• That Nasty Feminist


The Evolution of 'The Beauty Myth' in 21st century western culture

Written by Lucy Thomas

“As long as the definition of ‘beauty’ comes from outside women, we will continue to be manipulated by it.”

(Wolf, 1991, 90)

Naomi Wolf’s essay appears to have stood the test of time, and I’m not sure if that’s entirely a good thing or not. Kudos to her for highlighting the challenges women are forced to navigate, but perhaps not kudos to society for remaining stagnant on these issues for nearly thirty years.

Essentially the ‘Beauty Myth’ is the idea that femininity and beauty are weaponised by ‘male-dominated’ political and economic powers in order to distract and undermine women’s advancement in society. This myth is insidious and internalised by women living in the western patriarchy as they constantly strive to be beautiful, only to be faced with life’s unyielding obstacle; ageing. The ‘Beauty Myth’ revolves around the age-old rhetoric that young is beautiful and old is rotten, this is specifically emphasised in Wolf’s chapter ‘Work’ where she coins the term ‘Professional Beauty Qualification’ as the benchmark of sexism in the workplace; you have to look a certain way in order to complete labour that is in no way affected by or dependent on your appearance.

Wolf uses ‘Playboy’ as an example and this got me stroking my imaginary beard and twiddling my imaginary moustache. ‘Playboy’ exploits femininity and exports it as a product for consumption, and this product (however unethical it may be) pivots on sex for sales. Therefore, part of the job description for a ‘Playboy Bunny’, if we’re taking into account that these women are sold as products for consumption, is to be sexy, attractive and feminine. If you were to put these tropes into a job description for a sales assistant, care worker or teacher, then rightly so an eyebrow should be raised, and the HR department contacted.

As I am writing this, I am reminded of a case study as such where Wolf talks about American news anchor Christine Craft, and how she was wrongly fired because she got too old. She lost the court case for sex discrimination because the judge argued it wasn’t ‘sex discrimination’ but a ‘failed marketing strategy’ (uh in my eyes they are the same thing). But the point I am making here is that she wrongfully lost her job because her job was to report the news. A ‘Playboy Bunny’ is employed to be sexy and entice readers, it is in their job description to sell themselves for financial gain, this is not in the job description of a news anchor. To criticise ‘Playboy’ is to hold them to standards that they never had. ‘Playboy’ will never respect women because to them women are a commodity, to make sales. Obviously thirty years later, this idea of sex as a commodity has snowballed since the rise of internet pornography, and even more recently with the rise of Only Fans. It doesn’t seem fair to use women as a commodity then simultaneously bash those women in the twenty-first century who utilise the internalisation of institutionalised sexism for profit. Seems to harp back to the old ‘don’t hate the player hate the game’.

I did vow to make my feminism more intersectional, and to read a plethora of sources in order to broaden my world view as far as feminism is concerned. Often feminism is absentmindedly branded as a one-trick pony, or what is often called ‘white feminism’, and fails to acknowledge how other various forms of inequality such as race, class and sexuality can simultaneously work alongside gender discrimination, resulting in all different types and extents of inequality. Wolf’s ‘Beauty Myth’ does seem to be applied to a ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘Western’ perception of the world, and perhaps that is because this angle is from Wolf’s own lens and view of the world, which she sees through the eyes of a white female. For this reason, Wolf’s ideas do seem somewhat limited in how they are applied on a global scale, but for the most part she conveys a horrifyingly accurate depiction of voyeurism in the twentieth century, with most of her idea still ringing true thirty years later.

The main thing for me that sticks in my mind is the dichotomy between the constant drip in the vein of ‘women’s culture’, and the embodiment of these things. Wolf uses women’s magazines as the example here, how as women we know that they are full of trash, yet they are also the shining beacon of everything that embodies women’s culture. Women are simultaneously taught to both hate and love, downplay and perform femininity, being criticised as either ‘too girly’ or ‘not feminine enough’ and I just wonder how that translates in this technological social media age? Has women’s magazines filled cover to cover with attractive models and beauty product advertisement been replaced with Instagram influencers, and PR promotions? Are we condemned for engaging on social media profiles as much as we feel we are for reading women’s magazines? Is this virtual world more insidious because scrolling in the virtual world is not tangible and therefore perhaps not as shameful as reading ‘Glamour’ or ‘Vanity Fair’ on a park bench?

The last chapter acts as basically a ‘how-to’ guide in dismantling patriarchal views of what is ‘beautiful’ or ‘feminine’ and instead internalizing self-love, wholeness and acceptance!! Wolf’s writing style gets criticised for being too academic, but I don’t think this is one you should be reading in a day, it should be savoured and annotated, underlined and discussed - squeeze every syllable out of Wolf because she has a brain worth picking! All in all, an accessible and insightful read - not one to diversify your feminism but perhaps a nice starting place if you’re new!

Buy The Beauty Myth here (£4.99)