In today's world, women have more power, legal recognition, and professional success than ever before. Alongside the evident progress of the women's movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It's the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society's impossible definition of "the flawless beauty."
When The Beauty Myth was first published, more than ten years ago, I had the chance to hear what must have been thousands of stories. In letters and in person, women confided in me the agonizingly personal struggles they had undergone -- some, for as long as they could remember -- to claim a self out of what they had instantly recognized as the beauty myth. There was no common thread that united these women in terms of their appearance: women both young and old told me about the fear of aging; slim women and heavy ones spoke of the suffering caused by trying to meet the demands of the thin ideal; black, brown, and white women -- women who looked like fashion models -- admitted to knowing, from the time they could first consciously think, that the ideal was someone tall, thin, white, and blond, a face without pores, asymmetry, or flaws, someone wholly "perfect," and someone whom they felt, in one way or another, they were not.
I was grateful to have had the good luck to write a book that connected my own experience to that of women everywhere -- indeed, to the experiences of women in seventeen countries around the world. I was even more grateful for the ways that my readers were using the book. "This book helped me get over my eating disorder," I was often told. "I read magazines differently now." "I've stopped hating my crow's feet." For many women, the book was a tool for empowerment. Like sleuths and critics, they were deconstructing their own personal beauty myths.
While the book was embraced in a variety of ways by readers of many different backgrounds, it also sparked a very heated debate in the public forum. Female TV commentators bristled at my argument that women in television were compensated in relation to their looks and at my claim of a double standard that did not evaluate their male peers on appearance as directly. Right-wing radio hosts commented that, if I had a problem with being expected to live up to ideals of how women should look, there must be something personally wrong with me. Interviewers suggested that my concern about anorexia was simply a misplaced privileged-white-girl psychodrama. And on daytime TV, on show after show, the questions directed to me often became almost hostile -- very possibly influenced by the ads that followed them, purchased by the multibillion-dollar dieting industry, making unfounded claims that are now illegal. Frequently, commentators, either deliberately or inadvertently, though always incorrectly, held that I claimed women were wrong to shave their legs or wear lipstick. This is a misunderstanding indeed, for 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 advertisersing industry dictate.
Overall, though, audiences (more publicly than privately) seemed to feel that questioning beauty ideals was not only unfeminine but almost un-American. For a reader in the twenty-first century this may be hard to believe, but way back in 1991, it was considered quite heretical to challenge or call into question the ideal of beauty that was, at that time, very rigid. We were just coming out of what I have called "The Evil Eighties," a time when intense conservatism had become allied with strong antifeminism in our culture, making arguments about feminine ideals seem ill-mannered, even freakish. Reagan had just had his long run of power, the Equal Rights Amendment had run out of steam, women's activists were in retreat, women were being told they couldn't "have it all." As Susan Faludi so aptly showed in her book Backlash, which was published at about the same time as The Beauty Myth, Newsweek was telling women that they had a greater chance of being killed by terrorists than of marrying in mid-career. Feminism had become "the f-word." Women who complained about the beauty myth were assumed to have a personal shortcoming themselves: they must be fat, ugly, incapable of satisfying a man, "feminazis," or -- horrors -- lesbians. The ideal of the time -- a gaunt, yet full-breasted Caucasian, not often found in nature -- was assumed by the mass media, and often by magazine readers and movie watchers as well, to be eternal, transcendent. It seemed important beyond question to try somehow to live up to that ideal.
When I talked to audiences about the epidemic of eating disorders, for instance, or about the dangers of silicone breast implants, I was often given a response straight out of Plato's Symposium, the famous dialogue about eternal and unchanging ideals: something like, "Women have always suffered for beauty." In short, it was not commonly understood at that time that ideals didn't simply descend from heaven, that they actually came from somewhere and that they served a purpose. That purpose, as I would then explain, was often a financial one, namely to increase the profits of those advertisers whose ad dollars actually drove the media that, in turn, created the ideals. The ideal, I argued, also served a political end. The stronger women were becoming politically, the heavier the ideals of beauty would bear down upon them, mostly in order to distract their energy and undermine their progress.
Some ten years later, what has changed? Where is the beauty myth today? It has mutated a bit and, thus, it bears looking at with fresh eyes.
Well, most satisfyingly, today you would be hard-pressed to find a twelve-year-old girl who is not all too familiar with the idea that "ideals" are too tough on girls, that they are unnatural, and that following them too slavishly is neither healthy nor cool. American Girl magazine, aimed at nine-year-olds, discusses the benefits of loving your body and how misguided it is to try to look like Britney Spears in order to be happy. Junior high...