Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth. Morrow.
From Seventeen and YM: Young and Modern, to Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Elle, women are victimized by a myth of beauty. The author rejects the magazines’ "yardstick of beauty" as she observes "women scan them as anxiously as men scan stock reports. It promises to tell women what men truly want."
In 1986 Naomi Wolf was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. One comment about this honor—that she had won the scholarship because of her looks—haunted the author and incited the writing of this book. She notes, "I had an image of the documents I had presented to the committee—my essay, a book of poems I had written, letters of recommendation—and the whole of it being swept away by that one sentence."
This book analyzes the ways in which the mass market portrays women in advertising and pornography in order to undermine their self-worth. They are programmed to "desire to be desired."
Not only do ads infer that physical defects need correction, but that they also victimize women socially. Wolf argues that today’s beauty magazines and commercials have produced a "violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement." Preoccupation with women’s appearance is bound to undermine the efforts and achievements of women, this book asserts.
The effect of the constant barrage of sophisticated images of beauty and countless products to achieve social desirability have produced deep in the souls of women "a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsession, terror of aging and dread of lost control."
When huge sums of money are spent for harmful products or services, one begins to imagine how it could be better spent. The billions spent globally on fashions could, the author argues, fund 2,000 health clinics or triple what the United States government now spends on day care.
Not all feminists welcome this book. Betty Friedan has come to a position, according to Emily Mitchell, in which she acknowledges some extreme pursuits of vanity, women ought to be free to "delight in a frivolous enjoyment of fashion without becoming a slave to it." According to Friedan, Wolf’s work "distorts the relationship between feminism and beauty" and amounts merely to an "obsolete rehash."
On the other hand, associate professor of women’s studies at Cornell University and author of a history of anorexia, Joan Jacobs Brumberg agrees with Wolf’s indictment of the beauty industry and its affect on women as she states, "At this moment looking good is the only coherent philosophy of the self that women are offered."
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Are fashion and beauty magazines serving or exploiting the needs of their readers?
- What do you believe are the relationships among physical fitness, a person’s need for self-worth, advertising, and anorexia?
- To what extent can women be physically desired and vocationally respected at the same time?
- In the struggle for women’s rights and full equality, may women be their own enemies and cause of their own pain?
- Must the current myth of beauty and fashion industries be overthrown, as the author implies?
- Men as well as women—and boys and girls—must address this issue.
- This issue demands understanding of the interaction between individual psyche to social institutions, as well as of the responsibility of the media upon their viewers.
- Families, schools, and youth leaders are all responsible for helping people understand the effects of media upon attitudes and values, and guide them to developing a proper response to such influence.
Dean Borgman cCYS