Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Beauty Myth

I've been reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. The book, according to its cover, is about "how images of beauty are used against women". It's very thought-provoking, and you'll never look at fashion magazines in the same way again. I'd definitely recommend it for anyone to read, whatever your gender. One main criticism I had was that I would have liked to know if the Beauty Myth had any different effects on queer women, but I suppose that'll have to be another book. Anyway, a lot of us have wondered if our society has different views of asexual women and men. Wolf's answer is a good one, even in a book that claims all women have an overwhelmingly sexual side just waiting to be unleashed when we can stop worrying about how we look. She says:

We see that, sanctioned by the culture, men's sexuality simply is. They do not have to earn it with their appearance. We see that men's desire [or lack thereof--ily] precedes contact with women. It does not lie dormant waiting to spring into being only in response to a woman's will. (156)

I completely agree with this analysis, and think that greater freedom for women to choose our own sexual destinies will result in greater freedom for all genders to do the same. Wolf's answer seems to apply to any orientation. Like I've said before, women's sexualities, or lack thereof, are entirely our own. Just like our identities are our own. However, the "world order", as Wolf calls it, doesn't make that fact obvious. As a kid, it was hard to find female role models and archetypes that were as fiercely independent as I was. It's still hard-- while I have to search, men's are what a co-worker calls "low-hanging fruit". I know there are lots of women like me out there; we're just not portrayed. If we could all find each other and band together, the world order would be going down...which of course, it doesn't want. Wolf ends her book with this missive:

Let's be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. Tolerate other women's choices. Seek out the sex we want and fight fiercely against the sex we do not want. Choose our own causes. And once we break through and change the rules so our sense of our own beauty cannot be shaken, sing that beauty and dress it up and flaunt it and revel in it: In a sensual politics, female is beautiful. (291)

Go girls, go!

(One more tangentially related thing: The Beauty Myth was written in 1991. Have we made any progress? Maybe a little...Wolf claims that women don't want men to love them "as they are", because we have so many imagined physical flaws. But, remember Colin Firth telling Renee Zellweger "I like you...just as you are" in the Bridget Jones movie, and suddenly every woman thought this was the sweetest, most romantic thing someone could possibly say? There may be no relation, but I just thought I'd mention it. Oh, Colin Firth...)


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Lanafactrix said...

Well . . . the line from Bridget Jones is a paraphrase of Darcy's super-awkward proposal in Pride and Prejudice. So one might say that the idea has been around for a couple hundred years at least.

Ily said...

It's interesting you mention P&P the book, because Wolf talks about Austen novels as examples of womens' literature trying to cope with the beauty myth. In books written by women from that time period, it was usually the not-as-pretty yet fiesty woman who won out. I wasn't familar with a lot of the books Wolf used as examples of this, but I do remember her mentioning Jo from Little Women, who sold her "one beauty", her hair, to help her family. Take that, beauty myth!

Susan Sanders said...

I'm afraid that in the almost 20 years since the book was written, the issues Wolf describes are much worse. Eating disorders are on the rise and starting earlier. More and more young celebrities find that if the starve themselves they will always be in the news. Plastic surgery is becoming so common, and these modified bodies and faces are served up as examples everywhere we look.
Especially among the young women. The ones I talk to accept these warped views of what they should look like. Many women I know in their 20's already think they need a breast lift!
And I believe a woman is judged by how well she fits the "ideal" more now than ever.