Medical Humanities,  Non-fiction

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

I borrowed The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf from the school library last June, because I realised that it is one of those landmarks in feminist theory that I still had to read.

Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

During my degree, I had one of my now PhD supervisors talk about “The Third Shift” for women, and the idea stayed with me for a long time. Basically, Wolf establishes three working shifts for women: their job, domestic duties, and beauty routines/rituals. The three are compulsory for women in Western, affluent cultures, and they contribute to the sense of guilt and feeling dissatisfied with their (our!) lives. We never work enough, we never have a house clean enough, and we never do enough for ourselves.

I have to admit, that I did not enjoy The Beauty Myth as much as I thought I would. At some points, I felt Wolf was just transcribing beauty companies’ slogans and throwing figures and numbers at the readers. However, I really enjoyed the analysis she did on the evolution of the so-called “beauty rituals”. Women use cosmetic products, we have historically used them, and as Wolf herself makes clear, there is nothing wrong with it. But, one has to be aware of the discourse and the subtext behind the marketing of these products, is the equation of beauty with health, the most important. I had never thought of it, but many creams and beauty treatments are marketed as a need for women to be healthy, and if we do not buy them, if we do not buy into the idea that we have something to fix it ourselves, then we are left feeling guilty.

Ritual example
One of the many ‘beauty rituals’ for women that can be found online. Source: Google Images

And when and where did these rituals begin? When Western women started to get out of their houses after World War II. When we were, finally, given the right to vote. When we joined the job market in mass, and patriarchal men saw the status quo threatened. This is also the time when unreachable beauty ideals emerged. Wolf makes a great point highlighting how working women in affluent societies wish to emulate and have the bodies of the 450 American professional models (in 1991), an idea that gave me some food for thought: Why do we – because we all do, at some points in our lives – feel the pressure to have the body of a professional model, when we are students/professors/doctors/lawyers, etc?

Gisele Bundchen and the models at the Victoria Secret Show
Gisele Bundchen and some models at the Victoria Secret Show

Wolf also explores how this beauty myth, constructed to keep the status quo, is not something men in themselves want. Women are made to believe that all men want a supermodel, that to be desirable in a heterosexual, normative relationship, you need to look like Gisele Bundchen. But, the reality is far from it. It is the patriarchal establishment at its best, making women passive by creating the need to starve themselves, and follow tiring and unfruitful beauty routines to feel beautiful, which has produced a couple of generations of tired, underweight, passive women, the same way Victorian female standards produced sick, frail women:

“What the modern Surgical Age is doing to women is an overt reenactment of what nineteenth-century medicine did to make well women sick and active women passive”.

So, yes. I am glad that I finally read The Beauty Myth, and I think that it is a must read for anyone doing Feminist Studies, especially focusing on the body. It is also a necessary read for anyone who feels a part of herself is being held hostage because we have the right to feel good about ourselves, our minds, our bodies, and the life that we are constantly building.

“[W]e have to separate from the myth what it has surrounded and held hostage: female sexuality, bonding among women, visual enjoyment, sexual pleasure in fabrics and colors– female fun, clean and dirty.



  • Cathy746books

    It’s been quite a while since I read The Beauty Myth but I remember really liking it. I think we are more aware today of these issues but there didn’t seem to be much like it at the time.

    • Elena

      I enjoyed it and it made me re-think my so-called “beauty” performance. As in, I love make up and getting my hair done, but as the years go by I have learned to see it more critically, for which I can’t be thankful enough!

      • Cathy746books

        It’s funny because now I’m in my 40s, I see a lot of friends going down the Botox route. It’s quite scary how wedded we are to the notion of looking ‘good’ and looking young.

        • Elena

          I don’t personally know anyone who does Botox, but time will come when I do, I’m sure of that. What I really think this bought taught me is that those supposed beauty rituals are just ways to tire women down, to stripe them of their hard-earned money, to take away their confidence in themselves… And I find this really scary as a young woman.

  • Lizzi

    Excellent post. I’ve not read The Beauty Myth and I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy it frankly – so reading a review is very helpful! It all sounds a bit depressing.

  • Rebecca

    I read it ages ago as well, and I remember the conversations it sparked more than the book itself. One of my early conversations with my now-husband involved showing him the vast quantity of beauty products I had, and I didn’t even use it that often!

    • Elena

      That’s a very interesting anecdote, Rebecca. I have become more careful with what I purchase over the years, but I am definitely a hair-and-make-up girl and I tend to buy all my lipsticks in veeeery similar shades. However, books like this and Susie Orbach’s Bodies have helped me re-think everything. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you whether your perspective on beauty products has changed over the years as a consequence (or not) of books like this.

Don't forget to share what you think!