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Rebecca Reilly-Cooper on Naomi Wolf: How the beautiful are damned

Naomi Wolf's anger is animated by the question: how much more could talented, ambitious women achieve, if they could only free themselves from the chains of beauty?

A contestant in a beauty pageant. Photo: Getty
A contestant in a beauty pageant. Photo: Getty

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

 

Does The Beauty Myth count as a work of the feminist Second Wave? It was published in 1991, at the tail-end of what is generally regarded as the Second Wave; in the same year, Susan Faludi's Backlash was published, detailing the revolt against the gains made by Second Wave activism that was already well underway by the 1980s.

But if we understand the Second Wave not just in chronological terms, but also by in terms of the methods employed and the issues addressed, then it makes sense to see The Beauty Myth as a work of Second Wave feminism. It is clear from Naomi Wolf's writing that she considers the book to be a continuation of the themes of the Second Wave, and as a direct descendant of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. The beauty myth arose to fill the vacuum left after the Second Wave had chipped away at the foundations of traditional forms of patriarchal control, and the main pillars of the feminine mystique crumbled.

Wolf argues that in the decades since Friedan's work was released, feminists had had some successes in exposing as fictions many of the noble lies that had functioned to maintain the patriarchal social order. Ideas about women's inherent biological frailty and anaesthetic sexuality, about the nature of women's work and about children's absolute dependence on the mother - ideas that had been presented as self-evidently true and determined by nature - were dismantled.

As a result, women became visible in the public sphere and vocal in their demands: for equal opportunities to jobs and positions of power, for equal pay and an equal share of the burdens of domestic labour, for satisfying sex and egalitarian relationships. And in response, the one remaining pillar propping up the façade of women's natural inferiority and subordinate value was strengthened and reinforced. That pillar was the beauty myth - a rigid set of norms and rules about women's physical appearance, presented as natural, obligatory, and the sole path to power, status, wealth, and love. In prose that simmers and bubbles with righteous fury, Wolf examines the many forms the ideology of beauty takes, and the myriad ways in which it operates to curtail women's hard-won freedom and equality.

In the sphere of work, women's competence is frequently assessed by their success in adhering to norms governing beauty, and their physical appearance is used to justify both discrimination and harassment. In popular culture, only those women who are considered sufficiently beautiful are permitted to be publicly visible, so the images we see and the narratives we hear are of those who conform to the socially prescribed ideal of perfection. The aesthetic ideals and values of pornography seep into mainstream culture and advertising, presenting an alienating and restrictive view of women's sexuality that is tied to its rigid and limited vision of beauty. As the myth flourishes, so its depictions of ideal of beauty become more extreme and its requirements more rigorous. Its demands are presented as having near-divine authority, providing the only path to salvation for the flawed, fallen female. Women learn that no matter how successful they are, whatever else they accomplish, they must above all be young, beautiful and thin. The rational response to such imperatives is for women to purchase expensive but ineffective lotions and potions, to submit to constant hunger, and to undergo invasive, painful and dangerous procedures in pursuit of this ideal - because the alternative is lack of status, lack of wealth, lack of sexual fulfilment, lack of love. To be not beautiful is to be not visible, and to be not visible is to have one's needs and desires unacknowledged and unnourished.

The Beauty Myth was one of the first feminist books I ever read, and at the time it had a huge impact on me, playing a significant role in my feminist awakening. In retrospect, the reasons for this are obvious. As a privileged, ambitious young woman, it was with respect to the requirements of beauty that I most keenly felt the injustices wreaked by gender. I was fortunate in nearly every way in which a young woman could hope to be - white, middle-class and relatively affluent, I had never known any of the serious hardships that form the substance of so many women's daily lives. I was reasonably intelligent, came from a nurturing and supportive family, and was raised with the expectation that I could achieve whatever I desired, that there should be no limits on my aspirations.

And yet, despite all of this good fortune, I wasn't as happy as I should have been. I wasn't as confident as I should have been. And this was almost entirely down to the fact that I didn't believe I was thin enough, and therefore knew I wasn't beautiful enough. It didn't matter to me that I was smart, healthy, well-off, and privileged across pretty much every dimension. I wasn't thin, so I wasn't beautiful, so I was filled with self-disgust and self-loathing, and paralysed by the lack of self-confidence that so often plagues women when the world is telling them they are taking up too much space. Reading The Beauty Myth at the age of twenty brought immediate consolation. I wasn't alone. I wasn't crazy. I wasn't unusually weak-minded or weak-bodied. My feelings weren't deviant or pathological. They were a normal - and rational - response to the reality of living as a woman under an oppressive set of beauty requirements. The relief was immense.

Twenty-three years since its publication, is there still any reason for feminists to read The Beauty Myth? Re-reading it now, I think we can answer that question with a resounding 'yes'. There is much in the book that leaps out at the contemporary reader as true and relevant, even startlingly prescient, given what we now know about how the beauty industry has developed since it was written. There has been little to hearten the feminist in the sphere of beauty since the book was published, and so many of the trends that Wolf identifies have not only persisted, but accelerated, in the intervening years. The cosmetic surgery industry is now worth £2.3 billion a year in the UK alone, and as Wolf predicted, ever more extreme procedures are being dreamt up and marketed as cures for deformities we previously didn't know we had. In 1991, could even Wolf have imagined that within twenty years, buttock implants and labiaplasty would be offered to healthy women? Or that women could have their faces injected with chemical fillers in salons on the high street during their lunch hours? The ritual shaming and public humiliation for the purposes of entertainment of women deemed insufficiently attractive has reached new heights in television programmes such as Ten Years Younger or The Swan. Popular culture has developed an entirely new lexicon with which to pathologise the normal variation found in healthy women's bodies: in the 1990s, we were content to lambast women for their wobbly tummies and fleshy thighs; to this we have added muffin tops, bingo wings and cankles as new sources of self-loathing and social opprobrium.

The women's magazines, singled out by Wolf for particularly vociferous criticism, have made their attacks on women's bodies even more openly hostile and explicit, circling the cellulite and magnifying the stretch marks, just in case you missed them. The growth of digital technology and proliferation of new forms of media means that images of beauty and glamour, as well as pornography, are becoming ever more ubiquitous, while the faces of women who don't fit the beauty mold are disappearing from view, being forcibly retired and replaced by faces with fewer lines. As in 1991, so now, women are spending ever more of their time and resources striving to meet the increasingly exacting ideals of the beauty myth, and exercising a rigorous discipline on their bodies, trying to starve and beat them into submission. But despite all this effort and expenditure, women aren't getting any happier or more comfortable with their bodies, in large part because the goalposts keep shifting - or shrinking. The ideals of the beauty myth aren't intended to be realisable. They are designed to keep women in a state of perpetual anxiety, engaged in constant warfare with their recalcitrant flesh.

Given all of this, it would be easy to conclude that the beauty myth has won the day. The ideals of beauty have proliferated, and women seem ever more willing to comply with their dictates. Even among feminists, there is a suggestion now that to talk critically about beauty and appearance is a bit unfashionable and outdated.  One reason for this is that these are, to a large extent, the concerns of the privileged. If the biggest difficulty you face as a woman is the social pressure to conform to a restrictive ideal of beauty - rather than, say, worrying about how you're going to feed and care for your children, or protect yourself from partner violence - then you are pretty privileged.

Wolf is often explicit that she is primarily talking about middle-class, high-achieving women, who are failing to realise their full potential and to make the most of the liberation the Second Wave promised to deliver. Her anger is animated by the question: how much more could these talented, ambitious women achieve, if they could only free themselves from the chains of beauty? When so many women are struggling with the much more urgent, fundamental problems of just keeping themselves and their children safe and well, contemporary feminists might be inclined to dismiss beauty as a trivial matter, and look upon works such as The Beauty Myth with annoyance, even faint embarrassment. And not only does Wolf have nothing to say about how these exacting beauty norms are experienced by those who cannot afford to comply with them, there is also very little discussion about the inherently white, Anglo-American/European nature of our standard beliefs about beauty, and the impact of this on women of colour. How much more painful must the beauty myth be for those women for whom it is even more out of reach, and requires even more alienation from their bodies and identities, than for the white middle-class women Wolf has in mind?

These are valid and important points, and feminism should certainly address these issues. But it is not a very compelling criticism of The Beauty Myth to point out that the book isn't about everything, that there are other feminist concerns that it does not touch on. The book would undoubtedly be enhanced by a more in-depth discussion of the damaging effects on women of colour of the fact that white beauty norms are presented as neutral and universal; although, as a white Jewish woman, Wolf may have felt not best placed to explore those questions at length. Feminists of colour have written extensively about the 'whitewashing' of fashion magazines and the beauty industry, and continuing this analysis is an essential part of deepening and strengthening a feminist critique of the beauty myth. But while it might be correct to say that a preoccupation with issues of appearance is often indicative of a certain amount of privilege, we shouldn't conclude that it's therefore a problem not worthy of feminist concern. Feminism is a vibrant, pluralistic movement, made up of diverse women working towards a variety of goals. And we are all of us capable of caring about several things at once - we can want male violence against women to be eradicated, want childcare to be made more accessible and affordable, and want women to be freed from the shackles of an oppressive beauty regime. Despite their seeming triviality, appearance and beauty norms are a legitimate feminist concern because they make women worse off - physically, emotionally, financially - than equivalently situated men.

The Beauty Myth is an impassioned polemic, and in many places the analysis is irritatingly vague, with rigour giving way to rhetoric. As was widely noted at the time of its publication, many of the statistics offered seem dubious at best, so this is not the place to come for an accurate repository of data about cosmetic surgery or eating disorders. More frustrating for me is the lack of any kind of detailed or sustained engagement with important ideas surrounding choice and blame. Wolf is clear that individual women are not to be blamed for the decisions they make in order to survive in a society that judges their worth by their beauty. There is an essential point here that is often lost in much third-wave feminist discourse, which has unfortunately absorbed a neo-liberal distaste for being seen to express judgment of individual choices. Criticising the existence of a practice or institution, whether that's the monogamous nuclear family, pornography, or high-heeled shoes, is not to criticise or assign blame to the woman who chooses to participate in these practices. Every woman makes compromises every day to cope, and to try to flourish as best she can, under the restrictive conditions the existing social structure presents. Perhaps she gets pleasure and enjoyment from these things. She should not be castigated for doing so, and this is something that Wolf is careful to emphasise. But this does not mean that her choices are feminist choices, just because she chose them, or that because her participation brings her enjoyment, the practice itself is beyond feminist critique. Nor does the fact that a woman would make a particular choice against the backdrop of the beauty myth necessarily mean that we best respect her autonomy by protecting that choice.

What is needed here is a rigorous and sustained engagement with these questions: what conditions would need to be met, for a woman's choice to undergo cosmetic surgery to reflect her autonomous will, rather than a coerced response when faced with unappealing alternatives? When might we be justified in interfering to prevent a woman from making a choice that will be harmful to her, if that choice is shaped by oppressive gender norms? And what should the feminist who recognises the pernicious nature of the beauty myth, but also wants to survive living under it intact, decide to do? While Wolf shows an awareness of the importance of all these questions, she gives us little guidance about how to answer them.

Wolf's diagnosis of a contemporary social malady strikes the reader as just as true and relevant as it was twenty-three years ago. Women's potential is constrained and their self-realisation fettered by this new form of mystique, that makes being beautiful above all else a moral imperative, and imposes heavy social sanctions on those who will not or cannot comply. Fittingly, one solution Wolf calls for is intergenerational collaboration - to restore the links between younger and older women, and provide a new generation of women with role models and mentors. One of the successes of the beauty backlash has been to pit women against one another, and to encourage women of different generations to view one another as a threat. We have to resist that move, and recognise that as young feminists, we have much to learn from our foremothers. In Wolf's words:

It would be stupid and sad if the women of the near future had to fight the same old battles all over again from the beginning just because of young women's isolation from older women. It would be pathetic if young women had to go back to the beginning because we were taken in by an unoriginal twenty-year campaign to portray the women's movement as "not sexy", a campaign aimed to help young women forget whose battles made sex sexy in the first place.

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