A contestant in a beauty pageant. Photo: Getty
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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?

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.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper is a lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Warwick. She tweets as @boodleoops.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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