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.
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.
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?
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.