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: http://naomi.wolf.org/biography/ 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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/mar/23/comment.gender 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 http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/a-wrinkle-in-time-twenty-years-after-the-beauty-myth-naomi-wolf-addresses-the-aging-myth/2011/05/11/AGiEhvCH_story.html Last Accessed 23/01/2012.