In the eye of which beholder?

March 12, 1991

The Beauty Myth

By Naomi Wolf

Chatto and Windus (London). 1990. 276 pp. Hardback $29.95

Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg

"The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely symbols of the female behaviour that period considers desirable: the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance." This sums up the central argument in Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, a book which has generated considerable debate amongst feminists.

Wolf sets out to demonstrate through historical analysis that, whenever women have made gains through their struggles for equality, other forms of control have been developed to prevent them from fully taking advantage of and building on these gains. She provides detailed examples in her chapters on work, culture and religion.

She examines the recent emphasis on women's "beauty" as it relates to the separation of women from the domestic sphere. The second wave of feminism has opened doors for women in advanced capitalist countries. Wolf explains that these gains are not sufficient, that other mechanisms will be found to constrain women from challenging the system.

The system's need for women to remain a compliant reserve, to be utilised in the workforce when the economy is booming and to return to the home in recession, that motivates the exhortations to women to place priority on their image rather than their advancement. Wolf traces the pattern of women's image in the media as it relates to their participation in the workforce.

One of the most challenging aspects of the book is the role of the media, and specifically women's magazines, in shaping women's world view. Wolf places this in the context of the limitations of any other options for women to read and obtain information.

The narrow space given to "women's issues" and women's voices in most media sources make such magazines the main source for a large majority of women. (New Idea is the largest selling weekly women's magazine in Australia; Cosmopolitan circulates in 17 countries.) The role models and images presented through these magazines permeate our lives.

Wolf provides extensive evidence of the control that big business wields over their content and visual impact. Even the magazines that aim to cater for the "modern thinking woman" still contain articles about how to dress for success, getting and keeping relationships: image and sexuality come first.

The chapter on hunger exposes the horrific reality of this striving for image fulfilment. Wolf's figures relate to the USA but reflect a growing trend worldwide. Up to 10% of young US women are anorexic, with about 1 million women a year developing the condition. According to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association this has resulted in up to 150,000 deaths. In addition to these tragedies, anorexia's effects include anxiety, passivity and emotionality — which erode women's ability to participate in work, vity.

Wolf is weaker when she draws conclusions about the way forward. She correctly posits the key question in relation as "who profits? who is this serving?", but her overall message is confused. She leaves the reader with a vague notion that women need solidarity but that individual solutions can be found.

She sees the solution in challenging the system through lawsuits against beauty discrimination and through women exempting themselves from the beauty economy. She wants women to develop an alternative culture of beauty to counterpose to the mainstream images.

It would be more useful if Wolf had further developed her statements that women need solidarity along with child-care programs, reproductive choice and effective anti-discrimination laws. I think that it is through women fighting together to gain these demands that they will build solidarity — and an alternative identification of what it means to be a woman. It is through being involved in activities and campaigns that women will learn to challenge not only the myth-makers of women's images but will also make the links between these images and how it benefits capitalism to control us and other oppressed groups.

Overall, the book is a strong contribution to the discussion on women's oppression and particularly assists in its analysis of contemporary conditions. It supplements our knowledge about media censorship and reinforces the importance of developing alternative ways of reaching out in that sphere.

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