I read Naomi’s Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth when it was first published in 1991. As an undergrad growing into my own version of a third-wave feminist identity in beauty-centric southern California, her words rang so true. If knowledge is power, then I and other feminists were certain that soon the tide would turn — girls and women would stop buying into this myth, stop buying magazines that promoted body-loathing, and we would rebel against unrealistic and unhealthy social norms.
Sadly, it’s 18 years later, and her message still resonates with undergrad women (and men) today. As a professor, I had the privilege of meeting Naomi when she came to speak at my campus, California Lutheran University, to present “The Beauty Myth.” As you watch this clip of her new DVD, I encourage you to ask yourself (1) How many girls and women do I know who believe in this myth? (2) Which corporations are profiting from their misery?, and (3) What am I doing to reject the myth and help others reject it?
Personally, I think make-up/hair products/push-up bras are okay as long as you don’t feel like you cannot leave the house without them — costumes can be fun as long as you love and accept yourself when you are ‘un-costumed.’ Eating healthy and moderate exercise are good goals, as long as your self-image and self-worth are not defined by your weight/size. For this post, I won’t weigh in on cosmetic surgery…that’s a whole post unto itself. But, as the mom of a 5-year-old daughter, I make sure to never criticize my appearance in front of her (though, I’m still working on not being critical in my own head), and I aim to de-emphasize physical beauty as a value in my interactions with her. Here’s wishing that Wolf’s The Beauty Myth will strike future generations of college students as truly mythical – outdated, outlandish, and out of touch with their generation…
Adina’s book, Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases came out in 2008. You can see an earlier post of hers, about sexually transmitted disease and stigma, here.
Adina Nack is an associate professor of Sociology at California Lutheran University specializing in medical sociology with a focus on gender inequality and sexual health. You can visit Adina online here. We are pleased to feature a post she wrote for us reflecting on a talk by Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth.
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ben — July 20, 2009
I think there is a tendency by academics to assume once they've conclusively proved that something is socially constructed, it doesn't exist; that once people realize this, the social construction will fade away. I'm not sure I agree with this. While we all know that beauty is socially constructed, there still is a standard (or, at the very least, multiple standards) of beauty and that affects daily life as much today as 50 years ago, and as it still will 50 years in the future.
Larry C Wilson — July 20, 2009
It would be a good idea to home school your daughter, as well as keep her away from TV, movies, and picture books of all sorts.
adina — July 20, 2009
Ben, I agree that beauty will always be socially constructed -- my hope is that we'll succeed in constructing and promoting a more diverse and healthier range of 'beauties.' This new film highlights the fact that multiple standards of beauty have not yet conquered the narrow construction of beauty that has been in place since at least the mid-80s.
SociologicalMe — July 20, 2009
Does Wolf's new work put any more effort into taking race and ethnicity into account when she talks about beauty standards? This was my (and many others') biggest disappointment with The Beauty Myth, and she's done very little so far to correct the omission.
Michelle F. — July 20, 2009
Ben - Wiser people than I have made excellent points (none of which, of course, I can remember well enough at the moment to quote or attribute) about deconstructionism as being not about revealing what is nonessential (and thus could be immediately discarded) but about revealing what is (has become) essential and even fundamental to our very subjectivity. I hope that many people are not treating the analysis of social constructs as a means to "shed light" on them in order to somehow dissolve them, since I think the majority of the literature treats them as very strong forces that require a great deal of subversion to destabilize.
julian — July 20, 2009
I want to be Naomi Wolf when I grow up.
Equally important -- but on a completely different topic -- are hir books "The End of America: Letter to a Young Patriot" and "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries."
I rather liked "Promiscuities," too....
Duran — July 20, 2009
Investigating in detail what beauty means to us and how we define it is a worthwhile activity.
Trying to subvert it or instigate societal change to do away with it is pointless and naive. Beauty, or attractiveness, is a construct encoded in our biology. Every organism that choose sexual partners has the concept of "more attractive" and the concept of "less attractive". "Less attractive" organisms attempt to become or to present themselves as "more attractive". This is basic biology, folks.
Even assuming away the concept of physical attractiveness, there will always be other measures of attractiveness. Social attractiveness (example: rock stars), financial attractiveness (eample: whoever that old dude Anna Nicole Smith married was), cultural attractiveness (example: my niece, whose mother is Jewish, will only date Jews).
It's about time everyone just faced it: people are not equal and never were, and people have attributes in others that they have marked preferences for.
So while I honestly do feel bad that young girls are putting on absurd amounts of makeup and going on crash diets to appear more attractive, that doesn't change the fact that some girl's family will have a beach house and some girl's family will live in a trailer. Or the fact that some girl's going to be a great conversationalist, and some girl's going to be shy and boring.
It's just a fact of nature.
Rhys — July 20, 2009
Gotta admit that I was surprised when I first found out that the author of "The Beauty Myth" is, well, beautiful.
Does it bother other feminist activists that she seems to care about her appearance and go out of her way to be seen as attractive with her makeup, nice clothing, jewelry, and hair?
Lisa Wade, PhD — July 20, 2009
Interesting point. For contrast, check out these great clips of Ariel Levy, who doesn't seem to give a flip whether people thinks she's pretty:
EGhead — July 21, 2009
I'd love to be all subversive and shit, but seeing as how my natural appearance was so mocked that I was left cowering in a corner bathroom stall at age 11, I'm kind of loathe to go back there. Believe me, there's nothing I'd like more than to stop wasting an hour every day on hair removal and go back to being my awesome Frida-Kahlo-esque hirsute self. If only it were that easy.
Frankly, I get tired of hearing other feminists exhort me about being 'natural.' Maybe being 'natural' leads to a few sniggers for you, but my 'natural' deviates so far even from the un-shaven norm that I'm terrified to go outside.
Coversely, when I have done my 'upkeep,' I'm very much conventionally attractive. As in, people ask me if I'm a model. And of course that kind of appearance comes with its own persecution that leaves me wanting to curl up in a corner.
This is not to say that people who fall anywhere else on the spectrum of attractiveness do not face unwanted attention for their appearances-- far from it. This is just the POV one young woman who wakes up every morning as the fugliest of the fugs and goes out into the world as the girl every guy feels the need to holler at. And that POV is shut the fuck up, I'm just doing what I can to survive out there.
Really, it's just as pernicious to tell women NOT to do something as it is to tell them to do it. I just want to be left ALONE.
And then I come back with ramblings « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape. — July 21, 2009
[...] in years past?? Perhaps I need to remember something posted by Adina Nack regarding Naomi Wolf, on Sociological Images: “Eating healthy and moderate exercise are good goals, as long as your self-image and [...]
grogette (Ali) — July 21, 2009
That's a good point EGhead. I can't speak for anyone else (or the video for that matter since I can't watch it right now) but personally I try to go by not faulting people for following beauty norms (admittedly this takes effort on my part) and praising/supporting people who choose not to. It's my small individual effort at opening up various avenues of "beauty" so that more people feel comfortable chucking the ideal if they want to.
Andrew — July 21, 2009
EGhead - it's really saddening to hear about the experiences you've had with your culture's attitudes toward beauty and toward women. In a way, I think they illustrate more deeply than the video a lot of what The Beauty Myth was saying. The manufactured beauty ideals that she describes are harmful to both the people who (almost) live up to them and the vast majority who don't. I can't really speak for feminists, since I'm a guy, but I wouldn't dream of telling you what you should or shouldn't do with your body.
I think the underlying problem you're talking about is that women's appearances are scrutinized, criticized, and ridiculed in awful ways no matter what they look like. Surely the industries that profit from the resulting beauty-panic aren't without blame, but more than anything it strikes me as one more facet of a much broader misogyny. I, too, spent my childhood feeling painfully ugly (glasses, braces, nappy hair and all) and as an adult became what you might see as conventionally attractive.
But because I'm a man, I don't get disparaged, called a "slut," or hollered at in public for being "attractive," nor did my homeliness ever stifle the sense of self-worth instilled in me by family and teachers as a child. If I get fat or frumpy, I'll probably feel insecure, but I won't have to fear for my social survival or the security of my partnership. I hope we are moving toward a time when the same things are true for women, but it will be a long fight.
Eghead, I also hope that one day you can look at yourself as "beautiful" before doing all those things to yourself that make the the beauty-brainwashed masses agree. As the stupid makeup ads say, You Deserve it. ;-)
n — July 21, 2009
Love the clip, and maybe the book explores this further, but as a naturally skinny woman, I'm tired of being told that men actually prefer bigger women like it's supposed to make everyone feel better. Of course people shouldn't try to be unnaturally thin, but why make the people who are naturally thin feel bad too? I agree with other comments saying that the best goal is to a diverse range of healthy beauties.
abby — July 21, 2009
Andrew - reading your comment made my day. It's inspiring to hear someone who recognizes their privilege so readily.
abby — July 21, 2009
Duran - it's not about attractiveness in general. of course that will never go away - no one can control who they're attracted to. it's more about the way girls are brought up to associate their human value with how physically attractive they are to men.
EGhead — July 21, 2009
I'm not saying I think it's wrong to criticize mainstream beauty standards. What I think is wrong is to expect women to just stop following them in order to subvert them. I'm plenty fucking subversive-- a vegetarian, animal rights activist, feminist activist, LGBT activist, I try to be conscious of what I buy and from where-- and I don't like the presumption that it's just a moderate sacrifice for everyone to give up their make-up, etc. Giving up meat is a moderate sacrifice. Being vocal about the rights of disadvantaged groups is a moderate sacrifice. Being afraid to go outside and interact with anyone is not.
So all of those women out there who naturally are not so far off from the beauty norm as to not have rocks thrown at them if they don't tweeze their eyebrows in the morning... how about you all start the revolution for the rest of us freaks? And in the meantime, don't tell me to ask myself what I'm doing to reject society's bullshit concept of beauty. I do plenty of rejecting, and I'm just trying to get by.
EGhead — July 21, 2009
And just to be clear, I realize that for some people giving up meat or vocally supporting LGBTs or whatever is not a moderate sacrifice. Maybe they need to eat some lean meats for health reasons or maybe they run with a particularly hostile crowd that would beat the shit out of them if they suggested we respect the gays. My point is that we do what we CAN and should not be made to feel bad about the things that we just cannot reasonably do. THAT is how activism works-- not by guilt-ing people into martyring themselves for the cause.
Kenneth M. Kambara — July 22, 2009
Always great seeing you "on blog." I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the peformativity of gender, à la Judith Butler. Have we gotten to a point where gender is "performed," but there is no original referent or psyche, let alone an idealized conceptualization from a feminist perspective? The most interesting thing I saw in this post was not just a discussion of the habitus/doxa within mainstream cultural milieu regarding gender, but also negotiations of the habitus/doxa of resisting it.
Kate — July 23, 2009
I've only just gotten to grips with the fact that costume can be fun - can be just a costume, can be fun without trapping me. I can wear pink, or heels, or a skirt, or even a goddamn tutu if I want, without having to fight the sterotype in everyway. Because I am a person, not just what I present as physically. And avoiding things I like, just because others like them too, is as bad as avoiding them because they DON'T like them.
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