Origins of The Beauty Myth

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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The lack of self confidence associated with anorexia is also evident in persons with a "terror of aging" (Shapiro 70). Therefore, Wolf's definition of the beauty myth coincides with the medical definition s of diseases associated with lack of self-confidence in women.

While Wolf correctly establishes the symptoms of the beauty myth, her reasoning for the existence of these problems is flawed. Wolf claims that "the beauty myth" has not "always been this way." She states that there is no "historical justification" of the beauty myth, and that it is a new concept. Wolf continues by explaining that the beauty myth is nothing more than "the need of today's power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women" (5). However, according to established historians, such as Kunzing, Mourao, Scarborough, Shapiro, Stunakard, and Yates, eating disorders, cosmetic self-beautification, and pornography existed prior to women's liberation. Therefore, it is impossible to claim that these problems are the result of the current "backlash."

Although the medical term "anorexia nervosa" wasn't coined until 1939, the word anorexia was first established as a term meaning "hunger" in 1598 ("Anorexia"). Stunkard states that "even though anorexia is thought of as a modern disease, it has been traced back to the Middle Ages" (264). Similarly, it is well documented that bulimia dates back to ancient times (345). Wolf states, "during the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially" (2). However, eating disorders were as significant an issue in past centuries as they are now, but inadequate documentation has resulted in the false belief that the disease is new (Yates 813). Consequently, the logic that correlates the breaking of the "power structure," with a rise in eating disorders is flawed.

The second finding that Wolf correlates with the "backlash against feminism" is the use of cosmetic surgery. Considering that cosmetic surgery was first invented in the twentieth century (Stunkard 284), it is impossible to compare the use of cosmetic surgery before and after women's liberation. However, it is possible to examine the historical use of other artificial methods of beautification, such as makeup and perfume. Ancient Roman women liberally applied henna with the expressed purpose of self-beautification (Scarborough 37). In addition, the use of cosmetic powders dates all the way back to 120 BC (38). The ancient Egyptians used perfumes, powders, lipstick, and rouge (Kunzig 85). Kunzig analyzes the reasoning for women's use of these cosmetics:

The essential of human life cycle haven't changed in 4,000 years. The Egyptians were surely driven by some of the use of cosmetics: in youth, the desire to seduce; in later years, the desire to forestall age. (87)

It is obvious that the use of cosmetics flourished thousands of years before women obtained their political freedoms. In addition, women's feelings of inadequacy were evident 4,000 years ago, again prior to any feminine liberation. Therefore, Wolf is incorrect in stating that there is a "relationship between female liberation and female beauty" (2).

Lastly, Wolf claims that the use of pornography flourished as a direct effort to keep women trapped in the beauty myth. She observes that pornography has grown into a $7 billion-a year industry (8). However, the use of pornography is documented throughout history, and it is clear that this industry flourished for hundreds of years. However, the "lack of critical attention" to the history of pornography has resulted in the misconception that it did not exist (Mourao 573). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pornography was a prospering discipline. Furthermore, during this time, the depiction of women was even more degrading than the time period addressed by Wolf. "[…] but, more so than many of the twentieth century examples of pornography… these early texts valorized female sexual activity" (Mourao 574). The ancient Greeks were familiar with pornography, as evidenced in the derivation of the word; pornography is classical Greek for "writings about harlots." The Roman emperor, Tiberius, allegedly compiled a personal library of the most explicit pornography of the day (Mourao 584). After examining the various historical examples of pornography, it is clear that the objectification of women's bodies is not a new phenomenon. While Wolf may be correct in stating its clear prevalence during her time, she fails to realize that pornography has been in existence for centuries. Therefore, pornography cannot be linked to women's acquisition of rights.

Wolf correctly recognizes that society pressures women to look a certain way, resulting in eating disorders, the use of cosmetics, and pornography. However, she fails to establish a clear connection between these issues and the timeline of the women's right movement. She argues "since the women's movement had successfully taken apart most other necessary fictions of femininity," the problems associated with eating disorders, cosmetic beautification, and pornography became prominent (Wolf 7). In addition, she claims that "the more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh on women" (2). However, after analyzing various historical sources, it has become clear that each of these issues has existed for many years. While Wolf should be commended for documenting the importance of destroying the "beauty myth," she is clearly incorrect in her reasoning regarding its timing and etiology. As Wolf stated, this “door” of the beauty myth where “women are trapped today” needs to be slammed (10). However, it important to acknowledge that this is not a new “door;” it is one that has remained open for centuries.


List of Works Cited

"Anorexia." Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1999.

Kunzig, Robert. "Style of the Nile." Discover. 20 (Sept., 1999): 80.

Mourao, Manuela. "The Representation of Female Desire in Early Modern Pornographic Texts, 1600-1745." Signs 24 (Spring 1999): 573.

Scarborough, John. "Drugs and Medicines in the Roman World." Expedition. 38 (Summer, 1996): 38.

Shapiro, Laura. "The Secret Language of Eating Disorders." Newsweek. 130 (Sept 22, 1997): 69.

Stunkard, Albert. "A Description of Eating Disorders in 1932." American Journal of Psychiatry. (March, 1990): 263.

Wolf, Naomi. "The Beauty Myth." Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Ed. Maasik and Solomon. Boston: Bedford, 1994.

Yates, Alayne. "History, Psychological and Biological Aspects." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (Nov, 1989): 813.
Working Bibliography

Bray, Abigail, and Colebrook, Claire. "The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment." Signs 24 (Autumn, 1998): 35.

Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity. New York: Times Books, 1985.

Hartmann, Susan M. "A History of Cosmetic Surgery (Review)." Journal of Women's History v10 (Autumn, 1998): 222.

Heinberg, Leslie J., and Thompson, J. Kevin, and Stormer, Susan. "Development and Validation of the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire." International Journal of Eating Disorders. 17 (Jan, 1995): 81.

"Society and Eating Disoreders." The International Journal of Eating Disorders. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.

Walter, P. "Making Make-Up in Ancient Egypt." Nature. (Feb.11, 1999): 483.

Ziolko, Horst-Ulfert. "Bulimia: A Historical Outline." International Journal of Eating Disorders. New York: Van Nostrnand Reinhold, 1996.
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