Book Review: The Beauty Myth

I hadn’t actually heard of this book long before purchasing it. Which is hard to believe, I know, because since reading it I’ve found it to be a very popular book- not least amongst feminists, but also amongst critics in the English literature world. I was able to bring it up in a seminar where we were discussing Mary Wollstonecraft (proto-feminist and absolute babe: look her up if you fancy meeting one of the mothers of modern day feminism). So, what is this amazing book?

Naomi Woolf is the author of eight books, a social critic, and political activist- in short, she is bad-ass. She plays an active role in highlighting the inequalities currently running through our society. Her book The Beauty Myth is written in clear and razor sharp prose, producing a logical argument on the misplaced importance of beauty for females. Though not such an easy or lengthy read as The Vagenda (I would recommend this as a starter for feminist reading, review right here: http://ecstaticallyem.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/book-review-vagenda.html) , it packs a similar punch and message. It’s a short read, and also affordable; I picked up my copy for £4.99, so you won’t exactly be breaking the bank to get your hands on it.

Down to the good stuff: what I learnt from this book (in a very condensed form, because I’ve found that this book has changed some of my ways of thinking). Woolf’s work is divided into an introduction and then seven chapters: The Beauty Myth; Work; Culture; Sex; Hunger; Violence; Beyond the Beauty Myth. And in order to let you into what I learnt, this reviews is going to be done slightly differently. I’m going to highlight nine of the questions this book made me ask. Because we can all say we’ve learnt things, but it’s when questioning comes in that we can start to move forwards…

  • Why is it that “thin” is seen as desirable in our culture?

What does it correlate with? Why do we see it as a mark of success? One interesting point that Woolf throws out is that “thin” is seen as a mark of our self control. Something that, to put it crudely, shows you have your shit together. You can resist that cake. You can get up every morning to go for a two hour gym session, followed by just a green juice. I think that this could be seen as a misplaced attempt of asserting power.

  • Could beauty also be a “political sedative”?

Is it that women are so focused on being “beautiful”, that they are distracted from making progress in other areas? In increasing the number of women high up in government? In large corporations? As CEOs? If we weren’t so focused on losing weight to match an ideal alluded to on magazines, in porn etc, we wouldn’t restrict calories and our brains would have that horrible fog cleared. Hunger is a powerful political sedative according to Woolf, referring to a study where ‘prolonged and periodic calorie restriction’ lead to traits of ‘passivity, anxiety, and emotionality’.

  • Why is ageing seen as a bad thing?

Woolf makes the point (and since I have noticed this on TV), that although there are many aged male presenters and broadcasters there are proportionally less females. Once they hit a certain age…they seem to all but disappear. If anything, this not only sends the message that aging isn’t a natural and beautiful process, but also creates a divide between women of different ages. The younger women are scared of aging, and view it as a negative. The emphasis on staying young makes those senior to us seem less likely to know what they’re talking about, and so the majority of us never really  gain anything from female wisdom that could be passed down. On the flip side, the older women see those that are their junior as competition, and first in line to replace them.

  • Why is it that a woman’s appearance can be used against her?

In the past two things have primarily been used against women: first chastity, and then that leaving the role of the housewife when women flocked to the workplace made you a bad mother. Now, according to Woolf, it’s beauty. This is the newest attempt to undermine women’s achieving what they want in this world: its a distraction, and something it seems we are ranked by. It isn’t enough to be intelligent, you must also be perfectly turned out.

  • Is rape-culture gradually moving into porn and what can we do about this? 

I’m sure that we are all aware that the majority of porn demonstrates a sickening violence towards women. And if it doesn’t, then the woman is nearly always a submissive/passive figure. This book argues that porn imagery is becoming akin to rape imagery, and with many young people turning to porn for sex education (because lets face it: the British sex education system isn’t up to much), it isn’t hard to see how for the next generation violent and degrading sex could be moving into the mainstream. Woolf herself point out that ‘even if we never seek out pornography, we often see rape where sex should be’ (p.43). If you are looking for someone making waves in the porn industry, then go check out Erika Lust. She’s a film maker who has created something new in the world of porn: porn where all participants enjoy it. As she says, its porn where sex is something beautiful, and seen from a new perspective. Every one in four searches on the internet is for porn. It’s currently acting as a replacement for sex education, and it’s also leading to misinformed gender education. She wants the ‘sex to stay dirty, but the values have to be clean’ (You can see a talk she gives on YouTube; type in “It’s time for porn to change, Erika Lust”). I have to say, she’s just been added to my list of inspirational women.

To add fuel to the fire, page 41 of Woolf’s book details how what I’ll here refer to as “the female porn body” (waxed, thin, flawless) works its way through several every day adverts: for perfume, for clothing lines, for cigarettes. All show the female body as something to be objectified, subjected to violence, or as the inferior sex. The female body is something that should be as polished and coveted as in porn, but also something malleable to a male whim: ‘if the women depicted in mass culture are ‘beautiful’ and abused, abuse is a mark of desirability. For young men, beauty is defined as that which never says no’ (pp.54-55)

  • How would society respond if the prevalence of eating disorders was amongst men, instead of women?

Think about this for just a few minutes. Eating disorders are on the rise in women. I whole heartedly acknowledge that it is criminally overlooked in men. However, it is more prevalent among women. Imagine that this is the other way around. See pages 56-57 if you want Woolf to do this for you. How do you think that people would react? Would the reaction be different? I feel it would. If the same number of men developed anorexia (and linked disorders) as women, people would be shocked. People would ask why. People would more emphatically say that things needed to change.

  • How much of the responsibility to create change is on us women?

For the system to change, women have to change their own attitude. A market that promotes a beauty myth ‘would be powerless if women didn’t enforce it against one another […] the toughest and most necessary change will come not from men or from the media, but from women, in the way we see and behave towards other women.’ (p.97). Much of the pressure placed on women to be beautiful comes from large companies attempting us we aren’t good enough- and their product will make us good enough. If women turned around and said “Hang on. I like my body and myself. I’m pretty damn hot”, think about how many businesses would go bust. I don’t necessarily agree that the makeup, fashion, and body care industries would lose out completely. A woman who respects herself can still like clothes, can still love makeup, can still love pampering herself (in fact this last one shows appreciation for yourself). Those that would lose out are the ones that offer quick fixes to get a body promoted by so much of the media: diet pills, for example. But on top of showing this respect for yourself, you have to show the same respect to other women too.

  • Where do men come into all of this- and what are the negatives for them?

I am not a “man-hater”. In the long run equality is in the interests of men as well. Already, media corporations have figured out that the same pressure applied to women regarding how they look, can be applied to men. Think of the explosion of male body building products. The adverts and media campaigns that feature men with a six pack. Think about how they’re already affecting the male population- in the same way that dieting became mainstream for women, this is becoming mainstream for men (don’t believe me? Check out BBC 3’s documentary by Reggie Yates, on male body building. It’s called Reggie Yates’ Extreme UK: Dying For a Six Pack). Women who love themselves and aren’t constantly made miserable trying to lose those extra few pounds, are generally a lot more fun to be around. If you’re a guy and you’re reading this, would you rather have a woman who looks like the airbrushed version of a model in real life, or someone who can hold a conversation, laugh, make you laugh, eat out and enjoy her food, and demonstrating a general passion for life, instead of spending her life catering to an ideal?

  • What can I do to dispel the beauty myth?

There are numerous little things I can try to do to dispel the beauty myth. I can wear makeup not because I feel like my skin isn’t good enough, but because I want to be creative and find it fun. I can go out for a meal and not worry about kcals, and weight gain. Because a pound or two won’t change who I am. I can complement other women on their personality, achievements, and, yes, their appearance. Because acknowledging beauty doesn’t come as a one-size-fits-all is a step towards dispelling the beauty myth. I can embrace the advice women who are older and more experienced offer me, accepting that aging is a beautiful thing.

This book contains so much more than the above. It got my mind working, and encouraged me to ask questions- as I’m sure it will for you. Even if you’re concerned that this is just written by “an angry feminist”, I would give this a read- even if the word “feminism” turns you off. Woolf notes how Gill Hudson, editor of Company at the time of writing, said young women were not encouraged to be feminists, because ‘feminism is not considered sexy’ p.98. If you don’t like labels, then that’s fine. Just don’t let it be because you, god forbid, don’t want to be considered less than sexy.

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