Monday, 14 November 2016

Is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf still relevant?

I've seen this book circulating around social media, hailed as this 'must-read' feminist manifesto. So like many hyped up books, you and I may reach for it without knowing anything about it; you know, hoping it'd change our lives etc etc. That's what I did anyway. Thing is, its one of those books you should know a thing or two about before reading.

Firstly, it's written in quite an academic style. Of course this isn't a bad thing but I'd gone from reading a string of contemporary, female memoirs to The Beauty Myth which was pretty dense in comparison. And don't be fooled, the abridged version may be shorter, but it's not exactly light reading.

And another piece of advice, definitely read it from the beginning. This isn't one of those 'start anywhere in the book and dip in and out of it.' Naomi Wolf sets out her argument in the beginning and then builds on this, to the end. The start was a little boring so I skipped a bit, only to find I'd missed the explanation of the beauty myth itself.

Now, I didn't find the central argument: that feminine beauty is an socio/political/economic weapon used by the patriarchy to oppress women and prevent them from advancing in society, entirely convincing. But the good thing is, your experience of the book won't hinge on whether or not you agree with the main argument as there's a lot of good, well reasoned insights you can take away. Here are a few quotes I personally loved:
  • "A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman loves her own body, she doesn't grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights." 
  • “Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or a body but not both.” 
  • "Whatever is deeply, essentially female - the life in a woman's expression, the feel of her flesh, the shape of her breasts, the transformations after childbirth of her skin--is being reclassified as ugly, and ugliness as disease. These qualities are about an intensification of female power, which explains why they are being recast as a diminution of power." - YES & I WANT THIS TATTOOED ONTO ME. And also what a beautiful way of looking at the female body?!
But on the whole I have to say I was quite disappointed by The Beauty Myth. Ugh, I know. I really wanted to see a conversation about social media and the internet and how this is impacting the female body but the book predates social media so this conversation doesn't happen. She instead touches on  the role and influence of magazines - perhaps less influential than social media but still relevant. On a whole though, the book could've been a lot less patriarchy and a lot more about consumerism. This may just have been due to the wave of feminism at the book was first published. 

I did also feel really frustrated at times when reading this because it focused entirely on the 'strife' (no shade ... but shade) middle class white straight women. And in doing so, the book completely failed to address how beauty ideals affect women of colour , women that aren't financially privileged and women in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Someone on Goodreads said that this book is "a shadow of what it should have been"-  couldn't have put it better myself.


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