Revisiting ‘The Beauty Myth’

beautymythI just finished re-reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I haven’t actually read since college women’s studies class. It was pretty new then — I distinctly remember Wolf visiting Northwestern’s campus to fire us all up about the idea of Third Wave feminism — and it certainly spoke to me, as a budding feminist and beauty product enthusiast. But revisiting it now, 20 years later, evokes an all-too-common feeling I get when reading old feminist texts: Holy shit, nothing has changed. Or, actually, things have only gotten worse, in this case — I couldn’t help wondering what Wolf would make of bikini waxes (perhaps they’d warrant their own chapter, as they did in the book I co-authored, Sexy Feminism) or “vaginal rejuvenation.” At one point she evokes the spectre of sewed-up labia as a possibility in a terrifying future. Welcome to that future.

If you’re not familiar with this book, first, I recommend reading it immediately. If you’re a woman, it will change your life; you will realize you are not irrational, or crazy, or silly. There are compelling reasons you find yourself comparing your wrinkles to other women’s on the subway, or secretly delighting in shots of celebrity cellulite, or spending your whole paycheck at Sephora. Those reasons are systemic, cultural, and hell-bent on patriarchy.

Yeah, it’s a little depressing, but awareness is the first step. And at the end, Wolf outlines some great ways for us to take action against the Beauty Myth — which we must continue to do so that our daughters will look back at us and laugh: Why did you think you had to lose another ten pounds? I’m recording some of those ideas here in handy list form, both to remind myself, and in hopes that anyone else might join me:

1. We can wear lipstick without feeling guilty. We are not the problem here.

2. We must figure out how to celebrate female culture without mixing it up in the repressive demands of patriarchy. Any ideas, anyone? I think something like Lilith Fair, seriously, was a great start. I went to every one of those things in the ’90s — we need some of that energy again. (No, that attempted revival a few years ago was not quite the same.)

3. “Just as the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful.” We need to figure out how to make ourselves, and all women, feel beautiful.

4. We need to stop, as Wolf says, “debating the symptoms more passionately than the disease.” (Most of us in the feminist blogosphere are guilty of some version of this at some time.) “The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear makeup or don’t, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment altogether. The real problem is our lack of choice.” Here’s what that means to me: We need to stop being complicit in making beauty compulsory for all women. We need to stop judging all other women’s looks, forever, period. I can think of no reasonable exception to this rule.

5. We need to figure out how to give ourselves, and all women, a strong sense of identity that has nothing to do with our physical appearance. We must embrace the idea that all of us can be sexual and serious. One does not preclude the other.

6. We must ignore anyone who tells us we’re not beautiful as a reflex reaction to not liking what we’re saying. That means you, internet trolls. We need to speak up against anyone who uses what women look like, wear, or weigh to discredit what they’re saying.

7. We need to tell others about the destructive powers of the Beauty Myth.

8. “Let us refuse forever to blame ourselves and other women for what it, in its great strength, has tried to do.”

9. We must tell our stories. The internet is great for this.

10. We must try to resist the idea that we must “age youthfully,” that we must embrace the seductive idea that 40 is the new 20, or whatever. I personally don’t want 40 to be the new 20 — that sounds exhausting to me. I want very badly to be cool with my wrinkles and gray hairs. I think older women are beautiful; I really do. I hope I can remember that as I get older and inevitably freak out.

11. We must “look directly at one another, and find alternative images of beauty in a female subculture; seek out the plays, music, films that illuminate women in three dimensions; find the biographies of women, the women’s history, the heroines that in each generation are submerged from view; fill in the terrible, ‘beautiful’ blanks.”

12. This also means we need media literacy, to help ourselves and others see through the images that are fed to us by beauty advertisers. (That means the editorial copy and TV shows that run next to those ads, too.) We have the power, especially with blogging, to speak out against any images that reinforce the Beauty Myth. Women inside mainstream media can help, too, though they’re often hamstrung by those advertisers. Whatever we can sneak into mainstream media is a victory.

13. We must develop and attend to our own sexuality, rather than deriving it from these false images.

14. We must eroticize equality. How? Probably more female-made porn and erotica, for starters.

15. We could stand to see each other naked more. You might resist that locker-room scene, but seeing other women’s bodies, in all their non-standard, non-pornified variations, is a revelation.

16. We need to join with other feminists to fight these battles. We can’t fix any of this alone.

17. We need to hang out with women of all ages. Part of what the Beauty Myth does is to pit us against each other and make us afraid of aging. The more older women you know, the less scary aging gets. And the more younger women you know, the more you’re helping. We need better role models than the ones media handpicks for us.

18. We need to talk about the pitfalls of being “beautiful” as much as we talk about the problems with being deemed “ugly.” This has not historically gone well, of course; remember that woman who wrote about being “too beautiful”? (Summary: Everyone was all, “She’s not all that.”) While our society certainly makes it easier to be “beautiful” and “thin” than what it deems “ugly” and “fat,” women who are regarded as paragons of attractiveness are derided, taken less seriously, and treated as empty objects. They’re always accused of getting something they didn’t deserve, and accusing themselves of such. They’re also terrified of losing the advantage they have — of growing older or plumper.

19. We need to stop seeing each other as competition. It’s so rare that we’re actually competing with another woman for, say, the same man. Why do we feel like we need to compare ourselves to every other woman then? I love Wolf’s ideas about going out of our way to compliment other women, flirt with them, celebrate their beauty.

20. We can resist the urge to objectify men as patriarchy has objectified us. That’s a no-win.

21. “A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission — to eat; to be sexual; to age; to wear overalls, a paste tiara, a Balenciaga gown, a second-hand opera cloak, or combat boots; to cover up or to go practically naked; to do whatever we choose in following — or ignoring — our own aesthetic.”


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Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

Comments

  1. I love this, what a wonderful list! But I disagree with telling women to resist objectifying men. I hate when people berate women for “being as bad as men are”. And since there is no going back from what the internet has done to us, we need to find new ways to reach equality.

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  1. [...] mirror or break out your journal. Nor are we going to talk about makeup, hair, or diet tips. In the spirit of fighting The Beauty Myth, we’re going to get just a little Oprah-Remembering-Your-Spirit-ish here and share some of [...]

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