We’re into Week 3 of Women on the Page, in which we focus on Authors: Now – those writing in the last twenty years or so. To start us off, Naomi Wolf, author of the iconic The Beauty Myth, introduces the new Vintage Feminism Short Edition, which distils the essence of this ground-breaking tract.
When I wrote The Beauty Myth in 1991, I felt I was writing, to some extent, into a vacuum. Many media outlets had proclaimed that feminism – the feminism of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, of NOW, was dead. Middle-class Western women, anyway, were focused on getting into the workplace, not on social revolution; the issues of working-class and poor women were far from central. News outlets repeated continually that young women rejected feminism and that ‘the battles had all been won’, as the cliché went.
I knew from looking at my own young peers – I was twenty-six when the book was written – that indeed the battles had not been won – but that many of them had become internalised. Though my peers no longer cared much about maintaining the perfect household – the ideal of femininity against which our mother’s generation had rebelled – they were obsessed with another kind of perfection: physical perfection, as measured against fashion models and film stars. The young women around me, who should have been the brightest, most ambitious and most effective young women ever to inhabit the planet – as they inherited the gains and analysis of feminism – were often trapped in a desperate cycle of starving themselves compulsively, or compulsively exercising, or binging and purging. Apart from the physical toll that this took, I saw the toll that these fixations took upon their ability to feel free inside their own minds – to explore themselves and their world – to fight their own battles. I saw that the epidemic of eating disorders on my own college campus as an undergraduate, and on college campuses throughout the world, and throughout the West, indeed, was a political sedative.
Since I had been fortunate enough to have studied feminist history, I realised that in every generation in which there was a great push forward by women, some ideal arose to colonise their energies and thus make sure that they did not get too far. And then, I saw, in every generation that had seen such an awakening, the next generation was told to go home – it was ‘post-feminism’ time – the battles had all been won. It seemed clear to me that that dynamic was what was involved with the ever-more-unattainable, ever-thinner, ever-more-surgically-enhanced quality of the images of perfection that bombarded women’s sensibilities in every direction – now that women had the chance of being really free.
The initial edition of The Beauty Myth benefited from a lot of good fortune. It was an argument that hit at just the moment in which a generation of young women did indeed want to embrace a new version of feminism – did indeed want to analyse the unique conditions around them and take their own oppression seriously – and did indeed want to reinvigorate the discourse of feminism to take action once again, collectively as well as individually. The book was a bestseller in fourteen countries, but even more important, it was part of a new awakening of discussion and debate about many feminist topics in many new feminist voices – an awakening that writer Rebecca Walker and I, working independently, both happened to identify with a freshly coined term, The Third Wave. Since the 1990s, feminism in the West has remained fresh, varied and vigorous; there has been a fourth wave, and I would say we are admiring the rise of a fifth. The new feminisms differ in some ways very much from the iconic feminism of the 1960s and ’70s – they are more pluralistic, more tolerant, more inclusive of men, more aware of LGBTQ issues, more sophisticated about the intersection of race, class and gender, more alert to the feminist issues of the developing world. All this is a big set of advantages, and I am really proud for The Beauty Myth, which continues to be read, to have had a small part in this reawakening of discussion and action. But though action and awareness overall is much better for women, in some ways the ‘beauty-myth’ issues raised in this book have stayed the same or become worse; in other ways some have got better.
As I write today, statistics for anorexia and bulimia are exactly what they were in 1991. On some campuses 30 per cent of sorority women suffer from bulimia, making it one of the few socially transmitted mental health problems. Exercise fixations and dysmorphia – a condition in which you don’t see your body in an undistorted way – are, if anything, more mainstream and widespread. The fear of ageing, among some groups of women, remains as strong as ever – new surgical technologies and lowered prices have made these interventions far more common. And eyelid-crease surgeries, nose-‘refining’ surgeries, dangerous skin-lightening creams, and so on – in response to globalised marketing campaigns with Western ideals – are rife in the developing world. Finally the ubiquity of pornography, which did not exist in a digitised, livestreaming format in 1991, ensures that these ideals go ‘deeper’ than they did in that era – as young women and young men too often feel that physical perfection is the gateway to acceptable sexuality.
On the other hand, what has become much better is the generalised awareness among women – and men – that these media ideals are both fake – indeed more fake than when I wrote this book in 1991, since then we had retouching; whereas today beauty images are simply digitally invented – and destructive. It is much more common for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and women’s magazines to discuss the artificiality and negative psychological impact of these ideas, and it is more common for women themselves to try to set up ways of reclaiming their own bodies and beauty in ways that they themselves define – from such songs as ‘I am Beautiful’ to such ad campaigns as the Dove campaign for Real Beauty. Editors of women’s magazines, too, try to showcase more inclusive images – though the pressures on them from advertisers have remained intense. And social media – though some say it heightens pressures on young women to feel physically self-conscious – also breaks down the barrier between the consumer of media and the producer, and opens up many more models of stylishness, coolness and glamour.
On balance, I think we have come a long way. It is a great thing for young women and men today to grow up taking for granted that they are entitled to analyse and criticise the mass media ideals that are presented to them, and to define beauty, glamour and style for themselves. And it is a fantastic gift to both genders that they get to define a feminism of their own in which to do so. In that spirit, I hope you enjoy – and then make your own unique, creative and irreplaceable use of – this abridged new version of The Beauty Myth.
– Naomi Wolf, 2015.
This essay by Naomi Wolf appears in the introduction to the Vintage Short Edition of The Beauty Myth, out now.
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