Wolf’s basic thesis states that there is a 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…During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty…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…
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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.”
Wolf’s research shows that there is a cultural backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty to keep women “in their place.” How many folks have succumbed to the idea of the ugly feminist activist who is only a feminist because she’s too undesirable to get a man? That popular concept first showed up on the scene to describe suffragettes lobbying for the vote. Wolf shows that, throughout the years, there have been forces in a culture that attempt to punish women who seek more control over their lives and their environment.
The Beauty Myth is the last (and most dangerous) of a long line of lies concerning the “rules” of feminine attributes and behaviour. It is the most dangerous because it has succeeded in affecting women’s internal sense of themselves. It has created a standard of femininity that is impossible to attain, and women are reacting with increasingly obsessive behaviour in their attempts to measure up. The energy that might be used to further positive goals is turned inward instead–dissipated in guilt, shame and unhappiness at one’s physical faults.
Wolf traces the historical path of these lies:
“A century ago, normal female activity, especially the kind that would lead women into power, was classified as ugly and sick. If a woman read too much, her uterus would ‘atrophy.’ If she kept on reading, her reproductive system would collapse and, according to the medical commentary of the day, ‘we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid’…Participation in modernity, education and employment was portrayed as making Victorian women ill…Victorians protested women’s higher education by fervidly imagining the damage it would do to their reproductive organs…and it was taken for granted that ‘the education of women would sterilize them’ and make them sexually unattractive: ‘When a woman displays scientific interest, then there is something out of order in her sexuality.'”
The attitudes toward women at that time are pretty obvious: women were seen as walking wombs, and anything they did to expand their usefulness in the world was attacked as a threat to this “reality.” That woman could have had more to offer society beyond the children they bore was not conceivable or allowed.
The advent of the two world wars changed the rules. It now became important to society for women to leave their homes and work for the war effort. Advertising in women’s magazines jumped on the bandwagon:
“A Pond’s cold cream ad of the time read: ‘We like to feel we look feminine even though we are doing a man-sized job…so we tuck flowers and ribbons in our hair and try to keep our faces looking pretty as you please.'” A cosmetics ad “admitted that while the war could not be won by lipstick, ‘it symbolized one of the reasons why we are fighting…the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely.'” The propaganda in women’s magazines of that day emphasized that it was okay to work in the factory, live on your own and earn your own salary, so long as you stayed “feminine.” And, of course, the goal of all women’s magazines was to be the sole source on how to be feminine. “Women’s magazines needed to ensure that their readers would not liberate themselves out of their interest in women’s magazines.”
After each war, the propaganda in women’s magazines took a drastic turn in emphasis. Forces in culture were concerned about finding work for the returning soldiers and fueling the consumer economy. It was important to put pressure on working women to get them back into their homes again, buying household products. How to do this?
“The marketers’ reports described how to manipulate housewives into becoming insecure consumers of household products: ‘A transfer of guilt must be achieved…capitalize on guilt over hidden dirt…stress the therapeutic value of baking, they suggested…make housework a matter of knowledge and skill, rather than a matter of brawn and dull, unremitting effort…identify your products with spiritual rewards…for objects with added psychological value, the price itself hardly matters.'”
During the 1960s, the second wave of feminism began to make itself felt. New avenues for women outside the home emerged, and women left in droves.
“The women’s movement nearly succeeded in toppling the economics of the magazines’ version of femininity…As women abandoned their role as consuming housewives and entered the workforce, their engagement with the issues of the outer world could foreseeably lead them to lose interest altogether in women’s magazines’ separate feminine reality…and the magazines’ authority was undermined still further with the fashion upheavals that began in the late 1960s, the end of haute couture and the beginning of what fashion historians call ‘style for all.'”
In 1969, Vogue made the breakthrough that has evolved into the cast-iron Beauty Myth of today.
“Vogue began to focus on the body as much as on the clothes, in part because there was little they could dictate with the anarchic styles…In a stunning move, an entire replacement culture was developed by naming a ‘problem’ where it had scarcely existed before, centring it on the women’s natural state, and elevating it to the existential female dilemma…The number of diet-related articles rose 70 percent from 1968 to 1972…The lucrative ‘transfer of guilt’ was resurrected just in time.”
We are bombarded today with images of the “perfect” woman. She is usually a gorgeous blonde, although sultry brunettes, redheads and exotic women of colour are also shown. She is tall and willowy, weighing at least 20% less than what her height requires. She rarely looks older than 25, has no visible flaws on her skin, and her hair and clothes are always immaculate. One “perfect woman” looks pretty much like the next; she is essentially not human, interchangeable and disposable. In fact, quite often she is presented in bits and pieces like a mannequin- -a torso, some legs, a shapely fanny–completing the assembly-line metaphor.
Our culture judges women and women judge themselves, against this standard. We forget that “beauty pornography,” as Wolf calls it, pictures underweight models that are usually between 15-20 years old. We never see a picture of a woman who is not wearing makeup applied by an artist, hair professionally coiffed, clothes professionally designed or chosen. Any natural flaws or wrinkles in her skin are airbrushed out. Unsightly lumps or anomalies in her body are also airbrushed out. Even when we see a photo of an older actress we know must have character lines on her face, they are never shown–the focus is fuzzed or the airbrusher strikes again to remove them. These are the pictures they show us of the “average woman
The attitude portrayed by the media in the 80s and 90s “includes an inspirational, individualist, can-do tone that says that you should be your best and nothing should get in your way.” This attitude contributes to women’s guilt about their bodies by saying that if you don’t look “perfect” you have only yourself to blame:
If you don’t look as gaunt as the fashion models, then you should starve or exercise to get that way; if you have lines on your face, you should have them cut or burned off; if your breasts are small, inject them with chemicals; if your thighs are round, have a doctor stick a vacuum cleaner under your skin and suck the fat out. In other words, the culture of today puts incredible pressure on all people, and women, in particular, to look “beautiful,” whatever that really means. And it maintains that if you don’t look perfect, there must be something wrong with your willpower because if you really wanted to you could.
Although most obviously fueled by advertisers, Wolf states that there are political and economic forces that act to maintain this standard.
“In drawing attention to the physical characteristics of women leaders, they can be dismissed as either too pretty or too ugly. The net effect is to prevent women’s identification with the issues. If the public woman is stigmatized as too ‘pretty,’ she’s a threat, a rival–or simply not serious; if derided as too ‘ugly,’ one risks tarring oneself with the same brush by identifying oneself with her agenda.”
Wolf carefully walks us through the various realms of life in which the Beauty Myth has taken its toll. I’ll discuss two of them: In the workplace, a woman has no clear legal recourse–her beauty, or lack of it, can be used against her: In one 1986 case, a woman lost a sexual harassment claim because she dressed “too beautifully.” In another, a woman was denied partnership in a top ten accounting firm “because she needed to learn to walk, talk and dress more femininely.”
In another case, the judge ruled that the woman rightfully lost her job because it was “inappropriate for a supervisor of women to dress like a woman.” Over and over, Wolf supplies precedent law in which the woman is judged to be too beautiful, too ugly, too old, too fat, dressed too nice, not dressed nice enough. In other words, it is legal for a woman to be hired or fired generally on the basis of her physical appearance.
The Beauty Myth has made its most serious impact in the realm of women’s health. 90 to 95 percent of anorexics and bulimics are women.
“The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association states that anorexia and bulimia strike a million American women every year…Each year 150,000 American women die of anorexia.” It is estimated that one woman student in five is anorexic. Cosmetic surgeons are having a field day, with women seeking out the knife for every conceivable flaw.
The Beauty Myth preaches that normal, round, healthy women’s bodies are too fat; that cushy, soft women’s flesh is really cellulite; that women with small breasts aren’t sexy; that women lacking the “perfect” face aren’t attractive; that a woman over 30 who shows signs of life on her face is ugly. No wonder women are either not asking or disregarding the dangers of cosmetic surgery in their quest for this holy grail of “beauty.”
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