Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Beauty Myth (and Why I'm not Buying it Anymore)

There was the moment I stepped on a scale when I was ten and saw that I weighed 92 pounds.  I didn't even know what that meant but it was too much.  There were the half-naked bikini models on glossy paper, common decor of boys' school lockers visible to me when I was twelve and everyday after that.  Or hiding in the library pouring over Seventeen magazine, trying to figure out how to be pretty and what sexuality was all about.  Exercising to punish my body for what I'd ingested the day before, weeks of eating very few carbs and letting numbers determine my value. Being sexually harassed while waiting tables at a family diner when I was 22 and always blaming myself, never speaking up.  Hating my body and being terrified of nakedness when I should have been over the moon with soon to be married bliss.

I just read "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and all these memories have been coming up, I've scribbled them into the margins of my thrift shop purchase.  I don't agree with all of her conclusions but something has been torn open in my mind, some paradigm is shifting, some hope is being sparked.  I was raised with a good amount of self-esteem for a girl growing up in small town America, attending a public school.  I made pretty good choices, did well in academics and sports, got a four year degree from a liberal arts college and have traveled to a few amazing places.  At 25 I met a boy and married him when I was 27; I have two children and my husband sees me as his equal in all ways.  I have a community of people, across oceans and down the street, who love and care for me.  I'm a privileged person and a confident, passionate, "liberated" woman.  I wrote a love letter to my body which is one of my most widely read postsAnd yet I am astounded by how I still have lived under the power of the Beauty Myth.

The premise of Wolf's book is that the more women break through historical hindrances, whether that be legal or material (the right to vote, the right to work outside of the home, positions of leadership) the more images of female beauty are used to constrict and control them.  She writes this in 1990, when I was only a child, but I think many of these problems have only gotten worse:
During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical speciality.  During the past five years, consumer spending doubled, pornography became the main media category, ahead of legitimate films and records combined, and thirty-three thousand American woman told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal.  More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers. (10)  
Are most women individually neurotic and insecure about their bodies?  Or is there a greater force at work that seeks to undermine women collectively, a violent backlash against the corporate power of women to bring change in the world?

Wolf points to advertisers as the biggest players in determining what women think about themselves, because our economy is fairly dependent on their buying power.  In the 1950s the "Feminine Mystique" told women that their value was in being a good wife, good mother and good homemaker and then sold them home products to help them achieve that mythical status.  When women left homemaking for the workplace in the 60s, a new force was needed to compel 'insecure consumerism':  if women were no longer buying more things for their house, could they be convinced to buy more things for their body? "Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring "beauties." ... The Beauty Myth, in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution."(66)

Women's magazines that often featured pro-women content and had the potential to unite women for a common cause would lose large amounts of money from advertisers if they didn't also propogate the mythical ideal woman.  The focus on beauty in magazines is primarily an economic one, where "what editors are obliged to appear to say that men want from women is actually what their advertisers want from women."(73)  Wolf goes on to say that it's not sex that sells in advertising as much as discontentmentThe more dissatisfied a woman is with her body or her sexuality, the more estranged she is in relationships, the more stuff she will buy.  Hello, retail therapy?  It's a real thing and much more insidious than we think.

Wolf's chapter entitled "Sex" is fascinating.  I underlined about half of it and then read it all out loud to my husband.  The images of women that we see in, what Wolf calls, "beauty pornography" shapes our understandings (and mostly lack of understanding) of women's bodies.  It's relatively new for our culture to believe that beauty = thinness; impossible perfection = sexuality/sexiness.  Women are told that losing weight will make them feel sexier but it often has the reverse effect.  A healthy amount of fat is a female characteristic contributing to stable hormones, fertility and sexual desire; becoming thinner through hunger and dieting can decrease a woman's libido, especially when the motivation is self-deprecation, something never satisfied no matter what the scale reads.

We agree that violent pornography and violence against women in the media has devastating affects on how we understand sex, rape and our own self-worth as humans, increasing violence and abuse in our families and relationships.  But what about images of naked or near naked women who are not having any harm done to them?  Why does this bother us so much?  Wolf writes,
For the woman who cannot locate in her worldview a reasonable objection to images of naked, "beautiful" women to whom nothing bad is visibly being done, what is it that can explain the damage she feels within?  Her silence itself comes from the myth: If women feel ugly, it is our fault, and we have no inalienable right to feel sexually beautiful.  A woman must not admit it if she objects to beauty pornography because it strikes to the root of her sexuality by making her feel sexually unlovely. (148)
"Beauty pornography", the stuff we see daily in magazines, billboards and posters in the mall, makes women feel inadequate.  We will never look like her and therefore we will never reach the mythical status of 'beautiful'.  The objectification and comparison of women's bodies publicly is such a normal part of our culture (while it is very different for male bodies) that we are trained as little girls to do this to ourselves.  Women are asked to measure up to a hybrid ideal that, especially today, is computer generated (but we are convinced is real and possible even when we know better).  The Beauty Myth operates in a way that says, "You too can be beautiful like her if you just wear this, eat this, put this on your face, have your hair coloured like this; if you are not like her it is your own fault."  But models portrayed in beauty pornography will never look like real women because if they did then we would realize we don't need to buy the stuff they're paid to sell.

This public and private comparison robs women of their own innate dignity and it robs women in relationships from receiving love from their partners.  Early in our marriage I really struggled with the fact that I didn't suddenly feel beautiful and attractive all the time.  I blamed Chris because if he would just say it more or say it in public or say it at the right moments, when my eyes are asking him what he thinks, THEN I would finally know that I was beautiful.  We had quite a few arguments rooted in this and it was painful to feel forced to say "I want to know that you think I'm beautiful".   It quickly turned to anger because why in the world did I so badly want him to judge me at all?  Why wasn't this going both ways?  Why did he seem so secure that I loved him and didn't desire anyone else?  Why was I wanting to be measured and validated and he wasn't?

That's the power of the beauty myth.  It makes us be crazy and obsessive and fearful and competitive and it's not just our problem and it's not just "a mysterious hormonal woman thing"; it's a force that is trying to stop women from reaching their full potential.  The busier we are criticizing our bodies and measuring ourselves against other (real and not real) women, the more disengaged we will be in the world: we'll be less likely to speak up and take hold of  our rightful place in family, government, media, business and the church; we will be less likely to use our gifts and talents to seek justice and do mercy in the world.  We will keep buying the stuff they are selling.

What is the path out of the beauty myth?  Wolf closes her book with the question, "What will we see?" (291)  So much of the beauty myth's power will be broken as we challenge ourselves to see anew, to redefine beauty as something that all women carry, that is non-hierarchical and non-competitive.  We are enough and other women are too. We already are beautiful, we don't need to diet or get new clothes or cover up our acne or make love with the lights dim and we don't need to rank ourselves among other real or mythical women.  Wolf writes, "The 'beautiful' woman does not win under the myth; neither does anyone else... You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all.  The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her." (290)

Changing our habitual thought patterns takes time, maybe it takes years, but we must do it for our own selves and our communities but also for our daughters and sons.  Sarah Bessey wrote over two years ago, "In which I promise not to call myself fat" and it's really resonated with me now that my children are growing and listening and telling our family's story with their own words.  It may be a struggle throughout my whole life but I have so much hope that the next generation will have eyes to see what is truly there.

How has the Beauty Myth affected your view of yourself or other women?  Does any of this resonate with you? What have you done to walk out of the beauty myth's power? As always I would love to hear your thoughts!

  *(thanks for the pictures, Spiro)

Read Part 2 here: Breaking the Beauty Myth (with 16 Girls in a Turkish Bath)


  1. Thanks Becca! I needed to read this, as not only for myself, but like you said, for children I may some day have, also the children that are already in my life... also, for the communities around me. I nearly cried reading this, because there is so much truth in this that will really have such an impact if truth remains in the heart of women... even through the struggle and fight to believe it.

  2. so true Tara. so much of our hope for change lies in the next generation but we need to fight for our own freedom as well and I do believe it's possible! love you friend. YOU are an incredibly beautiful and amazing woman!

  3. Thanks so much for writing this, Becca. 8 months post-pregnancy and I still grapple with how to love this new body I have (meanwhile being bombarded with daily emails/magazines about how to "fix" your body after childbirth.) I'm going to look up this book at my library tomorrow!

  4. it's a strange obsession our culture has with women trying to look like we've never had babies when we've HAD BABIES. the book really helped me to understand what all the beauty pornography is all about - money. it's so sad that we spend our lives dissatisfied with the pretty fantastic bodies we have.

  5. Lovely post! I read the Beauty Myth when it first came out in '91. I was 21 years old. The book had a profound effect on me, giving me context for the inner turmoil and self loathing that were a part of my daily life. I was so moved by the book that I wrote to Naomi Wolf. She responded to my letter with her own and a phone call! something that I will never forget. After reading your post I think it's time to shake the dust off my copy and give it another read.

  6. My mother was constantly telling me that because I was so good looking and had nice wavy hair I ought to be a model. The society is sexualized and men and women aren't ever the same or equal in all ways all the time. It is good to marry someone more like yourself than different because then they understand you better. If both of you are bad at finances, hire an accountant. Overall all of us need more humor in our lives.

  7. Naomi seems to be amazing at encouraging and empowering her readers! I'm fairly new to her ideas but they resonate so deeply! Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  8. Thank you so much for your beautifully written post, it's an important message that more women need to hear, especially adolescent girls. God bless you for sharing your heart w the world, I'm sure it's helping many - myself included!

  9. thanks so much for reading Brooke!

  10. Bek @ Just For DaisyAugust 13, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    I think I'll have to get my hands on this book... I love the work of Melinda Tankard Reist in this area too... :)

  11. Katie Toliver AndradeDecember 6, 2013 at 1:10 AM

    Loved reading this. It resonates with me as I've been praying over our month old daughter. Great blog by the way. :) It's been a long time since I've seen you and Chris. You have a wonderful, powerful little family! Thanks for sharing it here.

  12. thanks Katie! Blessings to you and your gorgeous baby girl!!