The Beauty Myth
In the 1980s and 90s, as American women entered academia, politics and business more freely than ever before, as science and law finally gave them reproductive control, conditions were ripe for a backlash. In Naomi Wolf’s words, it was a violent backlash that used images of female beauty as a weapon against women’s advancement. By 1991, when Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth, American women had suffered a decade-long plague of eating disorders. Legal judgments in the US and UK were undermining hard-won access to jobs. In case after case, courts ruled that a woman could be sacked by an employer for refusing to wear revealing clothing, for not looking youthful, or for not wearing makeup. Where once just a few jobs mandated a specific look (modelling, for example), that demand extended to service industries, journalism and other fields. No similar laws were passed about male employees, says Wolf.
The beauty myth is that there is an objective and universal quality of beauty, imperative for women but not men, based on biology, sex and evolution and therefore inevitable and changeless. And it is a myth. Society doesn’t care about a woman’s appearance per se, Wolf says. “What genuinely matters is that women remain willing to let others tell them what they can and cannot have.”
The decision to wax, exfoliate, straighten, or corset should be personal, Wolf points out, not mandated by employers who want excuses to pay women less and keep them subordinate, or by industries that profit hugely from making women feel worthless.
When a professional uniform for women was first mooted (“dressing for success” in skirt, jacket, medium heels, light makeup) so that women dressed similarly, as men do, would have to be judged on their work rather than their clothing, the fashion industry derailed it. Advertisers in women’s magazines used images to undermine a woman’s self-esteem so that she would spend more. “Beauty pornography” in advertising, as Wolf describes it, presented women as naked, helpless, abused and therefore desirable.
Wolf writes in angry, sweeping statements, leaving her sources and attributions to the footnotes. But two decades on, many of her concerns seem more urgent, not less. The beauty industry and cosmetic surgery industry are now monstrous, using fake science to sell women pricey and useless products and getting in our heads. The weight-control cult has ballooned. And society is inured to images of women in distress, which undeniably influence the way we deal with sexual violence.
Twenty years ago, Wolf believed we could get beyond the myth. She called for a feminist third wave, for women to ask what the power relations are between the dispenser of images of female beauty and the receiver. Can we define ourselves politically, professionally, and socially rather than physically? Most important, can we use our natural solidarity to overcome an artificially generated rivalry, across generations, across classes, and without discriminating on the basis of looks?
Undoubtedly we can, as soon as we acknowledge that the battle is still to be fought.