Category: Beauty & Body Image

Body Projects Conference University of York (09/03/13)

Conference Summary

At the beginning of March 2013 I attended my second academic conference. It was a postgraduate conference entitled ‘Body Projects’ and when I first saw the Call for Papers I thought it seemed really interesting as some of the themes related to my own research interests.

The conIMG_0609[1]ference was at the University of York so I set off to get the train at about 6am. When I arrived the university staff and students were really welcoming and I spent some time looking through the conference program before the first session began.

During the morning sessions, there was a focus on female bodybuilding and how it can conflict with traditional notions of femininity and heteronormativity. Dr Gemma Commane gave a great talk based on Jodie Marsh and how Jodie’s status as a glamour model juxtaposes her choice to modify her body with tattoos and piercings and her choice to pursue a career in female bodybuilding. Really interesting!

A highlight of the day came from Tanita Maxwell and Sarah Peat, postgraduate students at the University of Aberdeen. Their paper looked at which is an alt-porn website set up by women with the aim of challenging popular representations of beauty and sexuality. The Suicide Girls claim that they are not Baywatch girls and they are not Playboy girls, however, as Maxwell & Peat argue, the website does not really serve to challenge the existing order, in fact, over time the images of Suicide Girls have become increasingly ‘mainstream’ with the exception of tattoos and piercings. Maxwell & Peat also argue that a large majority of the images are of thin, white woman and when women are not white, for example, if they are Asian, they are often labelled ‘exotic’ by the site. Another interesting point about this talk is that it brought up issues surrounding the ownership of images on the website which I assume to be an important factor of agency for the girls involved.

IMG_0621[1]A separate point which came up during the day was the notion that conforming to popular forms of femininity can be interpreted as a kind of performative labour and entrepreneurship by women who will also often treat the body as a site of continual improvement. In keeping with this argument it was interesting to hear some of the speakers relate conformity to the experience of trans women whose attempts to fit in are often based on binary ideas and stereotypical representations of gender.

Perceptions of one’s own body was also a recurrent theme within the conference and a particularly interesting study by Dr Beth Bell of Northumbria University really inspired me. Beth’s presentation/paper was entitled “The Thin but not that thin Body Ideal: A Qualitative Glimpse into Adolescent Girls’ Personal Body and Beauty Ideals”. In the study participants were asked just one question- to describe what the perfect body is to them. It was really insightful to discover that the majority of girls had very specific ideas about what the perfect body looks like with “curvy but not fat” and “a small waist but not too thin” being the kind of answers that were given. Some of the girls rejected the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect body and others described a body drastically different to their own.

Other talks on the day included an insight into the Kickboxing culture of Dutch-Moroccan girls and how they avoid training hard, instead using kickboxing training as a symbol of status and a means of fitting in with their peers.

Overall the conference was exciting and very interesting! Hearing from the speakers about their wide range of research has definitely helped me to see where my own research ideas and aims fit within the existing literature, not just in relation to my own topic but the topics which surround it.

IMG_0634[1]When I got home I was really pleased with my daytrip and how well it went. I even managed to see some of the sites of York while I was there but it was rainy and miserable as you can see from my photo!

My next post will be a summary of a conference I attended this week at the University of Chester.

Book Summary: Walter, N. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.

This book summary is part 3/3 and focuses on a contemporary feminist text written by Natasha Walter a British journalist, author and feminist.

Walter, N. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Virago Press, London.

Natasha_Walter_-_CR_Bohdan_CapNatasha Walter is a well known feminist and the author of The New Feminism (1998). In this text, Walter focused on what she believed to be the most worthy cause for contemporary feminism: economic and political equality. Walter (1998) claimed that women should not worry about objectification or sexism because these kinds of issues will fix themselves when women achieve equality in other areas. However, in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010), Walter admits to having a massive change of heart and executes a successful U-turn arguing that sexual objectification of women is something to worry about and that if anything, it is becoming more, not less of a problem.

6a00d83451bcff69e201310f267332970c-300wiWalter’s (2010) main stance throughout Living Dolls is that there is a hyper-sexualisation of mass culture occurring across Western society. Accompanied by the proliferation of sexually objectifying images found in mass media, women now face an added pressure in order to fit the mould of femininity which is offered. Not only is beauty and slimness a must but increasingly so, sexiness is falling into the definition of what it means to be a woman.

Walter (2010) claims that female sexuality is often celebrated throughout the media but it is narrowly defined and fails to represent reality. Adopting the ethos of the sex and glamour industries, sex is framed as something a woman should perform; therefore women should continuously strive to improve in terms of sexual allure and their ability to please.

“The image of female perfection to which women are encouraged to aspire, has become more and more defined by sexual allure” p3.

In the first few chapters of the book Walter (2010) addresses the gender stereotyping of products and toys marketed at young people discussing the usual in regards to pink for girls and blue for boys. Then Walter (2010) moves on to argue that women are encouraged to look like dolls. Referring to the Girls Aloud dolls, the author argues that they are eerily identical to the real thing; both are perfectly airbrushed with big hair, smooth skin and trim bodies. For Walter (2010), they are interchangeable consumer objects and act as models for the next generation.

girls-aloud-pic-pa-841252739The book moves on to glamour modelling and lads magazines with the author able to offer an insight into the working of the glamour industry. Walter’s (2010) recall of the ‘Babes on a Bed’ contest she attended (where the girls compete to win a Nuts photoshoot) and her interviews with glamour girls are what make this book interesting and different. Walter (2010) successfully combines her evaluation of the hyper-sexualised culture she sees around her with the insider knowledge and words of women who work within the sex and glamour industries. In a non-judgemental manner she gives them a voice in her book. However, a critique of Walter (2010) is that whilst she does not neglect the agency and autonomy of the girls, she does not draw too much attention to it either. Some of the girls are happy doing what they do and some of them are not which is probably a fair analysis, but I do feel that this approach leaves the question open as to whether or not their work is truly empowering for women and this is something I would like to have read more about within the text.

Nuts UK September 11In reference to the book’s subtitle ‘the Return of Sexism’ Walter (2010) argues that the current feminist discourse surrounding female sexuality is more damaging than it is liberating as it merely encourages women to accept a sexist and sexual cultural landscape which largely caters to the fulfilment of male fantasies, ignoring genuine expressions of female sexuality and pleasure. Almost hijacking the rhetoric of choice and freedom, third wave feminism has taken the original feminist message and distorted it so that it fits the mould offered to women by the patriarchal system we live in. For Walter (2010) it is problematic to the point where women are almost taking part in their continual subordination.

Walter (2010) believes that the feminist rhetoric of choice and empowerment is now so deeply submerged within our hyper-sexualised culture that it can no longer represent true choice or real sexual liberation. The representations of female sexuality which we see most often are too tightly confined within the limited model of femininity continuously thrust upon us.

Walter (2010) really reminds me of Ariel Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture, which is a good thing. In fact, I think it goes a step further than Levy (2005) as Walter’s interview data makes her observations stronger than Levy’s (2005) which lack any real, empirical evidence.

The main criticism I have of the book is that it fails to address aspects of race or class in any great detail. Walter (2010) does briefly touch on class in relation to the career aspirations of young women. Referencing an interview with Dave Read, the Director of Neon Management, she claims that middle class parents do not have the same concerns regarding their daughters and the possibility that they might want to work in the sex or glamour industry. This is an interesting topic in its own right and it would have been beneficial to Walter’s work if she had expanded on some of the points made.

Despite some criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed this text, from beginning to end. I felt like it said everything I want to include in my own work. Walter (2010) explores different aspects of society and focusing on how sexual images are becoming increasingly dominant in mass culture, argues that sexism still exists and calls for feminists to recognise the new ways in which it works. This book builds on Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture and adds to the current debate surrounding sexualisation and women.

IMG_0268If you are interested in reading more of my book summaries please visit my previous posts in which I have written about feminist texts by Betty Friedan (1963) and Ariel Levy (2005).

Book Summary: Levy, A. (2005). Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

This post is part 2/3 and follows on from last week’s summary of Betty Friedan’s classic 1963 feminist text, The Feminine Mystique.

Unfortunately due to having started a new job, I am now working 12 hour days which has left me with no time and no energy! Therefore the three planned ‘book reviews’ are turning more into ‘book summaries’ and although they lack any real critical reflection I hope that they will provide people with a general overview of the books considered.

Levy, A. (2005). Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Simon & Schulster, London.

ariel levyAriel Levy is a contributing editor at The New Yorker and was fairly unknown before breaking out in 2005 with one of the latest feminist texts to have mass appeal. The book looks at what Levy claims is ‘the rise of raunch culture’ and detailing the cultural context in which this is occurring, the author points the finger of blame in the direction of what she calls ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’ (FCP).

According to Levy (2005) FCPs are women who make sex objects of themselves and other women and they are everywhere. Levy illustrates her theory with an array of testimonies and examples including the reality television programme ‘Girls Gone Wild’, the adoption of the Playboy brand logo by young girls, the popularity of celebrity sex tapes and the increase in cosmetic surgery procedures, in particular, breast implants and labiaplasty.

“We don’t even think about it anymore, we just expect to see women flashing and stripping and groaning everywhere we look”

The main point made throughout the text is that contemporary American culture is saturated with images of cartoonish Jessica Rabbit style representations of femininity- breast implants, collagen lips and stripper heels. Levy (2005) claims that this image is now so pervasive that it has become embedded in the subconsciousness of women to the point where they will imitate what they see to win approval from the opposite sex.

The author holds porn and glamour industries responsible for this uniform, ubiquitous representation of femininity, arguing that it creates a social context in which women are expected to be sexy at all times whilst remaining ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ in the eyes of the potential partners.

Levy (2005) contends that girls and young women feel pressured into conforming to the characteristics of a FCP, however, she fails to question whether their actions are in fact a true expression of their agency and sexuality. In reference to FCPs, Levy often describes a one-dimensional woman whose only way of expressing her personality is by “spinning around a pole”. I could almost taste her disapproval.

“Sex is one of the most interesting things we as human beings have to play with, and we’ve reduced it to polyester underpants and implants”

Levy (2005) argues that the rise of raunch culture has resulted in American women embracing a false model of sexuality. They do this by imitating those whose job it is to fake lust and ecstasy- porn stars. She believes that this threatens the liberation of female sexuality as opposed to being the epitome of it as some feminists suggest.

In a 2008 radio interview, Levy said that she “doesn’t buy into exhibitionism as a form of empowerment” and whilst I tend to mostly agree, I recognise that there are women out there who do feel empowered and I would like to have heard more about these women in the book.

books_bgI really enjoyed Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. I am not a big reader (yet) but I found the text really accessible. Being a teenager in the late 90s/early 2000s I was familiar with a lot of the media references Levy made, I remember when boob jobs blew up (no pun intended) and I understand where Levy is coming from when she talks about the bombardment of sexualised images coming out of American culture. I got through the book very quickly and would recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about debates surrounding contemporary feminism.

I will post the next book summary in a week or so, time permitting. It will focus on Natasha Walter’s Living Doll: The Return of Sexism.

Book Summary: Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique.

This short book summary will be the first of three which collectively focus on a mix of contemporary and classic feminist texts. I hope to provide people with a general overview of each book, the author and the social context in which the book was written.

Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. Penguin, London.

femininemystique1Let me begin by expressing how much I enjoyed reading this book. It was given to me as a gift when I left my voluntary job and I began reading it a couple of weeks before Christmas . I read the majority of it whilst in work, sometimes before I started if I happened to get in early, but mostly on my breaktimes. I had heard so much about the book being great but not a lot about the actual content or main arguments made within the book, however, when I started to read it and place it within the social context of post-war America during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the magnetism of the book drew me in and I began to realise what others had spoke about in reference to The Feminine Mystique (1963). I suppose it was a kind of realisation that yes, most women are unhappy when placed in the mould of housewife and mother alone and yes, in their hearts they strive for more, but do they go out and get this ‘more’ which they long for? Friedan (1963) informs us that no they don’t, not really, and if they do, it most often stops short of the point of satisfaction.

Reading words which were written at a time when they were rarely spoken aloud, for me, gave the book a controversial edge. As an artefact belonging to the early phase of second wave feminism, Friedan’s (1963) work sets out to reveal and share details of ‘the problem that has no name’- the deliberate manipulation of women by advertising agencies, editorial boards, journalists, educators, Freudian psychoanalysts and others alike, to believe in a false belief system. This belief system tells women that they must fit the mould or have their femininity stripped of them, for to be a housewife and mother is the greatest achievement a woman can obtain and if she fails, she fails as a woman.

OB-VK647_1122fa_D_20121120131535Friedan (1963) argues that this false belief system keeps women trapped in a state of perpetual infancy wherein they are never allowed to grow and realise their own worth and true potential. As I read the book, I felt myself agreeing with a lot of the things she wrote about this. When women live in a society in which domescity is a synomyn for femininity, all other possibilities of womanhood are erased. Domesticity therefore acts as a mass distraction, keeping women from becoming full women- women who know their own femininity, enjoy their sexuality and who do not feel threatened by education, employment or stepping out of their mother’s shoes.

Friedan (1963) explains that during the post-war years, men returned from war and it was no longer necessary for women to be employed, seek education or do anything other than stay at home looking after the house and children. Women were told that they had a choice about what to do with their lives. If they really wanted to they could seek education or a career, but at a time when resisting conformity surmounted to failure as a woman, how could they choose freely?

Betty Friedan published the words that thousands of women had uttered to themselves whilst wading in discontent. Friedan (1963) showed the female population that they could do more than what was expected of them. They could break the mould into a thousand pieces if they were determined enough. Framing her words with excerpts from some of the 200 open ended questionnaires she conducted with her former college classmates, Friedan’s (1963) work was pioneering and daring. Many claim that it planted the seed of second wave feminism by highlighting the social and political stagnation experienced by women across America and having sparked the consciousness of women all over the world, many began to embrace feminism and social activism as a means to achieving equality.

It has now been 50 years since The Feminine Mystique (1963) was first published and the impact the book had at its time remains unparalled. In the decades preceding The Feminine Mystique (1963)the problem with no name’ has gradually drifted away from the realm of domesticity to focus on women’s appearance; their beauty or lack there of. The false belief system Friedan wrote about, to me, is very similar to Naomi Wolf’s description of ‘the beauty myth’. The Beauty Myth (1991) acts as an updated version, a contemporary analysis regarding the new mould women are expected to fit. Therefore this problem; this weight holding women down like an anchor tied around our increasingly thin waists, still exists, the mould has merely changed shape.

As one of the most influential leaders of second wave feminism, Betty Friedan helped to found the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Friedan continued to teach and write about women’s inequality, consistently voicing her concerns, until she died of congestive heart failure in 2006 at the age of 85.


I will be posting the next book summary within a week so please check back or follow my blog if you are interested. It will focus on Ariel Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture.

Feminist Must-Reads Part 2

In December I set myself the goal of reading three popular feminist texts in one month. As someone who doesn’t read a lot and who reads quite slow at times, I thought the deadline suited me, however, I ended up surprising myself by finishing all three books quite quickly. The books I decided to read were: The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005) by Ariel Levy and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010) by Natasha Walter.
ImageHaving now read these popular feminist texts I plan to produce 3 short book reviews. I will upload the book reviews every Friday for the next 3 weeks so please check back or follow my blog if you are interested!

Female Interpretations of Sexual Content in the Music Videos of Popular Female Artists

Undergraduate Dissertation Introduction

Here is my undergraduate dissertation ‘Introduction’. It is a bit dodgy in areas but I hope that this will provide an example and help those who are undertaking research in a similar area.


The debate surrounding the effects of sexual media has recently been reinvigorated with children and women’s charities, journalists and the current British and Australian governments, having all made attempts to address and tackle the sexual behaviours and attitudes expressed by female artists in their music videos and live performances. This renewed interest has mainly emerged due to the sexually provocative nature of current female artists such as Rihanna, whose notoriously raunchy performances frequently attract the attention of media critics, and Lady Gaga who has a reputation for wearing outrageous ensembles, often leaving very little to the imagination.

With a large majority of music being centred around relationships, romance and love, sex has always been a popular accompaniment to musical performance, lyrics and most recently, music videos. Early 20th century jazz and blues was recognised as exhibiting a certain level of sexual intensity with the gyrating crotch of Elvis, Little Richard and other rock and roll stars during the 1950s and 60s causing great controversy at the time (Arnett, 2002). Elvis was actually quoted in the 1970s as saying “Man, I was tame compared to what they do now. Are you kidding? I didn’t do anything but just jiggle” This quote emphasizes the percieved increase in the sexual nature of music from Elvis’ heyday in the 1950s through to the early 1970s.

During the 1980s and 1990s, sexual content had begun to increasingly permeate popular music (Roberts & Christenson, 1998) and can be seen and heard in the music lyrics and videos of female artists who enjoyed stardom at the time, most notabley Madonna, who in 1992 released the album Erotica along with a coffee table book entitled Sex which featured explicit photographs of the singer. Much tamer but still offering music fans scenes of a sexual nature, Britney Spears and Christina Aquilera have contributed to the array of provocative music videos with Christina’s Dirty video and Britney’s I’m a Slave for you consequently causing their own controversies. More recently during the 2000s and up to the present day, videos from artists such as the Pussycat Dolls, Shakira, Ciara, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have all continued the trend (Jhally, 2007).

The majority of research focusing on sexual content of music videos can be divided into three categories: content analyses, effects research and audience interpretations. This dissertation falls into the third and least developed field of research by exploring female audience interpretations of sexual content in female music videos.

As a major source of information for young people and adolescents, the mass media is believed to play a crucial role in their sexual socialisation (Harris & Scott, 2002). The presence of sexual content in music video is so pervasive within popular music that it has now reached the point where it is highly predictable for sexual imagery to accompany the music videos of popular female artists, even when the lyrics do not match the imagery (Roberts & Christenson, 1998). For example, a recent music video by British pop artist Pixie Lott shows the singer in a variety of sexual poses despite the song having nothing to do with sex. This raises serious concerns regarding the effects sexual content may have on viewers, especially young people, who are a significant concern due to the amount of time they spend listening to music and watching music videos (Arnett, 2002).

Supporting the argument that sex is becoming an increasingly pervasive part of mass culture, this dissertation aims to fill a void within existing research whereby it fails to adequately address the interpretations, perceptions and attitudes of young women in relation to the sexual content of music videos.

The main aim of the research is to utilise the focus group technique in order to discover what young women think about music videos and their sexual content. Participants were selected through snowball sampling and are young women aged 18-25. Questions focus on the areas of body image, sexual objectification, self-objectification and sexualisation of young people. The aim is to discover how the participants interpret what they see, how it makes them feel about their body image, their relationships with men, sexual objectification and whether or not they think sexual music videos by female artists impact young girls in a detrimental way.

‘Living Doll’ Vs Real Woman

This is a great image which highlights the fact that not all men desire a ‘living doll’, which in this scenario is someone who does the washing in her underwear, looking perfect in every way. In this image you will see that somebody has written around the model, drawn clothes on her and have even given her a pair of glasses to complete the juxtaposed look!

“I like to see a girl in the study, proof-reading her just completed astrophysics thesis while sipping Earl-Grey tea in her tweed sweater and modest, conservative plaid pencil skirt.”

Book Review: Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth.

I produced this book review during my final year at university where I studied Sociology. I submitted this piece of work for a module called ‘Body Politics’ and I got a mark of 75% – one of my highest. I hope this helps people who would like to find out more about the book.

Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women

This book review will focus on The Beauty Myth (1991) by Naomi Wolf and will assess how applicable the text is over two decades on, exploring how it fits and jars with contemporary feminist debates such as the sexual objectification of women (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997, Papadopolous, 2009) and wider debates regarding consumer capitalism and the sexualisation of mass culture.
Naomi Wolf is an author and social critic born in San Francisco, California in 1962 and was raised by her well educated, liberal parents. Having grown up in the 1960s and 70s, Wolf experienced what she perceived to be the failures of second-wave feminism. Wolf attended Yale University graduating with an English Literature degree and later pursued graduate work at Oxford University. After a short period of time in England, she returned to the U.S. to focus on feminist issues. The Beauty Myth (1991) was Wolf’s first publication and distinguished her status as one of the most prominent and visible American feminists of the early 1990s (Schoemaker, 2004). The book’s aim is to challenge dominant explanations regarding women’s preoccupation with beauty by emphasizing the role played by patriarchal structures and mediums of mass culture.
I chose The Beauty Myth (1991) as the subject of this book review as after reading a few pages I felt that I could easily relate to the subject matter which appealed to me because of my own issues with body image and beauty. I hoped that the text would explain some of the truths behind the manipulation of ‘beauty’ which is now so narrowly defined that in realistic terms, it excludes the mass majority of women across the globe.
Wolf (1991) addresses the different dimensions of social life such as work, sex and violence in relation to beauty, drawing on the feminist issues of the late 1980s and early 90s whilst highlighting the often unrecognised limitations accompanying the earlier women’s movement. Wolf (1991) argues that as women’s power and equality has grown stronger in terms of rights, employment and independence, women’s concerns have risen in other, more personal aspects of their lives, particularly in relation to how they feel about their appearance.
Wolf (1991) critiques the role of advertising corporations and other media institutions in upholding ‘the beauty myth’, accusing them of collectively promoting, in American and British mass culture, just one type of woman- she who is beautiful in face and body as defined by their terms. The same popular images of beauty are circulated repeatedly to undermine how women value themselves. This concept of beauty, unobtainable for most, is a misrepresentation of women and what Wolf (1991) refers to in her book title; it is a ‘beauty myth’. For Wolf (1991) ‘the beauty myth’ acts as a political weapon designed to act as a detrimental force against women’s advancement.
The Beauty Myth (1991) was published at a time when women’s success was steadily rising in a variety of arenas such as the pursuit of equal rights and positions of employment. However, at the same time, the appeal of cosmetic surgery was quickly popularized in conjunction with mass culture’s emphasis on youth and the perfect body and the effects of pornography were beginning to grip the sexual confidence of a generation of girls who were better educated, increasingly successful and supposedly more ‘free’ than ever before (Wolf, 1991). At a time when feminism had seemingly waned, with The Beauty Myth (1991), Wolf set out to address the imbalance of female power by exploring the reasons behind women’s subordinate position and their associated affliction with beauty.
In the early 1990s a new generation of feminists were beginning to learn about and evaluate for themselves the achievements and failures of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s (Orr, 1997). Websites began to emerge where women would build online communities, and activist networks. Examples include ‘Riot Grrrl’ and the online women’s magazine ‘Ms’. Modern day versions of feminist activism can be seen in the campaigns of organisations such as ‘Pink Stinks’ who fight for an end to gender stereotyping, and ‘The F Word’ which is an online magazine offering women the opportunity to share their opinions on contemporary feminist issues. This communicative characteristic of third-wave feminism expands the scope for unity amongst a diverse range of women by providing a medium for communication (ibid). Key texts including Wolf (1991) and Rebecca Walker’s “To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism” (1995), had begun to address the shortcomings of the women’s movement and hoped to build momentum for a third-wave feminism by addressing newly emerging themes such as women’s body dissatisfaction, cosmetic surgery, sexual objectification and eating disorders among young women. The Beauty Myth (1991) became popular around the world and Wolf (1991) became the media’s main source for feminist comment making her a visible and prominent figure-head of third-wave feminism (Schoemaker, 2004).
However, Wolf is certainly not popular with everybody; The Beauty Myth (1991) received a significant amount of critical attention in both the U.S. and Britain, with the majority of criticism for her work being centred on the factual and statistical errors which are mostly found in her discussion concerning eating disorders. A study by Schoemaker (2004) compared Wolf’s statistics on eating disorders found in the ‘hunger’ chapter of The Beauty Myth (1991) with “objective and accurate statistics” p99. Results found that 18 out of 23 statistics were inaccurate and over-exaggerated. For example, Wolf’s claim that each year there are 1 million new anorexia and bulimia patients in the U.S. was increased tenfold, with the real figure being closer to 95,000. Schoemaker’s (2004) evidence showed that “on average, an anorexia statistic in any edition of The Beauty Myth should be divided by eight to get near to the real statistic” p100.
Wolf (1991) also has a tendency to make sweeping generalisations with regards to how women feel about themselves, sex, men and the pursuit of beauty. Concentrating solely on Caucasian women from the U.S. and across Europe, Wolf (1991) neglects ‘race’ and cultural factors, failing to detail the possible differences in how women from different parts of the world may think and feel about feminist issues. Wolf (1991) also shows little respect for the role agency plays in a female’s life or the fact that some women may enjoy beautifying themselves, attracting the attention of males and possibly even exploiting this ability to their own advantage.
Feminist pioneer Betty Friedan described Wolf’s (1991) book as “obsolete rehash” misrepresenting “the relationship between femininity and beauty” and failing to address the political obstacles in Women’s path (Mitchell & Haribson, 1991:36). Other critics have attacked Wolf (1991) for expressing her concepts too simplistically with no real backbone or remedy for what is detailed within the book (Orr, 1997).
In Wolf’s preceding publication Fire with Fire (1994), the concept of “power feminism”p38, is developed. In this book Wolf (1994) encourages women to become more political, to take control of their lives and to stop viewing themselves and each other as victims of male dominance. Once again Wolf (1991) faced much criticism for her ideas, but this time accusations revolved around her having made a complete reversal on the concepts expressed in her first book.
Wolf’s main argument within The Beauty Myth (1991) is that throughout different periods of history, women’s emancipation has been delayed due to the conveniently timed development of ideologies relating to beauty and body image. Wolf claims that these beauty ideals are socially constructed and examines the role and impact of this construction in relation to women’s lived experiences. Women’s coerced pursuit to maintain a certain standard of beauty is seen as a form of social control which has replaced previous ideologies such as the ‘perfect housewife’ which was famously critiqued by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963). According to Friedan (1963), women’s magazines and increasingly powerful advertising corporations during the 1950s, played a key role in manipulating women’s “lack of identity…and purpose…into dollars”.
Wolf (1991) updates this argument in relation to the hold ‘the beauty myth’ has over women in contemporary society claiming that the promotion of beauty products has replaced that of household products with modern magazines focusing on “beautywork rather than housework” p66. Wolf (1991) argues that chipping away at women’s self-confidence aids consumer capitalism by encouraging women to purchase a variety of supposed ‘remedies’ for things to specifically improve their appearance and desirability for the attention of men.
Many of the themes discussed within The Beauty Myth (1991) relating to how women experience sex, relationships, pornography and cultural capitalism in relation to the pursuit of beauty, remain particularly relevant as they continue to be dominant themes within contemporary society.
Wolf (1991) likens women’s continuous struggle to fit today’s narrow, force-fed definition of beauty as similar to the confinements of the medieval torture instrument the iron maiden, which is used throughout the book as a metaphor to describe women’s entrapment by ‘the beauty myth’. To support this argument, Wolf (1991) explores the different areas of social life. Within her chapter on sex, Wolf (1991) argues that images of women in advertising, television, magazines and pornography, all adhering to ‘the beauty myth’, exist to undermine women’s sense of sexual self-worth by pairing women’s sex appeal and satisfaction with specific beauty standards.
In the 1980s Andrea Dworkin presented a feminist discussion of pornography in her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Wolf (1991) reworks parts of Dworkin’s argument claiming that the presence of sexualised images of women in mass culture and the popularity of ‘beauty pornography’ can damage women’s sexual confidence, separating young girls and women from their own sexuality by teaching them to “desire is to be desired” p157, before they learn to explore their sexuality in terms of how it makes them feel. For women, female sexuality has been taken from them at an early age and is in the hands of men, “keeping women’s eyes lowered to their own bodies, glancing up only to check the reflections in the eyes of men” p155. The emphasis on the appearance of females within society also encourages them to become wary and competitive towards each other, diminishing the potential for collective action (ibid).
In 1997,Frederickson & Roberts developed their theory of sexual objectification. They contended that girls and women are socialized to “internalize an observers perspective as a primary view of their physical selves” p173. This can  lead to emotions of shame and anxiety as well as frequent body monitoring in terms of dieting and/or exercise and
Twenty years on from The Beauty Myth, concerns regarding the effects of sexually objectifying media are popular once more. In 2010, the British Government commissioned a report conducted by psychologist Linda Papadopoulos looking into “the sexualisation of young people” (2010). Research found that young women are learning that being attractive is what is most important in society “and the only way to be attractive is to be submissive and overtly sexual” p51. Papadopoulos (2010) argues that ideal images of beauty portrayed in the media are misleading and “limiting” ibid. Wolf (1991) claims that within the media there are very few roles models for young girls and women which encourages then to turn to the most available source which magazines, television and the bombardment of images which emphasize beauty over any other achievement . Women who are successful solely on the basis of their talent or academic achievements are rarely celebrated.
The rise of ‘raunch culture’ has been addressed by feminist author Ariel Levy in the book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005), in which Wolf’s (1991) arguments regarding sex and culture are updated and developed. Levy (2005) claims that women now purposefully value themselves as sex objects for men. Women are embracing occupations such as lap dancing, stripping and glamour modelling with the view that it empowers them and enables them to express their sexuality, which they believe puts them on par with men on some level. However, this form of ‘feisty feminism’ and the rise of ‘raunch culture’ is not necessarily indicative of women’s changing attitudes, it can be superficial as women are often neglectful or unaware of the wider implications felt and experienced by women in similar circumstances. Levy (2005), alike Wolf (1991), argues that it does not matter how successful, accomplished or talented a women is because culture keeps reminding her that her core value depends on her beauty and perceived sex appeal.
In contrast, Taylor (2006) argues that rather than limiting and undermining women’s capacity for intelligence, status and power, the growth in ‘raunch culture’ represents for her, ‘the ultimate feminist ideal’. She argues that women are finally free to express their sexuality and if women want to wear thongs, pose provocatively in magazines or support the Playboy brand by wearing their logo, it is their right to do so. Taylor (2006) argues that Levy (2005) and a variety of feminist websites such as ‘The F Word’, tend to make women feel bad about themselves instead of celebrating their sexuality and femininity.
However, Levy (2005:198) actually points out the fact that she is “happy” for women who enjoy beauty treatments, dress scantily clad, undergo breast enlargement- whatever they choose freely. Simultaneously she emphasizes that there are a large number of women who do feel trapped by mass culture’s emphasis of sex and ‘raunch’ in relation to beauty and that these women are who she speaks to. Wolf (1991) also avoids disputing a women’s right to feel beautiful or to enjoy the attention it brings. She does not attack women who are unattractive for desiring to be beautiful. Instead, Wolf (1991) raises concerns about women who feel powerless, compelled to wear makeup or to lose those extra few pounds purposefully, to fit the beauty mould that has been constructed around them.
In The Beauty Myth, Wolf discusses the stereotypical views of feminists perpetuated by mass media. This includes the notion that feminists are unattractive, overweight and bitter towards prettier, sexier women often with the intentions of sending them on a guilt trip for wanting to look nice. In criticising Wolf (1991), Cranston (1991) labels her a “bully…of American women who try to make themselves look pretty” p36. He continues to point to her attractive appearance as the reason for why she feels she is positioned to… as opposed to her academic talent.
Although Wolf has been heavily criticized for certain aspects of her work, it is easy to see why the arguments she presented remain popular. As an international best seller Wolf’s (1991) ideas have reached many women. Wolf’s place as a prominent third-wave feminist is deserved and the concepts she expressed early in the women’s movement opened the doors for many to follow her path. Wolf’s style of writing is very accessible and twenty years on, a lot of her analyses remain applicable to contemporary research and debates surrounding body image.
I enjoyed reading The Beauty Myth (1991) as I found myself relating to a lot of what Wolf (1991) was writing about throughout the book and believe this to be the key factor in the text’s popularity. Whilst reading the book, I found myself feeling anger towards the mediums of mass culture, particularly advertising and magazines for adhering to ‘the beauty myth’ and failing to embrace women of all shapes and sizes. Reading the book gave me a boost of self-confidence and my already dismissive attitude towards beauty advertising has deepened. The text has influenced the way I view myself and other women by highlighting how mass culture and patriarchal structures of society are able to affect how we view ourselves so deeply. Wolf (1991) woke up my inner-feminist, however after reflecting on the book and Wolf’s style, I now recognise her tendency to over-exaggerate in order to get her point across and her manipulation of figures relating to eating disorders in the U.S. is disappointing as she has some great arguments and need not exaggerate as the problem of eating disorders is bad enough.

Cranston, M. (1991). Book Reviews: The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. American Spectator. Vol 24 (8) p36-39.
Levy, A. (2005). Feminist Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture. Simon & Schuster. United Kingdom.
Mitchell, E. & Haribson, G. (1991). The Bad Side of Looking Good. Time. Vol 137 (9). P68-71.
Naomi Wolf Biography. Available at: last accessed 25/01/2012.
Orr, C.M. (1997). Charting the Currents of the Third Wave. Hypatia. Vol 12 (3). Wiley-Blackwell
Taylor, K. (2006). Today’s ultimate feminists are the chicks in crop tops. Available at: Last accessed 26/01/2012
Walker, R. ed (1995). To Be Real: Telling the truth and changing the face of feminism. Anchor Books, New York.
Witalec, J. (2002). Criticism of the works of today’s novelists, poets, playwrights, short stor writers, scriptwriters and other creative writers. Contemporary Critical Literacy. Vol  157. Gale & Design Ltd. U.S.
Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Vintage Books, Great Britain.
Wolf, N. (1994). Fire with Fire: The new female power and how to use it. New York. Fawcett Combine.
Wolf, N. (2011). A Wrinkle in Time: Twenty years after the beauty myth. Washington Post. Available at Last Accessed 23/01/2012.