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Beauty Myth
Modern Femininities
Summer 2017
The Beauty Myth (1990)
Naomi Wolf
Main idea: We are in the midst of a violent backlash against
feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon
against womens advancement: the beauty myth.
Before: domesticity was used to control women, feminine mystique
Now: women liberated themselves from the myth that they should
only be housewives; new modes of controlling women necessary
Wolfe: mechanisms of oppression - changed
Laws against job discrimination based on gender >>> emergence of case law in
Britain and the US that institutionalized job discrimination based on womens
Patriarchal religion in decline >> new almost-religious dogma around age and
Break with the old advertisements that promoted women as housewives,
cleaners, cooks >> replaced by advertisement based on beauty, skin care
products... the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the
arbiter of successful womanhood
Sexual revolution and the promotion of female sexuality >>> link between
beauty and sexuality
Reproductive rights gave women control over their bodies >>> the promotion of
unhealthy weight loss and eating disorders takes that control away
The beauty myth
It tells a story: that the quality called beauty objectively and universally
Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women
who embody it > strong men battle for beautiful women
Beauty as an evolutionary practice: beauty correlated to fertility > myth
Wolf claims that beauty is a currency system: it is determined by politics,
and it is used to assign value (to women) > an expression of power
relations in which women must unnaturally compete for resources that
men have appropriated for themselves
Beauty as an evolutionary practice
Claim that beauty = fertility, that it is a natural distinction
Wolf: says that it has been proven untrue: in nature, it is usually
males who display specific physical traits (color, size, etc.)
In primates: females are attractive to males based on whether or not
they are pregnant > the ability to become pregnant is attractive, not
any specific physical traits
W. links the beauty myth to power and patriarchy: cites examples
from history/mythology, e.g. Venus and Adonis: strong female with a
young lover whose only trait is beauty
In real life: tribes with matriarchal structures some differences. E.g.
in Niger, the Wodaabe tribe: men use makeup and compete in
beauty contests, women are the ones with economic power.
What is the beauty myth based on?
Wolf: not about evolution, sex, gender, aesthetics
It is actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and
sexual repression. The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is
about mens institutions and institutional power.
The qualities that a given period calls beautiful in women are merely
symbols of the female behavior that that period considers desirable:
The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not
Beauty as competition
Beauty an instrument of DIVISION among women
Youth and (until recently) virginity have been beautiful in women
since they stand for experiential and sexual ignorance. Aging in
women is unbeautiful since women grow more powerful with time,
and since the links between generations of women must always be
newly broken: Older women fear young ones, young women fear
old, and the beauty myth truncates for all the female life span.
Women and others: Most urgently, womens identity must be
premised upon our beauty so that we will remain vulnerable to
outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self-esteem
exposed to the air.
Before Industrial Revolution: there have been considerations of who was
a more beautiful woman, but no MASS-PRODUCED and MASS-
DISTRIBUTED IMAGES: a woman was exposed to very few images of
beauty outside Church, no mass-accepted physical ideal: the value of
women who were not aristocrats or prostitutes lay in their work skills,
economic shrewdness, physical strength, and fertility

Historically: according to Wolf, the beauty myth was invented in the 19th
c. industrialization and rise of literacy and living standards meant that the
middle-class expanded, there were more women who had to be controlled;
Wolf traces back the images of how women should look to the 1830s-
1840s; technology: photography, also printing technology that allowed for
mass distribution of newspapers ideas more easily spread
Emerging social fictions in the 19th c.
the rise of the beauty myth
a version of childhood that required continual maternal supervision
a concept of female biology that required middleclass women to act out the
roles of hysterics and hypochondriacs
a conviction that respectable women were sexually anesthetic
a definition of womens work that occupied them with repetitive, time-
consuming, and painstaking tasks such as needlepoint and lacemaking.
All such Victorian inventions as these served a double function that is,
though they were encouraged as a means to expend female energy and
intelligence in harmless ways, women often used them to express genuine
creativity and passion.
These activities: During a century and a half of unprecedented feminist
agitation, they effectively counteracted middle-class womens dangerous
new leisure, literacy, and relative freedom from material constraints.
As soon as a womans primary social value could no longer be
defined as the attainment of virtuous domesticity, the beauty myth
redefined it as the attainment of virtuous beauty. It did so to
substitute both a new consumer imperative and a new justification
for economic unfairness in the workplace where the old ones had
lost their hold over newly liberated women.
The caricature of the Ugly Feminist was resurrected to dog the steps
of the womens movement. The caricature is unoriginal; it was coined
to ridicule the feminists of the nineteenth century >>> link with
BEAUTY: the myth that feminists are bitter because they are too ugly
to get married: worth of women valued by beauty, and beauty used
to silence them
Beauty and work
Women have been asked to add a third shift to their workload ( job,
housework, beauty)
Before women entered workforce, a class explicitly paid for beauty e.g.
actresses, models, dancers = display professions
Wolf argues that all jobs have become display professions through 3
vital lies reinforced in the workforce:
1. Beauty is a legitimate and necessary qualification for a womans rise in
2. Beauty can be attained by any woman through hard work > beauty as
a valid test of a womans ability to work hard, i.e. her professional qualities.
3. Beauty becomes the next step women are asked to take: for every
feminist action there is an equal and opposite beauty myth reaction (e.g. in
the 1980s, more female employment and rise in womens power > also rise
in the importance of beauty)
Beauty as meritocracy
M. power structure based on MERIT: skill, capability, intelligence, BEAUTY
Beauty has been sold to people through a language that promised them they
could be beautiful if they made the effort: the language of magazines and ads:
Meritocracy (get the body you deserve; a gorgeous figure doesnt come without
entrepreneurial spirit (make the most of your natural assets)
absolute personal liability for body size and aging (you can totally reshape your
body; your facial lines are now within your control)
open admissions (at last you too can know the secret beautiful women have kept
for years)
THIS RHETORIC similar to the American Dream >>> if only an individual tries
hard enough, he or she has to make it, has to achieve their goals in the end.
beauty has gained some economic implications: beauty has become
equated to wealth, in that women have begun to use beauty as
a means of competition among women, the way men used money. By
the 1980s beauty had come to play in womens status-seeking the same
role as money plays in that of men: a defensive proof to aggressive
competitors of womanhood or manhood.
1980s laws about appearance in the workplace: the working woman
must be taken seriously:
What must this creature, this serious professional woman, look like?
Television: double image: the older man, lined and distinguished,
seated beside a nubile, heavily made-up female junior
Youth and beauty make the anchorwoman replaceable, GENERIC she is
asked to maintain beauty but that same beauty undermines her position
as not unique
Beauty v. qualification
women are asked to put the effort into being beautiful (e.g. older actresses or
anchorwomen wont be allowed to do their jobs)
BUT if she is beautiful, it will be said about her that she only got the job for her
looks, regardless of her qualities
Wolf calls this demand for beauty the professional beauty qualification
PBQ gives employers what they need economically in a female work force by
affecting women psychologically on several levels:
It reinforces the double standard: male and female appearance treated
differently at work.
It keeps women materially and psychologically poor: great investment in physical
beauty: cosmetics, surgeries, luxury products, trainers/gym memberships etc.
It tires women out
It inverts the male career span: men gain more achievements and success as they
age, old women less successful and wealthy than old men.
Nowadays: debate about workplace dress code (2016-17, Britain high heels)
Beauty and culture
literature: the myth > flattening the feminine into beauty-without-
intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind
or a body but not both
A girl learns that stories happen to beautiful women, whether they
are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to
women who are not beautiful.
Female writers: search for a beauty that has meaning many images of
a spirited heroine who is not particularly beautiful v. a rival who is
extremely beautiful but has an unpleasant character. the heros capacity
to see the true beauty of the heroine is his central test. (Jane Eyre)
Pop.culture: magazines: - censorship: magazines for women: controlled
by the sponsors; airbrushing: photos made to look younger, thinner,
more beautiful
Beauty and/as religion
Beauty has become like a cult: The Church of Beauty with its Rites of Beauty
strong belief system in the power of beauty
The beauty myth and religion both based on guilt: A worshiper who does not feel
guilty cannot be counted on to support the Church; a woman who does not feel
damaged cannot be relied on to spend money for her repair.
Wolf links the Victorian repression of female sexuality to the modern repression
of female eating repression of female APPETITE.
When sex stopped being used as a source of fear, guilt and shame (in the sexual
revolution), there was the need to replace it with a different source of these
controlling emotions:
Women have been taught that fear, guilt, and shame must always follow
In the Church, though men were tempted by sexual lust, women were cast as
its wicked embodiment. Similarly, though men have appetites and get fat,
womens oral appetites are the social embodiment of shame.
Beauty advertised through a language of religion: chocolate becomes
temptation, low-calorie food is salvation, spa treatments are heaven
The woman in these ads: capable of saving herself through effort and
the right products
Food becomes the sin to be revealed or confessed: the moment of
truth about weight, the scale does not lie, Your skin reveals what
you eat
Wolf also says theres The Cult of the Fear of Fat
the mentality of weight control is frightening because it draws on
techniques that addict the devotee to cult thinking, and distort her
sense of reality.
How does beauty/weight loss resemble a cult?
Cults follow an authoritarian structure. Dieters follow regimes from which they must
not deviate: The tone of diet books and features is dogmatic and unequivocal. Experts
direct the endeavor and always know best.
Cults preach renunciation of the world. Dieters give up pleasure in food. They avoid
eating out, restrain their social lives, and withdraw from situations in which they might
face temptations. Anorexics give up most earthly pleasuresmovies, trinkets, jokesas an
extension of food renunciation.
Cult members believe that they alone are gifted with the truth. Women with weight
obsessions ignore compliments because they feel that they alone really know just how
repulsive is the body hidden from view. Anorexics are sure they are embarked on a quest
that no one else can understand by looking at them. Self-denial can lock women into a
smug and critical condescension to other, less devout women.
cult members develop, from these three convictions, an attitude of moral superiority, a
contempt for secular laws, rigidity of thought, and the diminution of regard for the
individual. A high premium is placed on conformity to the cult group; deviation is
penalized. The aim of beauty thinking, about weight or age, is rigid female thought.
Cult members are urged to sever all ties with the past: I destroyed all my fat
photographs; Its a new me!
Women represented as objects of sexual desire, not subjects
women have to earn their sexuality through appearance
Young girls do not lack facts; they lack a positive sexual culture:
novels and poetry, film and jokes and rock and roll, written not to
sell but to explore and communicate and celebrate, as the best male
erotic culture is written.
Because they lack this positive sex.culture, the girls looks are turned
back onto their bodies: The questions, Whom do I desire? Why?
What will I do about it? are turned around: Would I desire myself?
Why?Why not? What can I do about it?
In the past, female sexuality and childbirth was kept a secret from men
Nowadays, beauty rituals are whats being hidden > again, beauty as
DIVISION this time, divides men from women, creates anger, suspicion,
incomprehension, ridicule
Wolfe claims that relationships of men and women are set up to be
difficult, because women both fear being loved only for their beauty for
which they have to constantly make great effort and NOT being
recognized as beautiful: A high rating as an art object is the most valuable
tribute a woman can exact from her lover. If he appreciates her face and
body because it is hers, that is next to worthless.
Not just insecurity: if a woman has self-respect, it turns into HOSTILITY: she
asks for positive evaluation from her male lover, but at the same time,
shes asking why he should be in a position to judge her against other
Why must she demand knowing about her position in regard to other
women, and at the same time hate knowing the answer?
Hunger and violence
Hunger: connected to control: girls and women are taught to control what
they eat -> hunger has become equated with beauty, a price to pay for beauty;
also hunger keeps women distracted thinking about what they eat
Violence: Wolf calls cosmetic surgery violence
Argues that breast implants can cause many problems, among which is also
loss of sensation in breasts: breasts become pure OBJECTS without doing much
for the woman herself
Wolf links relief women feel after cosmetic surgery to genital mutilation of the
Victorian era: women were told they should not feel sexual desire/arousal, so
after clitoridectomy, they felt relief from these forbidden feelings. Present
women: taught they should look beautiful/youthful, so after a surgery they
feel relief too.
Exaggerated claims of numbers of death from anorexia in Wolfs book
Historical research and analysis might be flawed
Centered on heterosexual women a lot of discussion about women
and male lovers or male partners
The Right to Be Beautiful (2011)
Michelle M. Lazar
Discusses advertising in magazines and newspapers, and how beauty is
presented in advertisements on beauty products
doing beauty is a vital component of doing femininity
Some feminists (associated, especially, with the second wave) have
criticized normative beauty practices, and the highly profitable
commercialized beauty industry that drives those practices, as oppressive
upon women generally.
Lazar shows how the beauty industry incorporated the language of
feminism and liberation in order to make their ads seem positive, to
market beauty products as a form of liberation
Emancipation as the right to be beautiful
Beauty practices were re-signified as productive of a new kind of
femininity >> femininity and feminism, or beauty and feminism, no
longer seen as mutually exclusive (debate on feminism and makeup)
Freedom and liberation from self-restrictions these can be located
in the body or in the attitude
In the body: advertisements use language of freedom: freedom from
oily skin, life free from stubborn fat!, I am hair-free for evermore.
[XY product] frees you of your beauty concerns and the effects of
stress (ads taken from a Singapore-based English newspaper, 2001-
What these ads promise is the FREEDOM TO BE BEAUTIFUL an
entry into a world in which women have flawless skin, a perfect body,
and no restrictions on clothes they can wear. Not having a completely
perfect body = seen as a CONSTRAINT. Freedom = wearing revealing
clothes -> but the ads use a language that suggests it is the womens
own desire.
This freedom to be beautiful is set against an imagined tyranny of
ugliness. Therefore, conformity to the (narrow) beauty ideals,
paradoxically, is represented as freedom of expression for women;
the liberating promise of beauty is to gain access to ways of life and
styles of dressing otherwise denied them, which does nothing to
challenge the prevailing norms of beauty and fashion.
Achievement of body beauty as a feminist right
Exercise your right to health and beauty!
pounds with the womens empowerment package. Women around the world,
unite. The struggle against the flab is coming to an end. With our new
Womens Empowerment Package, you can now slim down and shape up in 10
effective sessions. [...] So take a step towards liberation. Give us a call to sign
up for the Womens Empowerment Package today.
combines resonances of secondwave feminist sentiments with popular
postfeminist ones. Semblance of a second-wave feminist discourse is
rehearsed linguistically in the expressions: fight for your right, womens
empowerment; women ... unite, the struggle and liberation.
Beauty as self-belief, ambition, potential
To say the skys the limit isnt too much of a stretch. [Headline]
Try and you will see. Reach and you will achieve. At Amore Fitness,
its about taking that all important step towards achieving a healthy
and attractive body. [...] The skys the limit. So go for it at Amore
Fitness now.
These ads draw upon a motivational, self-help discourse that suggests
to women that emancipation lies in the hands of women
Beauty as the right to choose
Feminist debate: right of choice, e.g. reproductive rights: pro-life v. pro-CHOICE: framed
as a matter of CHOICE first and foremost
choice feminism indexes the shift to personal (rather than social and political)
choices made by women in domains such as paid work, domesticity and parenting,
sexuality, as well as grooming
Choice extended to matters of beauty and consumerism
appeal to the target consumer directly: Ads: choose from several products of the
same type, colors, textures, select specific parts of packages you want
The choices offered to women are to decide what (and how) to consume from a fairly
limited and indistinguishable range of products, as if this is the kind of choice that
matters. The option not offered to women is the one not to consume and, in turn, the
freedom not to comply with the commercialized beauty rituals and ideals entailed by
the consumption of those products.
Also compliant with third-wave feminism and post-feminism: idea of women as
individuals, not as one coherent group: many ads speak about custom fit, products
developed for a particular skin type or skin color, not all skin are similar, different
personalities even
These commercial choices offer only a SIMULATION of freedom