Friday, January 22, 2016

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

From time to time, I will be blogging about books relating to feminist themes. Some of my general thoughts on feminism and the issue of violence directed at women are here.

Some of the statistics on eating disorders included in the original version of this book were criticized as being inaccurate. Wolfe has acknowledged the inaccuracies and the version of the book that I read includes the corrected data.

Naomi Wolf is an author and commentator. Over the years, she has weighed in on all sorts of political and social issues. She is also a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

In this work, Wolf builds a complex and nuanced argument, supported by many pages of data and examples, as well as philosophical musings. First, she argues that modern society has created a false image of feminine beauty. This image is restrictive. Beauty is not only subjective, but the vast majority of men and women view sensual beauty as a much larger spectrum than that which is being fed to the public.

At one point, in a quote that I find to very insightful, she writes about men in regards to this point,

"Many, many men see this way too. A man who wants to define himself as a real lover of women admires what shows of her past on a woman’s face, before she ever saw him, and the adventures and stresses that her body has undergone, the scars of trauma, the changes of childbirth, her distinguishing characteristics, the light in her expression. The number of men who already see in this way is far greater than the arbiters of mass culture would lead us to believe, since the story they need to tell ends with the opposite moral. The Big Lie is the notion that if a lie is big enough, people will believe it. The idea that adult women, with their fully developed array of sexual characteristics, are inadequate to stimulate and gratify heterosexual male desire, and that “beauty” is what will complete them, is the beauty myth’s Big Lie. All around us, men are contradicting it. The fact is that the myth’s version of sexuality is by definition just not true: Most men who are at this moment being aroused by women, flirting with them, in love with them, dreaming about them, having crushes on them, or making love to them, are doing so to women who look exactly like who they are. The myth stereotyped sexuality into cartoons by representation”

Wolf argues that women in particular and society as whole have been programed and thus have become obsessed with this false image of beauty.

I find that Wolf’s arguments on this matter are very convincing and I am in strong agreement with her here.

The author’s next contention is that this Beauty Myth, and society’s obsession with it, is extremely detrimental and oppressive towards women. In chapter after chapter, Wolf lays out a case of how women are harmed by this myth. Not only does it narrowly and falsely define beauty and sensuality, but it forces women into a no win situation as they attempt to adhere to this myth in a supposed attempt to reach success in multiple facets of life. She explores its economic, legal, social, physical, psychological and emotional (In the area of emotion, she argues that men have been oppressed, too) effects upon women. Wolf gets into a lot of detail here as she explains both the expected and the unexpected ways that this phenomenon has been an encumbrance upon women.

Though I do not agree with all her arguments, when it comes to the big picture, Wolf presents a very convicting case here. The information that she provides is intricate, and some of her philosophical musings are complex and difficult to convey in a single blog post. In one example, she illustrates how the legal system has allowed all sorts of employers to discriminate against women based upon their appearance and presumed attractiveness. I have taken several business law and human resource related classes, and I was already familiar with some of the cases that are presented here. I agree the results were outrageous and harmful to society.

Some of Wolf’s final conclusions seem to go into shakier territory. Wolf envisions nearly utopian benefits if society dispensed with these falsehoods and discrimination. She contends that men’s emotional connection to women is being fouled and corrupted by the myth. Thus, if men resisted the myth, women and the men who love them would begin to drive revolutionary change,

"But with the apparition of numbers of men moving into passionate, sexual love of real women, serious money and authority could defect to join forces with the opposition. Such love would be a political upheaval more radical than the Russian Revolution and more destabilizing to the balance of world power than the end of the nuclear age. It would be the downfall of civilization as we know it— that is, of male dominance; and for heterosexual love, the beginning of the beginning."

In terms of these ultimate conclusions, I think that sexism is very complicated. While a more inclusive and less obsessive societal view of beauty and sensuality would be very beneficial to men and women, I think that the barrier that Wolf sees between the sexes in terms of heterosexual love is exaggerated. This ‘joining of forces’ to overthrow male dominance seems farfetched.  There are other factors aside from The Beauty Myth driving sexism and misogyny that need to be addressed separately. I believe that society addressing these issues and that positive change will continue, but at an evolutionary, not revolutionary pace.

This book contains a lot of ideas. There are other arguments that I disagree with. In particular, I found Wolf’s comparison between Nazi medical experiments and the modern cosmetic surgical industry to be untenable and ill-considered.

I think that it is important to note that Wolf is not advocating an abolition of all efforts of women to enhance their beauty and/or sensuality. She goes on to extoll the joys found in the efforts that people take in making themselves attractive and sensual. She writes,

“what I support in this book is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what market forces and a multibillion-dollar advertising industry dictate"

And later,

we have to separate from the myth what it has surrounded and held hostage: female sexuality, bonding among women, visual enjoyment, sensual pleasure in fabrics and shapes and colors— female fun, clean and dirty. We can dissolve the myth and survive it with sex, love, attraction, and style not only intact, but flourishing more vibrantly than before. I am not attacking anything that makes women feel good; only what makes us feel bad in the first place. We all like to be desirable and feel beautiful.”  

Though The Beauty Myth is more than twenty years old, I should note that it has been somewhat updated by the more recent introduction included in my edition as well as by Wolf’s 2011 essay, A Wrinkle in Time, which is available all over the Internet. Though parts of the book still seem a little dated, the bulk of it, as well as its main contentions, still seem to be relevant.

Despite my quibbles with some of her points, I find most of Wolf’s arguments moderate and reasonable. As I outlined above, I am in agreement with her on the majority of her points.

This book is bursting with insights and important points. I have only scratched the surface in terms of Wolf’s arguments, and the detail in which she makes them. This book delves into the nuts and bolts of our culture and how we view and deal with gender and sensuality. Thus, this is an important book for both women and men to read.


James said...

This sounds like a challenging book. Your description of it suggests that some of her arguments are untenable (eg. the "Nazi" metaphor). I wonder why she feels that it is necessary to make claims like that. Apparently some of her other arguments were more different leading to your conclusion that they were "moderate and reasonable". This may be one classic that I do not add to my tbr list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - The Nazi comparisons are not just silly, but they are offensive. This is book is full of philosophizing about these issues and that subject is a very small part of what is contained in this book.

I did not find any of Wolfe's other arguments comparable to these.

Guy Savage said...

Sounds as thought the author had a lot of good points but went a bit overboard.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Without a doubt there are things I disagree with in this book. With that, many philosophers and folks who comment on society who have a lot tend to go off in directions that most would disagree with.

Suko said...

Very interesting commentary, Brian Joseph. I read about this book when it first came out, and later read some of the book. (I remember reading an article about Naomi Wolf, and it called her beautiful.) The book presents numerous interesting ideas, certainly. I admire Naomi Wolf for tackling this sensitive subject in her book,and for updating the intro to her book recently.

Here are a few of my thoughts about the subject:

In many ways, our culture,and others as well, are superficial,overly concerned with outer appearance. We know it's just the surface, and yet, we're drawn in (as by a pleasing book cover). It's not just men who like beauty, women do, too, perhaps even more so than men, overall; beauty brings pleasure--so it's a complex topic.

At the very least, we're fortunate today that previously narrow ideas about beauty have evolved, and we "define" beauty in a more expansive manner which includes people of all shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities and genders.

Gently Mad said...

It's interesting how you and I look at the world yet arrive at different conclusions.

You believe that evolution produced man's inhumanity to man (or woman, if you like). I see man's fallen nature that desperately needs a Savior.

You believe that evolution created the problem and will also create the solution. I believe man's corrupt nature created the problem but God provided the solution two thousand years ago on a Cross.

Thanks for the review. You really make me think!!

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I need to add "ages" to the list above, so that my words read "we 'define' beauty in a more expansive manner which includes people of all ages, shapes, sizes...." Also, please delete the remains of my two deleted comments, above. Thank you!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - We do see things differently. I do not know if you agree with this, but based on a lot of your commentary, what we see as right and wrong, is not so different, I find that interesting.

I would characterize your description of my views mostly accurate. I would only modify your description in one way. I think humanity is heading in a good direction. This is the result of our society and our civilization getting better. The better tendencies created by our or genes, are winning out over darker tendencies. There is however a danger. Our ability to destroy ourselves in easier and easier ways is advancing fast too. It seems that there is a race between that and our tendency to improve.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed this is complicated. I agree with your points about beauty. Much of this book is call to define it more expansively. The message for women being not to let the media define it for you. The message for those who are attracted to women is to be attracted to what you find attractive. Do not let the media, friends or anything else tell you what is attractive.

So many books, so little time said...

This sounds like quite a strong opinionated book, I do like reading books that have obvious passion and I imagine I would agree with some of her thoughts to a degree. There is so much emphasis on what the perfect woman should look like.

As always I enjoy seeing your thoughts & I know this strikes a chord with you as you portray it in your tweets and of course on here. Interesting reading as always Brian.


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy - I do think that last quote I posted illustrates that Wolf's views are at the core moderate.

I do like to express my opinions here and on Twitter :)

Priya said...

Excellent post! Sounds like a very thought-provoking book. I only wonder, how does one distinguish this physical beauty myth from all the other desired-symbols-of-status today - like owning a fancy car, phone or branded clothing. Doesn't the cosmetic industry exist within a much larger scheme of manipulations fuelled by profit-driven media? What about all the reinforced ideals of masculinity? I really hope the book addresses these questions coming to my mind, I would love to read that.

thecuecard said...

I remember when this book came out in 1991 it was pretty important. I agree with its general premise and I'm sure in court cases it has been borne out. I don't agree with all of her beliefs but think her main idea that societal beauty constructs have oppressed women -- has truth to it. I wouldn't mind reading her Wrinkle in Time article which you mention -- I'm not sure I knew about this so thanks -- I will google it to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Priya.

I agree that the issues that you brought up are all relevant to this topic and worth a lot of discussion. Wolf does not really go there with this work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I am with you on this. I agree with the basic premise of this book and a lot of ideas it contains. With that, there are a bunch of things that I do not agree with. I am thinking that this is true about a lot of books on society and culture.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Oh my goodness, I always get so excited when I come across a book on your blog that I know we have sitting on our shelves.

One Mr T first came across whilst doing his Youth & Community degree, every so often I vow to read it for myself but never seem to get around to doing so.

Insightful commentary Brian, thank you.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy.

I would love to read your thoughts on this book if you read it.

Maria Behar said...

Wonderfully insightful commentary as always, Brian!

I have this book sitting on my "Feminism" wishlist on Amazon. Now that I've read your review, I will probably get it right away!

To be honest, I was shocked by Wolf's comparison of Nazi experiments with cosmetic surgery. That's totally insane! The Nazi "experiments" were performed on people against their will, and were very cruel. In contrast, those who undergo cosmetic surgery do so willingly, often paying very high prices for it. Their goal is to look and feel better about themselves. Yes, they might be misguided in this, but that doesn't mean that the doctors performing these surgeries are like the Nazi doctors.

It looks like I might disagree with at least some of Wolf's ideas, even though I do agree with her basic premise -- there is, in fact a Beauty Myth. And I do believe it's a function of the patriarchal culture we live in. Women are made to feel "inadequate" and "unattractive" as a result of this myth. Advertisers in the beauty industry capitalize on female insecurities. "Am I attractive enough?" we women ask ourselves. "Are we making the right impression on the opposite sex?" While men might also ask themselves these questions, they don't seem to be as worried about them. Instead, they worry about such things as their work performance. Are they ascending the corporate ladder fast enough? (This, too, is rather superficial and shallow, however.)

We women are actually brainwashed into thinking that our appearance, instead of our intellectual accomplishments, is what's most important about us. College students, for instance, might accept a disheveled-looking male professor, but they would be highly critical of a female professor who was equally disheveled.

The sad thing is that we women ourselves judge each other based on appearance. I don't usually do this myself, or, at least, I fight against that tendency. But many women don't. When I walk into a restaurant, for example, I feel very self-conscious, as the women sitting at other tables immediately size me up. They look me up and down. The same thing happens when I go to church! That's the LAST place in the world this type of thing should be going on! This really irks me. On several occasions, when I've caught other women sizing me up like that, I've stared -- fixedly -- back at them. They then look away. Sometimes, I've seen envy in their stares, too, as they wonder how I snagged my handsome husband! Lol.

Of course, this type of thing goes on at work all the time, as well. A woman just has to look as good as possible at work. And those who do are frequently favored by the powerful men in the company, whose lovers they end up becoming.

(More coming....)

Maria Behar said...

(I tend to write very long comments, so I'm continuing with this second one.)

As Sharon says, human nature is corrupt. Therefore, sexism has to be acknowledged, and included as a sin. And this sin is, unfortunately, rife in Christianity, just as much as in other religions. Jesus Himself, however, never condoned any type of view that demeaned women. He once addressed a Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, much to the astonishment of His disciples. Jewish men were not supposed to speak with women -- much less Samaritan ones -- in public. Also, when a woman caught in adultery was brought before him to be stoned (her partner in crime was noticeably absent, and it looks like all her accusers were men), Jesus calmly told the crowd that he among them who was without sin should cast the first stone. They all started to toss their stones to the ground, and walked away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. He was compassionate toward her, telling her to go and sin no more.

In another passage, with the sisters Martha and Mary, Jesus sided with Mary when Martha asked Him to tell Mary to help with household chores, instead of sitting at His feet listening to Him, as the men were doing.

It seems all the trouble began with Peter and Paul, with texts in which they basically endorsed the view that women are to be submissive, under their husbands' authority. Jesus Himself never said any such thing! Unfortunately, these texts have been used to bar women from the pulpit, in several Christian denominations, most notably the Catholic Church. Texts in the Old Testament denouncing women as "evil" have also been used to demean women throughout the centuries. They were used by the Catholic Church, for instance, during the infamous Inquisition. Many innocent women died, falsely accused of witchcraft.

So I would tell Sharon that yes, humanity is in need of a Savior, but how many Christian men and Christian institutions are willing to admit that they have been guilty of demeaning and oppressing women by denying them the right to be used by God in positions of church leadership? As the Bible says, God is no respecter of persons. As Paul himself said, in Christ there is now no Jew, nor Gentile, nor male nor female. All are equal in the sight of God. We need equality in Christian leadership. I'm sure God is not pleased by the wasting of female talent in this area.

Okay, I'm getting off my soapbox now. Lol.

Thanks for the great review!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the great comment.

Though she did not say that plastic surgeons s were as bad as the Nazi experimenters, the comparisons were inappropriate and unnecessary.

Your summery of your views on the Beauty Myth are very similar to Wolf's and I agree with you.

I also agree with you on your take of the New Testament, though there was not a lot in there about gender equality. That really came later.

Parts Old Testament as well as the Koran were a nightmare when it comes to women.

Bina @ Ifyoucanreadthis said...

Wonderful review, Brian! It's great to hear your thoughts on this one!
I think this is an important book, though I do think that Wolf leaves too much of the larger system of oppression unexamined. Such as capitalism and racism, as these definitions of beauty cannot ever be achieved by women of color, women with disabilities etc. That nazi comparison is horrible and does not help her argument, wonder why it survived the editing process.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Hi Brian, thank you for this extraordinary commentary. One of my resolutions for this year is to read a lot of books on feminism. I am going to be closely following your blogs, picking some recommendations. This one sounds intriguing too, and I want to give it a shot. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

RFD@15037 said...

I don't know which is more fascinating: your commentary/review or the comments from visitors. In any case, setting aside all the political, cultural, and economic arguments -- which many of you proffer -- I can not get over a simple anthropological argument: human beings are by nature and by necessity vane and reproductive, those two factors, which don't need much explanation and are immune from all other arguments, have determined behaviors since the beginnings of time, and all other arguments are -- dare I say it -- rubbish. Too simple? Yeah. But what the hell. I'm in that kind of mood today.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT - I think that your argument were be applicable if Wolfe were among those who, as Stephen Pinker puts it, believed that human nature were infinitely malleable.I am not of that school either.

I think that the last quote that I posted, illustrates that Wolfe is not either, . Instead she seems to acknowledge that there are some basics characteristics that most people share. In fact, I think that it shows that she is not looking to change basic human wants and needs.

Instead she is criticizing certain aspects of culture that have been in almost constant change of the past decades. These changes include the legal environment, certain media trends, roles for actresses, our specific definitions of beauty, etc.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Bina. It may be a shortcoming of my commentary as I did not mention it, but Wolfe does take these issues and does talk about how many characteristics, tied to race, are part of the restrictive definition of beauty that the media pushes.

Likewise she does talk about the the multi billion dollar cosmetic and other industries and how they profit off of women's insecurities. She also talks about how the beauty expectation is a great drain on women's financial resources.

This book has so many ideas in it, it was difficult to cover them all.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the good word.

Some of my other posts on feminist themed books -

Feminism and Books

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin : On Gender Issues -

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman

Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part I

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller Part II - Theories on Society

The Book of The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

HKatz said...

This is on my to-read list, and I liked getting a heads-up on some of the issues the book explores from your thoughtful post. For now, I'll just say, it hurts when my body is turned into a battleground, and other people take out their own issues on it and project onto it things they fear.

JaneGS said...

Sounds like an interesting book, though I would choke over the comparison of Nazi medical experiments with the cosmetic industry. Also, the cult of beauty is not a modern invention--both sexes have tried to ornament and enhance their natural state forever. I wonder if it is just part of being human.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I would love to know what yours thoughts are on this book when you read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi jane - I think that as illustrated in the last quote I posted, Wolfe is not denying that people have a need to look beautiful. What she is saying is that this tendency has gotten out of control and oppressive in out modern world.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian. I have seen this book around before and it sounds like a good one. Isn't it funny how as time passes and changes, society views beauty differently? Marilyn Monroe would be considered plus size by today's so called beauty standards.

This is true, "The Big Lie is the notion that if a lie is big enough, people will believe it".
And it really can be a no win situation for women, it is unobtainable, those models in the ads don't look like that in real life. I think it's so much harder for girls who are coming of age now with everyone posting pictures of themselves on social media, meanwhile most of those photos are all filtered and edited also so it's not realistic either. These girls and bombarded with these images daily, it is non stop. And the society that we live in can be so shallow. Two words, the Kardashians.

Great post as always, enjoy your Sunday :)

Harvee said...

Sounds like a thought provoking book. I still think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, hopefully an open minded beholder!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - One of Wolfe's takeaways seems to that one should not let society dictate to oneself just what beauty is.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - I agree with all your points. They all were touched upon in this book. It was filled with interesting ideas.

Caroline said...

I bought this years ago and never read it. Recently I was wondering if it would still be worth reading. Now I think it would. Especially paired with the essay you mention.
Maybe some of the points are more relevant again than a decade ago. The number of women and girls undergoing plastic surgery seems on the rise.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I was concerned that this was also out of date.

Though a few points were, I found it to be still very relevant.

Rachel said...

Wow. I would have a hard time reading anything that compares Nazi medical experiments with the cosmetic surgical industry with a straight face....but it seems that you really enjoyed the book besides a few points that you didn't agree with.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Other then the indefensible comparison, I found this book to be very worth the read.