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"
“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.