The Beauty Myth
Before Kate Moss there was Twiggy, and before Twiggy, well, women weren’t expected to look so slim-not at least, if we judge by Marilyn Monroe. And for Naomi Wolf (b.1962), that’s exactly the problem. Contemporary standards of feminine beauty have devolved to a point that can only be described as anorexic, and America’s young women are paying the price through a near epidemic of bulimia and anorexia. The most effective way to combat this epidemic, Wolf argues, is to show how what we call “beautiful” is a cultural myth that has been framed for certain purposes-essentially, Wolf believes, to keep women under control by imprisoning them in their bodies. A prominent figure in feminist and neofeminist circles, Naomi Wolf is the author of The Beauty Myth (1991), from which this selection is excerpted, and Fire with Fire (1993).
At last, after a long silence, women took to the streets. In the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970’s, Western women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role. A generation on, do women feel free?
The affluent, educated, liberated woman of the first world, who can enjoy freedoms unavailable to any woman ever before, do not feel as free as they want to. And they can no longer restrict to the subconscious their sense that this lack of freedom has something to do with-with apparently frivolous issues, things that really should not matter. Many are ashamed to admit such trivial concerns-to do with physical appearance, bodies, faces, hair, and clothes- matter so much. But in spite of shame, guilt, and denial, more and more women are wondering if it isn’t that they are entirely neurotic and alone but rather that something important is indeed at stake that has to do with relationship between female liberation and female beauty.
The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us. Many women sense that women’s collective progress has stalled; compared with the heady momentum of earlier days; there is a dispiriting climate of confusion, division, cynicism, and above all, exhaustion. After years of much struggle and little recognition, many older women feel burned out; after years of taking its light for granted, many younger women show little interest in touching new fire to the torch.
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest growing medical specialty. During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret”underlife” poisoning our freedom; infused with notion of beauty is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsession, terror of aging and dreaded lost control.
It is no accident that so many potentially powerful women feel this way. We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth. It is the modern version of a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial revolution. As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it wanted to carry on its work of social control.
The contemporary backlash is so violent because the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that has the power to control those women whom second-wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively uncontrollable. It has grown stronger to take over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity no longer can manage. It is seeking right now to undo psychologically and covertly all the good things that feminism did for women materially and overtly.
This counterforce is operating to checkmate the inheritance of feminism in the lives of western women. Feminism gave it laws against job discrimination based on gender; immediately case law evolved in Britain and the US that institutionalized job discrimination based on women’s appearances. Patriarchal religion declined, new religious dogma, using some of the mind-altering techniques of older cults and sects, arose around age and weight to functionally supplant traditional ritual. Feminists, inspired by Betty Friedan, broke the stranglehold on the women’s popular press of advertisers for household products, who were promoting the feminine mystique; at once the diet and skin care industries became the new cultural censors of women’s intellectual space, and because of their pressure, the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood. The sexual revolution promoted the discovery of female sexuality; “beauty pornography”- which for the first time in women’s history artificially links a commodified “beauty” directly and explicitly to sexuality- invaded the mainstream to undermine women’s new and vulnerable sense of sexual self-worth. Reproductive rights gave western women control over our own bodies; the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23% below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially, and a mass neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of that sense of control. Women insisted on politicizing health; new technologies of invasive, potentially deadly “cosmetic” surgeries developed apace to re-exert old forms of medical control of women.
Every generation since about 1830’s has had to fight its version of the beauty myth. “It is very little to me,” says the suffragist Lucy Stone in 1855, “to have the right to vote, to own property, etc. if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right.” Eighty years later, after women had won the vote, and the first wave of the organized women’s movement had subsided, Virginia Wolf wrote that it would still be decades before women could tell the truth about their bodies. In 1962, Betty Friedan quoted a young woman trapped in the Feminine Mystique: “Lately, I look in the mirror, and I am so afraid that I am going to look like my mother.” Eight years after that, heralding the cataclysmic second wave of feminism, Germaine Greer described the “stereotype”. “To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself…. She is a doll… I am sick of the masquerade.” In spite of the great revolution of the second wave, we are not exempt. Now we can look out over ruined barricades: A revolution has come upon us and changed everything in its path, enough time has passed since then for babies to have grown into women, but there still remains a final right not fully claimed.
The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate with their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.
None of this is true. “Beauty” is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West, it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact. In assigning value to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard, it is an expression of power relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves.
“Beauty” is not universal, or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman; The Maori admire a fat vulva, and the Padung, droopy breasts. Nor is “beauty” a function of evolution: its ideals change at a pace far more rapid than that of the evolution of the species, and Charles Darwin himself was unconvinced by his own explanation that “beauty” resulted from a sexual selection that deviated from the rule of natural selection; for women to compete with women through “beauty” is a reversal of the way in which natural selection affects all other mammals. Anthropology has overturned the notion that females must be “beautiful” to be selected to mate:Evelyn Reed, Elaine Morgan, and others have dismissed sociobiological assertions of innate male polygamy and female monogamy. Female higher primates are the sexual initiators: not only do they seek out and enjoy sex with many partners, but “every nonpregnant female takes her turn at being the most desirable of all her troop. And that cycle keeps on turning as long as she lives.” The inflamed sexual organs of primates are often cited by male sociobiologists as analogous to human relating to female “beauty”, when in fact that is a universal, nonhierarchical female primate characteristic.
Nor has the beauty myth always been this way. Though the pairing of the rich men with young, “beautiful women is taken to be somehow inevitable, in the matriarchal Goddess religions that dominated the Mediterranean from about 25000 B.C.E. to about 700 B.C. E., the situation was reversed: “In every culture, the Goddess has many lovers….The clear pattern is of an older women with a beautiful but expendable youth--- Ishtar and Tammuz, Venus and Adonis, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Orisis…..their only function the service of the divine “womb””. Nor is it something only women do and only men watch: Among the Nigerian Wodaabes, the women hold economic power and the tribe is obsessed with male beauty; Wodaabe men spend hours together in elaborate makeup sessions, and compete-provocatively painted and dressed, with swaying hips, and seductive expressions-in beauty contests judged by women. There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women.
If the beauty myth is not based on evolution, sex, gender, aesthetics, or God, on what is it based? It claims to be about intimacy and sex and life, a celebration of women. It is actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression. The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power.
The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behavior that that period considers desirable. The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance. Competition between women has been made part of the myth so that women will be divided from one another. Youth and (until recently) virginity have been “beautiful” in women since they stand for experimental and sexual ignorance. Aging in women is “unbeautiful” since women grow more powerful with time, and since the links between generations of women must always be broken. Older women fear young ones, young ones fear old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female lifespan. Most urgently, women’s identity must be premised upon our “beauty”, so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self esteem exposed to the air.
Though there has, of course, been a beauty myth in some form for as long as there has been patriarchy, the beauty myth in its modern form is a fairly recent invention. The beauty myth flourishes when material constraints on women are dangerously loosened. Before the industrial revolution, the average woman could not have had the same feeling about “beauty” that modern women do who experience the myth as a continual comparison to a mass disseminated physical ideal. Before the development of technologies of mass production-daguerreotypes, photographs, etc.-an ordinary woman was exposed to few such images outside the church. Since the family was a productive unit and women’s work complemented men’s, the value of women who were not aristocrats or prostitutes lay in their work skills, economic shrewdness, physical strength, and fertility. Physical attraction, obviously played its part; but beauty as we understand it, was not, for ordinary women, a serious issue in the marriage marketplace. The beauty myth, in its modern form gained ground after the upheavals of industrialization, as the work unit of the family was destroyed, and urbanization and the emerging factory system demanded what social engineers of the time termed the “separate sphere” of domesticity, which supported the new labor category of the “breadwinner” who left home for the workplace during the day. The middle class expanded, the standards of living and of literacy rose, the size of families shrank; a new class of literate idle women developed on whose submission to enforced domesticity the evolving system of industrial capitalism developed. Most of our assumptions about the way women have always thought about “beauty” date from no earlier than the 30’s when the cult of domesticity was first consolidated and the beauty index invented.
For the first time, new technologies could reproduce- in fashion plates, daguerreotypes, tintypes, and rotogravures-images of how women should look. In the 1840’s the first nude photographs of prostitutes were taken; advertisements using images of “beautiful’ women first appeared in mid-century. Copies of classical artworks, postcards of society beauties and royal mistresses, Currier and Ives prints, and porcelain figurines flooded the separate sphere to which middle class women were confined.
Since the industrial revolution, middle-class Western women have been controlled by ideals and stereotypes as much by material constraints. This situation, unique to this group, means that analyses that trace “cultural conspiracies” are uniquely plausible in relation to them. The rise of the beauty myth was just one of several emerging social fictions that masqueraded as natural components of the feminine sphere, the better to enclose those women inside it. Other such fictions arose contemporaneously: a version of childhood that required continual maternal supervision; a concept of female biology that required middle-class women to act out the role of hysterics and hypochondriacs; a conviction that respectable women were sexually anesthetic, and a definition of women’s work that occupied them with repetitive, time-consuming, and painstaking tasks such as needlepoint and lace making. All such Victorian inventions as these served a double function-that is, though they were encouraged as a means to expend female energy and intelligence in harmless ways, women often used them to express genuine creativity and passion.
But in spite of middle-class women’s creativity with fashion and embroidery and child-rearing, and, a century later, with the role of the suburban housewife that devolved from these social fictions, the fiction’s main purpose was served. During ac century and half of unprecedented feminist agitation, they effectively counteracted middle-class women’s dangerous new leisure, literacy, and relative freedom from material constraints.
Though these time, and mind-consuming fictions about women’s natural role adapted themselves to resurface in the postwar Feminine Mystique, when the second wave of the women’s movement took apart what women’s magazines had portrayed as the “romance”, “science”, and “adventure” of homemaking and suburban family life, they temporarily failed. The cloying domestic fiction of “togetherness” lost its meaning and middle-class women walked out of their front doors in masses.
So the fictions simply transformed themselves once more: Since the women’s movement had successfully taken apart most other necessary fictions of femininity, all the work of social control once spread out over the whole network of these fictions had to be reassigned to the only strand left intact, which action consequently strengthened it a hundred fold. This reimposed onto liberated women’s faces and bodies, all the limitations, taboos, and punishments of the repressive laws, religious injunctions and reproductive enslavement that no longer carried sufficient force. Inexhaustible but ethereal beauty work took over from inexhaustible but ephemeral housework. As the economy, law, religion, sexual mores, education, and culture were forcibly opened up to include women more fairly, a private reality colonized female consciousness. By using ideas about beauty, it reconstructed an alternative female world with its own laws, economy, religion, sexuality, education, and culture, each element as repressive as any that had gone before.
Since middle-class Western women can best be weakened psychologically now that we are stronger materially, the beauty myth, as it has resurfaced in the last generation, has had to draw on more technological sophistication and reactionary fervor than ever before. The modern arsenal of the myth is a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal; although this barrage is generally seen as a collective sexual fantasy, there is in fact little that is sexual about it. It is summoned out of political fear on the part of male dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom, and it exploits female guilt and apprehension about our own liberation- latent fears that we might be going too far. This frantic aggregation of imagery is a collective reactionary hallucination willed into being by both men and women stunned and disoriented by the rapidity with which gender relations have been transformed: a bulwark of reassurance against the flood of change. The mass depiction of the modern women as a ‘beauty” is a contradiction: where modern women are growing, moving, and expressing their individuality, as the myth has it, “beauty” is by definition, inert, timeless, and generic. That this hallucination is necessary and deliberate is evident in the way “beauty” so directly contradicts women’s real situation.
And the unconscious hallucination grows ever more influential and pervasive because of what is now conscious market manipulation: powerful industries- the $33 billion a year diet industry, the $20 billion a year cosmetics industry, the $300 million cosmetic surgery industry, and the $7 billion pornography industry- have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral.
This is not a conspiracy theory; it does not have to be. Societies tell themselves necessary fictions in the same way that individuals and families do. Henrik Ibsen calls them “vital lies”, and psychologist Daniel Goleman describes them working the same way on the social level that they do within families. “The collusion is maintained by directing attention away from the fearsome fact, or by repackaging its meaning in an acceptable format”. The costs of these social blind spots, he writes, are destructive communal illusions. Possibilities for women have become so open-ended that they threaten to destabilize the institutions on which a male-dominated culture has depended, and a collective panic reaction on the part of both sexes has forced a demand for counter-images.
The resulting hallucination materializes, for women, as something all too real. No longer just an idea, it becomes three-dimensional, incorporating within itself how women live and how they do not live. It becomes 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 of starvation, or less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior. The modern hallucination in which women are trapped, or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted. Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women’s faces and bodies.
Why does the social order feel the need to defend itself by evading the face of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to those formulaic and endlessly reproduced “beautiful” images? Though unconscious personal anxieties can be a powerful force in the creation of a vital lie, economic necessity practically guarantees it. An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that “justify” the institution of slavery. Western economies are absolutely dependent now on the continued underpayment of women. An ideology that makes women feel worthless was urgently needed to counteract the way feminism had begun to make us feel worth more. This does not require a conspiracy; merely an atmosphere. The corporate economy depends right now on the representation of women within the beauty myth. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith offers an economic explanation for “the persistence of the view of homemaking as a “higher calling”: the concept of women as naturally trapped within the Feminine Mystique, he feels,” has been forced upon us by popular sociology, by magazines and by fiction to disguise the fact that women in the role of the consumer has been essential to the development of our own industrial society….behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed in to a social virtue”. As soon as a woman’s primary social value could no longer be defined as the attainment of virtuous domesticity, the beauty myth redefined it as the attainment of virtuous beauty. It did so to substitute both a new consumer imperative and a new justification for economic unfairness in the workplace where the old ones had lost their hold over newly liberated women.
Another hallucination arose to accompany that of the Iron Maiden. The caricature of the Ugly Feminist was resurrected to dog the steps of the women’s movement. The caricature is unoriginal: it was coined to ridicule the feminists of the 19th century. Lucy Stone herself, whom supporters saw as a “prototype of womanly grace… fresh and fair as the morning,” was derived by detractors with “the usual report about Victorian feminists: “ a big masculine woman, wearing boots, smoking a cigar, swearing like a trooper.” As Betty Friedan put it presciently in 1960, even before the savage revamping of that old caricature: “ the unpleasant image of feminists today resemble less the feminists themselves than the image fostered by the interests who so bitterly opposed the vote for women in state after state.” Thirty years on, her conclusion is more true than ever: That resurrected caricature, which sought to punish women for their public acts by going after their private sense of self, became the paradigm for new limits placed on aspiring women everywhere. After the success of the women’s movement’s second wave, the beauty myth was perfected to checkmate power at every level in individual women’s lives. The modern neurosis of life in the female body spread to woman after woman at epidemic rates. The myth is undermining-slowly, imperceptibly, without of our being aware of the real forces of erosion-the ground women have gained through long, hard, honorable struggle.
The beauty myth of the present is more insidious than any mystique of femininity yet: a century ago, Nora slammed the door of the doll’s house; a generation ago, women turned their backs on the consumer heaven of the isolated multi-applianced home; but where women are trapped today, there is no door to slam. The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically. If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that has once again been made out of femaleness, it is not ballots or lobbyists, or placards that women will need first, it is a new way to see.