I finally got around to reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, a bestselling book first published in 1991. I had avoided it, first of all because I am a snob who longs for distinction (see the previous post), but also because I was sure that I would despise it. I dislike populist versions of feminism, which tend to reduce hundreds of years of diverse forms of international activism to a few slogans and statistics. I finally had to admit, however, that The Beauty Myth must have struck a chord with at least some of its thousands of readers. As I sped through it, I found myself agreeing with many of its general observations. For instance, I was convinced that the apparent increase in female empowerment and movement into the western labour force during the second half of the twentieth century had met with a backlash in which rigid standards of beauty were more strictly enforced. Women were expected to be good looking as part of many job descriptions and could be legally fired for getting older or fatter, though now such firings would have to be done more cautiously, ostensibly for other reasons.
Wolf convincingly points out that when women conform to beauty ideals, or even embrace them ‘willingly,’ they are part of a politically and economically motivated regime, and do not simply make a personal choice. The superficial response to discussions of the oppressive nature of the beauty-industrial complex might be: ‘Well, ladies, if you don’t like mascara and high heels, then don’t wear them.’ Yet refusing to participate remains embedded within the beauty myth, producing a range of related meanings, and likely incurring such forms of punishment as derision, lower salaries, and impolite service. Conformity brings many rewards. As someone currently toying with it, I know that I am treated better than I was a few years ago, when I couldn’t be bothered to wear make-up, style my hair, or smile in an accomodating way. I used to be all ‘what are you looking at, mother fucker?’ Now I am all ‘would you like teeth-whitening strips with that spray tan?’
That said, Wolf’s rather obvious claims about the pervasiveness and power of the beauty myth are supported by inaccurate historical narratives. She assumes that before the Victorian era women were less subject to the rules of beauty, and somehow closer to their ‘natural’ bodies. Wolf believes in an authentic female body uninhibited by sexual repression. She urges women to reclaim their lost freedom, mostly by refusing to compete with other women, and instead practising female solidarity. This idea that deliberately cultivating a strong female culture can have political effects is intriguing and I will write more about it in a later post. Yet Wolf is wrong to invent tidy historical narratives, especially in her chapter about the history of religion. How silly to insist that in the past religious power was all-pervasive and religious authorities were unquestioned. Reformation, anyone? I think Wolf got this idea from watching bad 1960s films about Joan of Arc. In any case, the popular author contends that once religious belief was undermined (if only it were true!), women were bereft, replacing it with the equally rigid rules related to beauty, which gave form and structure to their lives. According to her, then, the beauty myth gives women an identity, and they cling to it like weaklings when they should boldly refuse it and befriend other women. Not such a bad idea, but I dislike Wolf’s implication that women were and remain unthinking. Plus she cannot simply make shit up about the past!
I also had a few issues with Wolf’s chapter on hunger, in which she argues that the diet industry deliberately sabotages women. Far be it from me to defend the diet industry, but Wolf should explain exactly what she means by ‘dieting.’ I am dieting right now, which means that I eat six meals a day, consuming great quantities of protein in order to get bigger and stronger. On page 153 Wolf asserts that a ‘concern with weight leads to a virtual collapse of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness.’ Oh really. Not only is that not my experience—admittedly, my personal life counts for squat even if the personal is political—it is based on the romantic notion that food consumption is natural and can occur outside of cultural rules. How naive.
It’s too bad that Wolf wrote her book before the HBO series Mad Men was created, for it provides a sophisticated historical account of women’s shifting relationship with the beauty myth. After watching the first two seasons, I contend that the series is fundamentally about how women experience their bodies, and how men both interact with and represent female bodies, negotiating their masculine identities in relation to them. This program offers a fascinating portrayal of gender, for men are empty, sad, and doomed, even as the women hardly fare any better, especially if they comply with the beauty myth.
Consider Betty Draper, a character whose primary function is to be looked at. She is an image and does not exist unless subject to the gaze, when modelling or acting as her husband’s arm candy. Betty never seems to feel pleasure, especially not sexual pleasure, for she is disembodied and often framed beneath others, when she is not an isolated and posed object. The only time Betty has agency when she is riding her horse; then she is on top and in charge and almost has a personality. Betty adheres to the ‘natural hierarchy’ in which men are superior to women are superior to children are superior to animals. Playing the part of the ideal mother/housewife, Betty Draper is essentially a dead woman walking–well, she mostly sits or stands still.
Joan Holloway is smarter and sassier than Betty; I think she might be my favourite character. No, I am certain of it. She too conforms to the beauty myth, but she takes everything—heavy make-up, bombshell tits, coy glances—to the extreme, almost caricaturing them. Joan is a female transvestite. She knows that looking and behaving in certain ways will elicit male appreciation, and that such admiration is crucial for career advancement. The problem is that Joan succeeds only as a sexualized object, and is not taken seriously as a thinking individual by either men or women (except her lesbian roommate—missed opportunity for happiness there). Joan is highly intelligent and savvy about the advertising world, and yet that mug Harry cannot see the value of her as anything other than an attractive servant with a whiff of dominatrix about her. Joan will never get what she wants: respect and love without compromise.
Peggy Olson refuses to conform to the ideal standards of beauty, even after Joan and others repeatedly ridicule her appearance, offering such helpful advice as ‘cut eye holes in a paper bag, put it over your head and look at yourself nude in the mirror, assessing your strong and weak points.’ Wow. I just tried that and it was a little humiliating. The lipstick scene in the first season established Peggy’s character. While the other women behaved as expected, laughing and grabbing for their trial colour, Peggy just sat back, disengaged. Not judging the other secretaries, Peggy was simply not one of them; nor did she wish to be. This refusal to perform the female masquerade enables Peggy to be seen, almost for herself, and she becomes the first female copywriter even as she is never treated as an equal to the male employees. The narrative of Mad Men presents Peggy as a strong individual, but it simultaneously insists that she is unnaturally separted from her biological destiny. Peggy becomes pregnant and does not even realize it; like Betty, she is ultimately disembodied, at least early in the series. My partner and I are taking a break before moving on to season 3. That is, we are taking a break from Mad Men, not from each other. We recently celebrated 23 years together with our usual toast: ‘We are both so old and ugly now, I guess that we are stuck with each other. Up yours.’ Being unattractive makes life a lot easier if you ask me.