The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf discusses the current form of female repression. After the powers gained by women entering the workforce in the second wave, the beauty myth was rigorously introduced to society through a variety of ways. This new aesthetic-centred suppression once again curtailed the enormous progress made, by subjecting women to a new form of criticism. Within the text Wolf discusses the workplace and lists a disturbing number of cases where women were blamed for their attacks. She then describes the religious-like quality of the strict beauty regimes women put themselves through and then discusses the ‘beauty pornography’ (132) so evident in advertising. She also discusses the guilt the beauty myth urges women to feel, particularly about their weight and the rise in eating disorders.
When reading the text, I could not help but liken the beauty myth to the mind-set of the characters in Uglies by Scott Westerfield. Set in a dystopian future, once the characters turn sixteen, they undergo an operation to be rendered “pretty”. The protagonist starts the text systematically reciting the values of her society. As children they are trained to look for imperfections and to aspire for beauty, seen when she states ‘Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers [of beauty]’ (Westerfield, 16). Her friend sees the truth of the matter and angrily states ‘This whole game is just designed to make us hate ourselves.’ (44). Later the reader discovers that during the operation the pretties are given brain lesions which change how they think, making them docile and incapable of independent thinking. In our society, beauty is similarly aspired to, though rather than a standardised operation people can opt for cosmetic procedures. Rather than a brain lesion to change how we think, the beauty myth is potent enough to distract women from greater issues.
This indoctrination of the supposed standards of beauty has already begun. In real life, rather than being trained in class to pick out imperfections, we are trained by in-your-face magazines and cruel websites. When I was thirteen, a classmate of mine told me that she showered three times a day and was already using anti-aging cream. At the time I thought what a colossal waste of time, but looking back as an adult it just makes me sad that a child was made so self-conscious that she religiously scrubbed herself free of any scent and already feared the effect of aging. She had already turned into what Germaine Greer calls a woman ‘shaved and deodorized into complete tastelessness’ (43).
In the text Wolf discusses how the beauty myth became the new form of social control, replacing the weakening hold of religion and the sexual constraints so strictly adhered to by the Victorians. As with the systematic cleansing of my friend, the beauty myth encourages ritualistic beauty regimes including the waxing and plucking of errant hairs. Similar to the threat of an omniscient God looking over you, the beauty myth employs a sense of ‘constant surveillance’ (Wolf, 99) as well as ‘an internal police force’ (90) to scare women into constantly adhering to this beauty standard. This new religion of beauty appears more tenacious as women are constantly bombarded with ‘a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal’ (16) as opposed to the weekly Sunday service of Christendom. Wolf also argues that the beauty myth is so compelling, as it emulates the guilt associated with Original sin. She states ‘ads aimed at women [work] in general, by making women feel as guilty as possible’ (96). If a woman does not feel guilty, then she will not buy things to assuage this guilt.
In The Beauty Myth Wolf discusses how magazines are essentially held hostage by the advertisers that fund them. So no matter how much a magazine wishes to promote a healthy body image, they cannot write articles that advocate aging naturally as an anti-aging cream will cut its advertising. While Wolf mainly discusses magazines that encourage self-scrutiny, after the publication of The Beauty Myth there came celebrity-centred magazines such as Heat. With a gossipy tone, Heat and its counterparts contemptibly body-shame celebrities who are unfortunate enough to have gained the magazine’s attention that week. When combined with the numerous daytime chat-shows and tabloids that pick apart various celebrities’ style choices, it appears that women are being trained to continue and be a part of this overly finicky, critical culture we live in.
It is the general assumption that women conform to the beauty myth for (positive) male attention. As returning to the religious analogy, man’s view is seen as a godly view. This can be seen when Wolf states ‘A man’s right to confer judgement on any woman’s beauty while remaining himself unjudged is beyond scrutiny because it is thought of as God-given.’ (87) As well as aspiring for positive judgement from men, I believe that women entertain every new fad for acceptance among women. Wolf states that the myth ‘urges women to approach one another as possible adversaries’ (75). The ‘invasive physical scrutiny’ (274) applied by other women is why I have always found it easier to have male friends. The ‘quick up-and-down’ (75) look women generally employ instantly puts me off. The fear of being judged is the reason why I am an exceptionally shy person face-to-face and can barely stand public speaking.
The concern with which I write is about the worsening nature of the beauty myth. Wolf stated that ‘the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly’ (272) and now over twenty years later I can safely say that I have not met a girl who genuinely believes herself content with her appearance. Also with the internet being used by younger and more impressionable girls, evil/misguided people are encouraging the beauty myth with deadly consequences. An internet search brings up thousands of websites dedicated to tips on how to have an eating disorder. Until women start seeing the adverts for what they are (nothing more than a way to make money) the beauty myth will only continue to get worse, and the sorry secret of the matter is that ‘there is no right way she can look’ (275).
Claudia Austin is currently a third year student at Liverpool John Moores University. She has a blog called Me, Myself and Feminism at http://claudiaaustin.wordpress.com/.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1970. (Harper Perennial: London, 2006).
Westerfield, Scott. Uglies. 2006. (Simon & Schuster UK: London, 2010). Kindle version.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. (Vintage: London, 1991).