Origins of The Beauty Myth

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Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth," discusses the impact of our male-dominated society upon women. Wolf argues that women's most significant problems associated with societal pressures are a "fairly recent invention," dating back to the 1970s (6). She explains that women have "breached the power structure" by acquiring rights equal to men in areas such as, education, professional careers, and voting. As a result, Wolf suggests that the "beauty myth" is the "last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women" (3). Considering that the beauty myth is women's last battle, the struggle is increasingly more difficult. Wolf claims that women are currently experiencing "a violent backlash against feminism," noting the recent rise in eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and objectification of women's bodies (3,2). While Wolf accurately defines the beauty myth, she incorrectly states that eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and pornography are recent issues, resulting from an intentional "backlash" against women's rights.

Wolf utilizes the term "the beauty myth" to demonstrate that the interpretation of beauty is a creation of society, intended to keep women trapped inside their bodies. Wolf claims that the beauty myth "is not about women at all." She explains, "it is about men's institutions and institutional power" (5). In addition, she claims that women have recently obtained numerous rights, which now threaten "to destabilize the institutions on which a male-dominated culture has depended." She continues to explain that "a collective panic reaction […] has forced a demand for counter images" (8). Clearly, society as a whole does create pressure on women to act in a certain manner. However, Wolf's implication that it is an intentional, organized effort to keep women oppressed is one-sided and extreme.

While Wolf fails to conclusively prove that the beauty myth is an organized group effort, she is certainly correct in her explanation of the symptoms associated with the beauty myth:

There is a secret "underlife" poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control. (3)

According to Laura Shapiro, a notable researcher on eating disorders, the medical condition of anorexia consists of several elements. By definition, anorexia nervosa is a condition characterized by intense fear of gaining weight or becoming obese, as well as a distorted body image, and a feeling of loss of control (Shapiro 69).
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