Monday, February 8, 2010

Review: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, by Naomi Wolf

I had heard quite a bit about The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women from various blogs (most notably Jezebel) before I finally got around to reading it.  The Beauty Myth is one of the first third-wave feminist novels that helped to highlight some of the challenges still facing women today.  Though some of Wolf's statistics regarding anorexia have been revealed to be, shall we say, exaggerated (i.e. made up), and the book was originally published  in 1991 and most of the information is therefore from the late 80s, it is still a worthwhile read.

In The Beauty Myth, Wolf introduces the metaphor of the Iron Maiden:
"The original Iron Maiden was a medieval German instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman.  The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation or, less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior."
Rather than a "body-shaped casket," however, modern women are trapped in a rigid set of societal expectations that puts yet another "job" (appearance maintenance) on a population that is already tired from full-time jobs and full-time household management.  The fact that women are expected to have a varied wardrobe for the office, hair styled, and make-up expertly applied in order to appear "professional" (while men have to have their shirts tucked in an their hair combed) is just one example of how these expectations affect women in the everyday. 

Most interesting to me was how Wolf traces these expectations of beauty straight to advertisers for beauty products.  Of course Maybelline wants women to feel ugly--if they didn't question their own beauty, they wouldn't wonder if "she was born with it."  This automatically puts women in positions of competition with each other, a competition in which no one is a winner when women descend to starving themselves, smoking to keep weight off, and plastic surgery to try to get ahead.  Here, for example, is my favorite passage from the book which points out that the flaws that Dr. 90210 (is that show still on?) highlights are not flaws, they are signs of life:
You could see the signs of female aging as diseased, especially if you had a vested interest in making women too see them your way. Or you could see that if a woman is healthy she lives to grow old; as she thrives, she reacts and speaks and shows emotion, and grows into her face. Lines trace her thought and radiate from the corners of her eyes after decades of laughter, closing together like fans as she smiles. You could call the lines a network of “serious lesions,” or you could see that in a precise calligraphy, thought has etched marks of concentration between her brows, and drawn across her forehead the horizontal creases of surprise, delight, compassion, and good talk. A lifetime of kissing, of speaking and weeping, shows expressively around a mouth scored like a leaf in motion. The skin loosens on her face and throat, giving her features a setting of sensual dignity; her features grow stronger as she does. She has looked around in her life, and it shows. When gray and white reflect in her hair, you could call it a dirty secret or you could call it silver or moonlight. Her body fills into itself, taking on gravity like a bather breasting water, growing generous with the rest of her. The darkening under her eyes, the weight of her lids, their minute cross-hatching, reveal that what she has been part of has left in her its complexity and richness. She is darker, stronger, looser, tougher, sexier. The maturing of a woman who has continued to grow is a beautiful thing to behold. (Page 231.)
I would highly recommend this book to all women.  It helps put images of beauty in context, which is something all of us desperately need.

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