A couple of days ago, I finished reading the popular third wave feminist non-fiction book The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, and its 368 pages of socio-political commentary, theory and in depth analysis of everything in the female sphere left me with many lasting impressions, ideas and musings that I wanted to compile into a little blog/review.
Firstly, if you haven’t read this book and you’re at all interested in feminism or vesting yourself in women’s causes and awareness, you absolutely have to make room for it on your list. Even within the first four or five chapters, despite the depressingly pessimistic overtones and themes, it was teaching me things about patriarchy, mass media and the systematic indoctrination that young girls are targets of from day one. All of the things that we as women might inherently do, from comparing ourselves physically to other females and delighting in their shortcomings to feeling ashamed to go out without make-up and stylish clothing to our self-esteem which is directly tied to society’s ideal of our image, sexuality and what men think of us, there are well-reasoned, researched and, quite frankly, obvious explanations presented in The Beauty Myth. We live in a culture that systematically brainwashes girls into subjugation as part of a culture hell-bent on patriarchy.
The first thing that struck me while looking back over the book once I’d finished it was that, being published in 1990, it is almost three decades old. This revelation was shocking in that, quite honestly, it could have been written yesterday. Unfortunately, this continual reminder of the lack of progression of the female in modern society is all too familiar – if never unsurprising – after reading a pro-feminist book like The Beauty Myth. I remember having similar takeaways from Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus and Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit.
In many ways, actually, it only serves to highlight how things have gotten worse in relation to the more modern, upright and seemingly inclusive society we occupy today in 2017 compared to when the book was conceived in the late 80s. I couldn’t help but wonder in what scathing, darkly ironic way Wolf would tackle the newer misogynistic advents and control methods of the naughties such as fully bald bikini waxes, free and widely accessible porn and the growing trend of hymen rejuvenation and cosmetic reconstruction. At one point in The Beauty Myth, Wolf actually seems to prophetically allude to a future like this, writing of an image of a sewed-up labia as a metaphor for a female’s role in society moving forward.
The backbone of the book centres around Wolf’s aspirations for the future of our daughters (which, sadly, considering when the book was written should have been me and the girls of my generation) and her guidelines for the potential combat and conquer of much of the patriarchal oppression and the promotion of change in deeply rooted and generally accepted ideology.
To me, the two most important of these guidelines centred on ideas of a woman’s self-image and self-esteem. This is an issue very close to my heart, and as I wrote about in a blog post from around this time last year, it is an increasingly relevant one as younger and younger girls report unhappiness within their looks and body. As Wolf states: “Just as the systematic beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful.” We need to figure out how to make ourselves, and all women, especially our youngsters, feel beautiful. There is no such thing as standard “beauty”, just as there is no such thing as standard “ugly”. In this way, we also need to combat the issue of, as Wolf says, “…debating the symptoms more passionately than the disease.” The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear make-up or don’t, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is our lack of choice.
And this, to me, epitomizes the real inherent issue in society‘s (particularly mass media and tabloid) attitude towards women and their worth being linked directly to their physical “assets”. As a culture, we need to cease being complicit in propagating this narrative of the view of standard beauty being compulsory for all women who want to be taken seriously or respected. While it is easier said than done after decades to being taught to do exactly this, we need to make a committed effort to stop judging other women for their looks. We need to build each other up, not break one another down. Wolf stresses the importance of the need for women to figure out how to promote powerful identities that have nothing to do with our physical appearance, and accept the fact that we have the ability to be simultaneously sexually expressive and serious. These ideals are not mutually exclusive.
Ultimately, The Beauty Myth, despite its inclination to somewhat harshly sweeping sentiments, is a brilliantly exposing and empowering read. Statements such as: “When you see the way a woman’s curves swell at the hips and again at the thighs, you could claim that that is an abnormal deformity. Or you could tell the truth: 75% of women are shaped like that, and soft, rounded hips and thighs and bellies were perceived as desirable and sensual without question until women got the vote.” are utterly scathing and thought-provoking, and are words and truths that absolutely had to be spoken. The real strength of The Beauty Myth comes from the collective, powerful spirit it promotes between women regardless of whether you’re reading alone or as part of a group. Wolf is 100% correct in the bold strength of her assumption: “A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission — to eat; to be sexual; to age; to wear overalls, a paste tiara, a Balenciaga gown, a second-hand opera cloak, or combat boots; to cover up or to go practically naked; to do whatever we choose in following — or ignoring — our own aesthetic.”
The real sadness, of course, is that it is a thirty-year-old book that is still totally relevant today.