Review: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against WomenRating:

Naomi Wolf does not have a way with words. Dense, vague and ambiguous language; sweeping generalizations; and seeing a deeper meaning or intent where a simpler explanation is more likely and appropriate – which created a conspiratorial air that everyone, or just men, were doing everything they can to oppress women and repress their desires. Frustration had me skimming, and I found myself regularly defending men and questioning women’s complicit behaviour in undermining their own positions in society.

Contrary to Wolf’s implications, not all men are women haters. Sadomasochism is not a new concept, of which the 18th century Donatien Alphonse Francois Sade, also known as the Marquis de Sade, can attest. The role of masochist is not always female and submissive, the male not always the sadist and dominant. No mention is made of the controls in place when acting out S&M to protect both actors in the roleplay e.g. safe words. Wolf’s perception of S&M is most definitely abhorrence for what she sees as the violent degradation of women.

Women are underestimated. They are able to have more than one sexual fantasy; can desire to be dominant and submissive at different times, and just because they might enjoy rape fantasy does not mean they want to be raped or believe rape is acceptable. Also, male rape exists – they can be victims too, just as women can be the rapist or the abuser. Not all pornography is disturbingly violent; Wolf makes no distinctions between hardcore and softcore porn and various fetishes.

Men aren’t unaffected by The Beauty Myth. Replicas of the beautiful male Adonis grace magazine covers and appear in top grossing movies. Show me covers of the average looking man who doesn’t possess a six pack. Men’s Health? GQ? Nine out of ten are the epitome of male perfection, but does 90% of the male population reflect this look? No. Men suffer the same self-image problems as women: body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia, etc. Bulimia and cosmetic surgery (specifically genital surgery) are the only topics in which Wolf considers men to be victims, in the ‘Hunger’ and ‘Violence’ chapters, respectively.

I can’t quite decide if Wolf cherry picks her data or if she’s ignorant of certain issues due to the time in which The Beauty Myth was written. However, she does make some valid points and highlights issues like female genital mutilation, post-traumatic stress suffered by rape victims, the prevalence of rape in universities, and incest in families (Kinsey found incest in 24% of American, Australian and British families), and a possible link between victims of child sex abuse and the desire for cosmetic surgery.

But what I was really interested in was Wolf’s opinions on rape after reading the first paragraph of Rape is Rape:

‘In the wake of rape allegations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, feminist Naomi Wolf publicly denied that if a man holds down and tries to sexually penetrate a woman who previously agreed to sex but changed her mind after he refused to wear a condom, he is a rapist. She also denied that penetrating a sleeping woman is rape. Wolf later went further, alleging that it is wrong to keep confidential the names of people who report that they’ve been raped. She reasoned it encourages false rape claims and that women should grow up and be treated as “moral adults” who stand by their allegations. When the two Assange accusers’ names were released, they received death threats and experienced other forms of humiliation, the very reason names are publicly withheld now.’

This is backed up with Wolf’s discussion with fellow feminist Jaclyn Friedman [part I and part II]. It’s astonishing to me how much the author has changed her opinions on rape. In 1990, when The Beauty Myth was first published, Wolf was telling us how common acquaintance rape is and that victims of rape that don’t call it rape still suffer as much as those who do. Yet twenty years later in 2010, she believed the controversial police report over the rape victims’ own words. It boggles the mind. How can she not remember writing this?:

‘…much AIDS education has been utterly naive. If a quarter of young women have at some point had control denied them in a sexual encounter, they stand little chance of protecting themselves from the deadly disease. In a speakout on sexual violence at Yale University, the most common theme was a new crime that has been largely ignored: when a woman stipulates a safe, or nonpenetrative, sexual encounter, but the man ejaculates into her against her will.’ (pg168) [emphasis mine]

What has happened to change Naomi’s mind after twenty years as a feminist and someone who has worked with rape victims?

Moving on. Question: Who is responsible for the evolution of culture? Government? Religion? Marketing directors? The people? Every now and then Wolf derives intent to derail female empowerment by THEM and somehow manages to avoid identifying the person(s) of blame and it wasn’t always obvious. I can see entities like Playboy intending to effect cultural change for financial gain, and with the help of other entities and technological advancement, has succeeded in its quest to make pornography easily accessible. However, this was only possible with majority social acceptance. Without the complicity of the general public, effecting change is difficult. Wolf doesn’t really address this, she prefers to concentrate on her perceived instigators of change rather than the response of the people as a whole.

I couldn’t finish the first chapter, ‘Work’, as it was badly written – almost nonsensical at times – and in desperate need of an editor. I skimmed over ‘Culture’, ‘Violence’ (which actually focuses on cosmetic surgery) and ‘Beyond the Beauty Myth’. Religion was an easier read and mostly made sense. ‘Sex’ is the chapter I concentrated on.

Twenty three years have passed since publication, and while I can sort of see why this was groundbreaking in 1990, I find it strange that much of the feminist literature published today still refer to The Beauty Myth. Saying that, most of the topics covered are still relevant but areas of it are seriously outdated and perpetuates inequality by almost completely demonizing men, failing to recognise women’s potential to be abusers, and men as victims.

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