The Beauty Myth
The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us. Many women sense that women’s collective progress has stalled; compared with the heady momentum of earlier days, there is a dispiriting climate of confusion, division, cynicism, and above all, exhaustion. After years of much struggle and little recognition, many older women feel burned out; after years of taking its light for granted, many younger women show little interest in touching new fire to the torch.
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical specialty. During the past five years [sic], consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret “underlife” poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.
It is no accident that so many potentially powerful women feel this way. We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth. It is the modern version of a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial Revolution. As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it waned to carry on its work of social control.
The contemporary backlash is so violent because the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women who second wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively uncontrollable: It has grown stronger to take over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity, no longer can manage. It is seeking right now to undo psychologically and covertly all the good things that feminism did for women materially and overtly.
from p. 12-18 The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1991.
Author, social critic, and political activist Naomi Wolf raises awareness of the pervasive inequities that exist in society and politics. She encourages people to take charge of their lives, voice their concerns and enact change.
Wolf’s landmark international bestseller, The Beauty Myth, challenged the cosmetics industry and the marketing of unrealistic standards of beauty, launching a new wave of feminism in the early 1990s. The New York Times called it one of the most important books of the 20th century. In her long-anticipated book, Vagina: A Cultural History, she asks, “could a profound connection between a woman’s brain and her experience of her vagina affect her greater sense of creativity—even her consciousness?” She argues that this connection is not only real—and long-overlooked—but that it is fundamental to a woman’s sense of self.
Wolf’s New York Times bestseller, The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, is an impassioned call to return to the aspirations and beliefs of the Founders’ ideals of liberty. The New York Times called the documentary version “pointedly inflammatory.” Her latest book, Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries, includes effective tools for citizens to promote civic engagement and create sustainable democracy.
Her international journalism includes the investigative report “Guantánamo Bay: The Inside Story” for The Times of London, and as a columnist for Project Syndicate her articles have been published in India, Philippines, Egypt, and Lebanon. She’s a frequent blogger on The Huffington Post and writes cultural commentary for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her TV appearances include Larry King Live, Meet the Press, The Joyce Behar Show, and The Colbert Report.
A graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Wolf was a consultant to Al Gore during his presidential campaign on women’s issues and social policy. She is co-founder of The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, an organization that teaches leadership to young women, and The American Freedom Campaign, a grass roots democracy movement in the United States whose mission is the defense of the Constitution and the rule of law.