The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

by Naomi Wolf

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060512187
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/24/2002
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 89,564
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Naomi Wolf is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Beauty Myth, Promiscuities, Misconceptions, The End of America, and Give Me Liberty. She writes for the New Republic, Time, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, La Repubblica, and the Sunday Times (London), among many other publications. She lives with her family in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

When The Beauty Myth was first published, more than ten years ago, I had the chance to hear what must have been thousands of stories. In letters and in person, women confided in me the agonizingly personal struggles they had undergone -- some, for as long as they could remember -- to claim a self out of what they had instantly recognized as the beauty myth. There was no common thread that united these women in terms of their appearance: women both young and old told me about the fear of aging; slim women and heavy ones spoke of the suffering caused by trying to meet the demands of the thin ideal; black, brown, and white women -- women who looked like fashion models -- admitted to knowing, from the time they could first consciously think, that the ideal was someone tall, thin, white, and blond, a face without pores, asymmetry, or flaws, someone wholly “perfect,” and someone whom they felt, in one way or another, they were not.

I was grateful to have had the good luck to write a book that connected my own experience to that of women everywhere -- indeed, to the experiences of women in seventeen countries around the world. I was even more grateful for the ways that my readers were using the book. “This book helped me get over my eating disorder,” I was often told. “I read magazines differently now.” “I've stopped hating my crow's feet.” For many women, the book was a tool for empowerment. Like sleuths and critics, they were deconstructing their own personal beauty myths.

While the book was embraced in a variety of ways by readers of many different backgrounds, it also sparkeda very heated debate in the public forum. Female TV commentators bristled at my argument that women in television were compensated in relation to their looks and at my claim of a double standard that did not evaluate their male peers on appearance as directly. Right-wing radio hosts commented that, if I had a problem with being expected to live up to ideals of how women should look, there must be something personally wrong with me. Interviewers suggested that my concern about anorexia was simply a misplaced privileged-white-girl psychodrama. And on daytime TV, on show after show, the questions directed to me often became almost hostile -- very possibly influenced by the ads that followed them, purchased by the multibillion-dollar dieting industry, making unfounded claims that are now illegal. Frequently, commentators, either deliberately or inadvertently, though always incorrectly, held that I claimed women were wrong to shave their legs or wear lipstick. This is a misunderstanding indeed, for what I support in this book is a woman's right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what market forces and a multibillion-dollar advertisersing industry dictate.

Overall, though, audiences (more publicly than privately) seemed to feel that questioning beauty ideals was not only unfeminine but almost un-American. For a reader in the twenty-first century this may be hard to believe, but way back in 1991, it was considered quite heretical to challenge or call into question the ideal of beauty that was, at that time, very rigid. We were just coming out of what I have called “The Evil Eighties,” a time when intense conservatism had become allied with strong antifeminism in our culture, making arguments about feminine ideals seem ill-mannered, even freakish. Reagan had just had his long run of power, the Equal Rights Amendment had run out of steam, women's activists were in retreat, women were being told they couldn't “have it all.” As Susan Faludi so aptly showed in her book Backlash, which was published at about the same time as The Beauty Myth, Newsweek was telling women that they had a greater chance of being killed by terrorists than of marrying in mid-career. Feminism had become “the f-word.” Women who complained about the beauty myth were assumed to have a personal shortcoming themselves: they must be fat, ugly, incapable of satisfying a man, “feminazis,” or -- horrors -- lesbians. The ideal of the time -- a gaunt, yet full-breasted Caucasian, not often found in nature -- was assumed by the mass media, and often by magazine readers and movie watchers as well, to be eternal, transcendent. It seemed important beyond question to try somehow to live up to that ideal.

When I talked to audiences about the epidemic of eating disorders, for instance, or about the dangers of silicone breast implants, I was often given a response straight out of Plato's Symposium, the famous dialogue about eternal and unchanging ideals: something like, “Women have always suffered for beauty.” In short, it was not commonly understood at that time that ideals didn't simply descend from heaven, that they actually came from somewhere and that they served a purpose. That purpose, as I would then explain, was often a financial one, namely to increase the profits of those advertisers whose ad dollars actually drove the media that, in turn, created the ideals. The ideal, I argued, also served a political end. The stronger women were becoming politically, the heavier the ideals of beauty would bear down upon them, mostly in order to distract their energy and undermine their progress.

Some ten years later, what has changed? Where is the beauty myth today? It has mutated a bit and, thus, it bears looking at with fresh eyes.

Well, most satisfyingly, today you would be hard-pressed to find a twelve-year-old girl who is not all too familiar with the idea that “ideals” are too tough on girls, that they are unnatural, and that following them too slavishly is neither healthy nor cool. American Girl magazine, aimed at nine-year-olds, discusses the benefits of loving your body and how misguided it is to try to look like Britney Spears in order to be happy. Junior high...

The Beauty Myth. Copyright © by Naomi Wolf. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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The Beauty Myth 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not an expert in feminist literature and don't have any strong opinions on the subject. I found this to be a very interesting read, though quite a bit of it bordered on the unpleasant and the disturbing--rape, violence, surgical violation of the body. It also treads the line between the scholarly and the general interest book, although it's probably much closer to the latter. Very well written, it felt a bit tragic, poetic, philosophical, and almost Freudian in style. A general criticism: could it be that some women seek to beautify themselves, even in an extreme manner, somewhat independent of modern societal, or patriarchical, influences? An evolutionary biologist might argue that some if not most women might have an emphasis on beauty that is hardwired into their brains, and we are simply observing a manifestation of that inherent nature in the modern environment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is something feminists will love, curious readers will find very interesting, and doubters will find mind boggling. The only downfall I felt after reading it is that many of the claims are not directly cited, and because some of them are so extreme and unheard of, it behooves the source to define where the information is coming from. Not that I think the author wrote any false claims, and there is an index to go to (a lengthy one), but there seems to be a lot of shocking facts with no backing besides the authors word. On the positive note, this book makes one really open their mind to the modern conception of beauty, and possibly help them work through their own struggles of conforming to American standards of beauty. I would like to comment on thoughts such as the one posed by a young reviewer here- the one who believes that people who just look at an ideal female image and want to vomit are 'mentally ill.' Many young and older people legitimately come to conclusions such as those, but they are unfinished, ignorant thoughts. This whole beauty myth can take years and much intellectual curiosity to understand. Many powers that be work behind closed doors to conjure up these widespread images of perfected beauty, and the bombardment of images become part of many people's subconscious. I have little doubt that young teenagers who think that this beauty myth is simple will have a totally different understanding years down the road with much reading and critical investigation. Wolf offers a mind blowing view of how society's powers that be actively work to discipline females to follow a pre-determined standard of 'beauty.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Women have finally reached economic and sexual emancipation, only to be locked into a new prison--that of the standard of beauty, which is changeable to suit political and power purposes and has been perpetrated on us by the advertising industry and this society. And it has not happened only to younger women, but to ALL women. I can't tell you how many women I've talked to who are unhappy with their own bodies, can't enjoy their sexuality because of that self=consciousness with their bodies, and are always waiting 'until I'm thin' to feel connected with their own lives. I've also known anorexics and bulemics and women who diet until they faint, to end up only with anemia or osteoporosis. And the health industry has bought the whole mantra and keeps pushing it on us, even though women were meant to have a certain amount of fat and their hormones stop working properly when they don't have it, causing all sorts of illness. Sexual emancipation has actually been used against us to turn us into sex slaves, especially the younger women. How many young women have I spoken to who feel 'forced' into oral or anal sex or S&M and other things that they feel uncomfortable with but they don't want to 'lose their boyfriends'. I can't begin to tell you. Young women I talk to are not even surprised by rape anymore; it's almost as if it's expected, just another fact of life. And we call that civilized? Women are all disgusted by 'cellulite', but according to this book the term was actually invented by Vogue Magazine as recently as 1973. Before that it was just natural female flesh that changed with childbearing and with age. Until women wake up and take begin loving themselves as we are, we will never be really free. In fact, sometimes speaking with women today I feel they actually have less freedom than prior generations, because they have been locked into that cage of being everything to everybody, perfect wives, perfect mothers, perfect housewives, perfect worker bees who struggle only to hit the glass ceiling, perfect beauties, and sexual dynamos. And it's never enough, because no real live woman can compete with the illusion that pornographic magazines and film present--air brushed, and prettified, enlarged here and made smaller there by computer and placed on a lifeless page or on celluloid where there is no personality or humanity to deal with, no wants and no needs and is no trouble to male fantasy. What makes it doubly sad is that men lose also. Instead of having two adults come together in mutual love and respect because they want to be together, they come together out of a natural need that has been distorted on both sides to where it's barely recognizable. Naomi has said it all in this book. It should be mandatory reading for every woman and every woman who has a daughter.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought I had an idea of what is going on, but this book brought me to almost every dark corner of society's twisted 'economy of false ideals'. This book is over a decade old. Imagine if the statistics were updated, as things have gotten way worse. R.I.P. Naomi would roll over in her grave.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book tells it like it was, is and will be. There are no suprises here, just cold hard facts. It exposes the real reason many women are unhappy. The author is not afraid to say exactly what it feels like to be tormented & misunderstood. I recommend this book for all women & especially for those living in older or traditional families.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have had so much resentment toward this societies view of what women 'should be' that I allowed myself to become over weight. Why bother being perfect if these piggish American men won't hold up their end of the bargain! Ever notice how we see an average to ugly man with a beautiful woman? For too long women haven't demanded in their lives better looking men and settle for what society dishes out as 'normal' for women to want.The striving for beauty in women and economic wealth in men,creates a society of vast inequality and depression in women.Many women are depressed because we are made to feel we are NEVER pretty or thin enough to please the men.What are we! Mere toys!Yet the men demand little of themselves in the looks department and this is very frustrating for women.One sided and sexist for sure! Buy the book and have a real eye opener into how sexist this society actually is.Also this perpetuated sterotype about men being visual really has to be done away with.It only adds to the problems between the sexes.
peptastic on LibraryThing 2 days ago
This is one of those books that you intellectually know but need reminders from time to time that a lot of our beauty ideals are mass marketed from advertisers. At least I do.It's so easy to forget when it is so engrained in our culture that stick skinny is beautiful, perfect flawless skin [not going to happen for me no matter what.] and shiny hair, etc.Wolf's theory is that a lot of this started when women entered the workforce. The power base needed a new way to keep women down.I think she's not wrong but it's not the only reason the diet industry [totally the blame for the obesity epidemic] and cosmetic industry are so big. It's a huge factor for a lot of people. There's got to be a reason why so many guys aren't held to this level of perfection and feel entitled to a hot girl. Our movies, advertisement, culture do hold up what society feels but also is a huge pointer in how society are told to feel. Naomi Wolf makes that point about that in the place women's magazines have held in the cultural psyche. We place unfair and unrealistic burdens on ourselves for an unobtainable goal. Yes deep down we know that companies come up with new problems and solutions to sell stuff. It doesn't stop from me spending loads of money on moisturizers though.Personally, I heard more negative stereotypes from my mother that men were visual than in the movies. Movies and books would sometimes at least let the "plain" Jane get the career and guy. Alright, books sometimes let the plain girl get the happy ending.I think some of the negative reviews I read on Amazon gleamed from the fact they thought Wolf was placing all the blame on men. Wolf divided the beauty standards into categories and the first one happened to be the work place where women's appearances have been used against them. Men do get away with sexual harassment if their target is beautiful [she was asking for it] and if she's "ugly" [it's not harassment if they are making fun of you apparently.]It's a fact that men do make more than women without a degree in many fields. It was probably especially so when this book was published.She also gives us background information in how ad copiers have power to censor the magazines by pulling adverts if they run something that opposes the product they sell. Advertisers can be quite powerful. No one calls sexism when they pull from regular shows so I don't think Wolf is wrong here.I don't think it's man hating to say that a lot of feminism has died down because people think you have to hate men to be a feminist. Or that you have to be ugly to be feminist. I'm not ashamed to say I believe in equal rights for everyone. I'm not a beauty queen so I suppose that means nothing coming from me. [I only placed second in a first grade beauty pageant]Sexism is just one example out of many that those in power will use to keep the work labour cheaper.This book is out dated since botox hadn't reared it's ugly head yet. Women are being encouraged to get preemptive botox in their '20s and not to smile less they develop lines. That's hardly the fault of Wolf that she didn't predict that.In a nutshell it probably isn't telling us anything we don't know but what we keep forgetting since the beauty myth is so ingrained in our culture.Wolf hits it on target that the problem with the beauty myth is that it comes from outside approval so it can always be taken away.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing 2 days ago
The Beauty Myth is a good intro to women's studies and how women are trapped by conflicting expectations of their gender. Naomi Wolf argues that post-second wave feminism (the 1970s), women were put under greater pressure by gender expectations - because we still have to be beautiful and defer to men and have families as before, but now a career and independence and strength are expected too. We have built a society in which women are told to be both confident and submissive.Wolf discusses our unattainably narrow standard of "beauty," which shames women into thinking that they're deficient and barely able, out of pity, to creep about in society. There are images of physical violence and self-loathing in advertisements, mainstream media, and pornography - created by men, internalized by women. One of the best statements that Wolf makes is "A misogynist culture has succeeded in making women hate what misogynists hate."Wolf is careful to stress, both in the introduction and conclusion, that this book is not "anti-beauty." Women ought to be free to wear lipstick or overalls or both, without people "reading" their appearances as anything. But we live in an overwhelmingly visual society, with all of these connotations, expectations, and biases firmly in place already. The Beauty Myth raises our awareness of the absolutely unhealthy, hateful ways in which women are put down, and of the fabricated gender expectations that our society wrongly fosters.
nilchance on LibraryThing 2 days ago
My parents gave me this at 13, and it changed my world. I stopped hating myself and started questioning the media. It kept me from sinking deeper into a burgeoning eating disorder. In short, I can't recommend it enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More women of any age die from anorexia in a 10 year period than the number of women between the ages of 15 and 24 that die in one year from any cause at all. Never forget it, either!
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I felt this book was completely accurate and still is today. It provides insight on innacurate beauty myths and challenges women face daily. I found it to be a very interesting book and almost hard to read at times because I became angry with false statements made. I recommend every woman and man read this to help understand controversial issues between both sexes.
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