines and the advertisers who support them. The advertisers are constantly telling women how they should or could look, and assure them that if they buy their goop, all their woes will go away. In fact they create the woes first, and then fix them. And they deliberately promote competition between women. The author suggests that "adornment" is a huge part of female culture, and I am sure she is right. But I wonder if that aspect of female culture is not part of the problem. Putting such a heavy emphasis on adornment seems rather shallow to me, but I am a guy.
Women and weight is always an issue. Weight Watchers tells women "Always wear your makeup. Even to walk the dog. You never know whom you are going to meet." That says a lot. About appearance issues and weight. The author's Religion chapter focuses primarily on the cult aspects of beauty and make-up. She spends quite a bit of time focusing on the bullshit of skin creams that promise rejuvenation. One marketing line caught my eye: "A lipstick you can have a lasting relationship with." I wonder if it comes with batteries.
Cults are something I know a little about. And it is all (well, most of it) there. Chanting, purifications, confessions and other mind control techniques are on full display. If the woman is also hungry, that helps as it will impair her reasoning.
Sex will always be an issue. And men control the issue. The book cites several cases where women were raped or brutalized, only to have the legal system tut-tut them, or suggest it was all in good fun. Who can forget the Canadian judge who asked a female victim why she didn't just keep her knees together? Ms Wolf does not approve of pornography and she may have a point, but these are issues that can be resolved academically, which is my only real complaint about this book… It could have used more science to back up its conclusions.
There is no doubt that weight and conditions like bulimia and anorexia are major concerns for women. The author quotes a number of statistics on the subject. If one takes the worst numbers that have been put forward, then 1 in 10 college age women are anorexic and 5 more are bulimic. If the true figures are even close to that, that is very troubling indeed. The rail thin heroin-chic skinny look came in with Twiggie and has never left. Porn and women's magazines are part of the problem, to be sure. They both make people of both sexes feel that their bodies are not as good as they could be.
Cosmetic surgeries have gone through the roof. Joan Rivers had more and more done until the last one killed her. The author argues that this is a form of violence toward women, and it is hard to argue that she has a point. Doctors invade diseased bodies as a last resort. Cosmetic surgeons call healthy bodies sick and then invade them. The industry is huge and largely unregulated. Things may have changed in 30 years, but in 1990, doctors could not tell a patients the risks of cosmetic surgery because they did not know themselves.
I found the book over-long on examples, and short on analysis and statistics. But these are quibbles. I can say this: it is more complicated being a woman in our society than a man. We have a long way to go as a society to level the playing field. And women (and men) need to learn how to be happy with themselves and others.
I recently visited my sister-in-law and complemented her on her looks. I had caught her in a rare moment: au natural (no makeup). She thought I was ribbing her. That should not happen.
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Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.