The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women is a non-fiction book by Naomi Wolf. This is Wolf’s first publication and it has led to her being a spokesperson for third wave feminism. Since its publication in 1991 it has become a bestselling classic. Gloria Steinem thinks, “The Beauty Myth is a smart, angry, insightful book, and a clarion call to freedom. Every woman should read it.”
The thesis Wolf postulates is that the cultural and societal “myth” of feminine beauty is a political and economic weapon used by the patriarchy to undermine and prevent women’s advancement in society. Throughout the book she discusses that this type of oppression through beauty has been happening through history, especially after the industrial revolution. She pulls a ton of evidence and statistics (around 250 statistics) and uses tons of quotes. Her book is divided into six sections: work, culture, religion, sex, hunger, and violence. Each sections tie beautifully back to her thesis. The novel takes apart advertising, the modeling and diet industry and shows their oppressive nature. She talks about how the closer women get to power, the stronger the pressure is to be beautiful. The idea that women can either be sexual or serious, but not both, causes immense pressure on women to work hard to be both. There are many great messages in this novel and it has a great history of women’s oppression. Some of the statistics and revelations are downright scary. Since the book has been published I think many of the issues brought up have just increased in severity, making the book still relevant to today’s culture.
Although this book is a great feminist resource, I don’t particularly agree with everything Wolf presents. First of all, book came under criticism after publication because of her exaggerated statistics regarding the prevalence of eating disorders. Knowing that information beforehand, I took those statistics with a grain of salt while reading it. Second of all, I feel like Wolf subscribes to the “Devil Theory” ; A theory of history: political and social crises arise from the deliberate actions of evil or misguided leaders rather than as a natural result of conditions. While reading this book you see tons of statistics and figures about how women suffer because of the beauty myth in society, yet she doesn’t prove how. She does say that advertising agencies are part of this patriarchal oppression, and not the average man, but she does not give much further explanation. I was left wondering who was orchestrating this large conspiracy against women? Perhaps these beauty standards are just a natural result of our current societal conditions. I do not disagree that women (and men) suffer greatly from the beauty myth. I agree that there is an extremely high standard of beauty for women and trying to achieve these standards can be harmful and detrimental to other facets of their lives. Wolf attributes things that I see as a capitalist economy (ad agencies use sexualized images of women because sex sells) to a larger conspiracy that I just don’t buy.
Aside from the over-reaching conspiracy posed through her thesis the book is a great feminist read. It helps make women aware of the cultural forces at play when it comes to beauty. It gives the reader a historical perspective on beauty. The examples she uses throughout the book make it a great history of oppression, brutality and abuse against women. This is a great book for women to read to learn how to love their bodies for the person that lives inside of them, and not focus so much on the aesthetic aspects of beauty.