Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

This was part of last year's Feminist Classics Challenge. I didn't get a chance to read it because I was totally overwhelmed by graduate school that month. I finally got around to finishing it a couple of weeks ago, and wound up being pretty underwhelmed by it. A lot of that was probably hype; The Beauty Myth is one of those Big Feminist Books That Everybody Reads and Thinks Is Really Important, and the only author in that category who has ever lived up to the hype, in my opinion, is Susan Faludi. I've also had my view of Naomi Wolf pretty well poisoned by Fire With Fire, which is unbelievably victim-blame-y (so much so that I could only make it through a few chapters before tossing it aside in disgust), and her conduct during the Julian Assange rape fracas of a few years ago.

Reading The Beauty Myth confirmed what I've come to think of her: an embodiment of everything that annoys me about white, affluent, "empowered" American feminists. Incapable of seeing past her own good fortune, Wolf's analysis of the role that the beauty industry plays in the lives of women is shallow and completely lacking in nuance. Much of the book is songs in the key of "Duh!"-- totally obvious. Like, eating disorders are a form of social control? Really? Women lose a lot of time and productivity to looking good? No way! There's a double standard between the ways aging men and aging women are perceived? Say it ain't so! The cosmetics and plastic surgery industry exploit women's collective low self-esteem for profit? Whoa! That had never occurred to me before.

Admittedly, The Beauty Myth was first published in 1991, but I have a hard time believing that this issue hadn't been addressed in previous feminist works by other authors. Perhaps in a less comprehensive form? I don't know. Either way, it's relative strengths as a cohesive narrative of the way that beauty culture screws women over is totally undermined by the fact that it's really quite racist. In all of her talk of makeup and cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders, Wolf discusses racial issues once. In a single paragraph. No analysis of whiteness as the overarching standard of beauty, no discussion of the psychological damage that ideal inflicts on women of color, and no referencing the further extremes that they must go to in order to appear White-beautiful. That's a huge weakness, in my mind, as is the fact that she doesn't discuss the realities facing poor women of all races who are often stuck in the service industry, which is incredibly biased against women who are less attractive and/or are aging visibly.

The fact that the issues of race and class are totally off Wolf's radar is something I take a pretty strong issue with. Not only is it really myopic, it undermines the credibility of The Beauty Myth as a feminist work. I'd say it's worth reading for the theory behind it and its and the fact that I mostly agree with her overarching thesis, but it's so dated (how ironic that a book about beauty culture didn't age well!) that I don't think it's really worth it. 2 out of 5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. LOL at your comment about it not ageing well. When reading it and thinking about it I'm tempted to give the author the benefit of the doubt that the beauty myth and complex hadn't been systematically examined yet... what I'm less able to forgive is the fact that as recent as 1991 she couldn't talk more about the ways race and class compound the beauty myth issues. Thanks for your review!