The Beauty Myth – Andy’s been hungry for the Wolf for quite a while

October 13, 2013

And she didn’t quite sate my hunger, I’m afraid.

The_Beauty_MythThe Beauty Myth was bought, if I remember, about the same time I bought The Female Eunuch, 20 years ago in London, when I’d left the church and wanted to explore ideas that breached all of the things I’d been raised to believe, not just about religion but about sex and gender and politics and science. Most of those books – The Female Eunuch included – got read in London. The Beauty  Myth didn’t.  I’m not sure why. A few years ago I suggested to Netty that it be added to the Reading Challenge list. She laughed at me.

As an owner of a penis I am arguably in a dubious position to comment on sexism and misogyny. But tough. I’m going to anyway.

Naomi Wolf’s book was huge at the time it was published. It copped praise from the likes of Germaine Greer (who said it was the most important feminist text since, um, her own feminist text) and Fay Weldon (who writes really shit short stories, but never mind). It also copped flak from people, some of whom objected to her allegedly inflated figures for female deaths from anorexia nervosa, but also from Camilla Paglia, who claimed Wolf’s historical research and analysis were flawed. I am in no position to know if any of these criticisms are justified. I will say that Wolf’s style could do with a little more clarity, both in terms of her expression and her argument. The chapter on Religion in particular is a fatuous if occasionally fascinating attempt to draw parallels between Judaic law and beauty product marketing. There is a difference between symbolism and reality. No. NO. There is. There really is.

Her chapter on culture was very interesting and arguably could have been longer. I don’t think she explores fully the role pictorial advertising played in – arguably inadvertently – extending the oppression of women earlier overseen by religion and “the feminine mystique”. She argues that the use of advertising and “the beauty myth” to oppress women was somehow consciously employed by the power structures that be, rather than the result of capitalism evolving in a changing global context. I don’t think capitalism is sexist, per se; it would oppress everyone equally if it could (and more and more, it does). But, in the early 20th century, as companies increasingly used pictorial advertising to sell their products, a generation of newly, somewhat emancipated women probably looked like a very nice target market, thank you very much. This doesn’t have to have been prompted by a structural desire to oppress women; it might have been simple greed.

Her thoughts on sex and censorship occasionally veer towards what I think of as “femistalinism”, but in other ways she is what might be described today as sex-positive. And the internet means the fight’s well and truly lost, anyway, as far as the availability  of pornography’s concerned at least. What that pornography depicts, and how, is another story. The pressure for women to be skinny has never really gone away, which is bizarre given we’re all actually fatter than ever. I was interested to read that, according to Wolf, anyway, female fat is not as serious a threat to a woman’s health as male fat is to a man’s.

What appalled me most about this book was the stuff that – tragically – Wolf got right. So much has not changed. Some stuff has changed, and a bit of it’s got better, but a lot’s got worse. Women – in particular those in positions of power and/or influence – are if anything more slave to their appearance than they were 23 years ago. I’m not terribly familiar with the pressures placed on women today compared 1990, when The Beauty Myth was published, but I think they’ve changed. Wolf was deeply concerned about cosmetic surgery and where its popularity among women was likely to end up. The laws in Australia are probably quite different to the US in terms of who can practise cosmetic surgery, and that probably has a lot of influence on the situation here, but I don’t think such procedures have reached the plague proportions she seems to have feared.  On the other hand, when Wolf talks about the “holy oils” – creams and lotions and washes and scrubs and yes, oils – the “problem” has become so ubiquitous you’d have to say that, again, the fight’s been lost. I have to admit that my boyfriend and I have about seven facial products in our shower at the moment. Only three of which I use.

Yep. Just the three.

Wolf does acknowledge towards the end of her book that the trends she has identified are bleeding across the market to men as well, and this I think is where her argument sort of falls down. Free-market capitalism has indeed been a force behind the oppression of women over the past century, but that’s arguably been a byproduct. Making a buck is the primary goal. And so now the products that have been marketed at women for decades are being repackaged and marketed at men. And we are buying them. Not just old homos like me and my boyfriend, either. Straight guys don’t buy Men’s Health because they’re secretly attracted to the hot guy on the front; they buy it because they are being encouraged to believe that’s the sort of body they should have. Patriarchy and capitalism might have piggybacked each other through the 20th century, but that doesn’t make them the same thing.

On a number of occasions Wolf dismisses scientific or evolutionary explanations for the things she’s critiquing. I don’t know what it is about the political left. People like Rodney Croome – whom I admire immensely – have criticised scientific research that attempts to explain same-sex attraction in genetic and biological terms. I know linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky – who completely transformed my worldview when I first read him – has said he can’t see how language could have evolved (WHAT. THE. FUCK). And science isn’t good enough for Wolf, either. But an explanation is not an excuse. As Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate, gay activists should not rely on evolutionary explanations for same-sex attraction (they don’t, they’re too busy yelling about there not being an evolutionary explanation) because there are evolutionary explanations for rape and violence as well. Explanations are not excuses. And evolutionary explanations for the oppression of women are not excuses. They don’t justify that oppression. They explain it. I’d have thought the difference was pretty obvious, but maybe not.

Nevertheless, The Beauty Myth was a revealing and depressing read. Also, I’m reasonably certain Lady Gaga pinched some of her costume ideas from the picture on the front cover.


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