I knew my parents wanted me not to starve because they loved me; but their love contradicted the message of the larger world, which wanted me to starve in order to love me. It is the larger world’s messages, young women know, to which they will have to listen if they are to leave their parents’ protection. I kept a wetted finger up to the winds of that larger world: Too thin yet? I was asking it. What about now? No? Now?The larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them. Until our culture tells young girls that they are welcome in any shape – that women are valuable to it with or without the excuse of “beauty” – girls will continue to starve.In this, her first book, Naomi Wolf examines the way in which (Western, primarily middle class) women are oppressed and controlled by the imposition of beauty requirements on every aspect of their daily lives.Culturally, little has changed for the middle class Western women about whom Wolf has written since the publication of this book in 1990, except that the beauty myth she explored and documented has if anything intensified and has been charged with a heavy dose of pornsex. Where Wolf wrote of a beauty culture in 1990, Ariel Levy writes in 2006 about a raunch culture – but essentially these are two sides of the same coin, and much of what Wolf says is still bang on. I just cannot over-emphasise how important a book this is. Very, very, very.
At times, at least on a first reading, some of Wolf’s assertions did strike me as a little wild, going a bit too far – at least until I got to the end of the chapter and realised that she had merely anticipated and jumped to her conclusions in a way that was perhaps not always helpful. Another niggle is the overt coining of phrases, which got on my nerves a bit I must confess: the “PBQ” or Professional Beauty Qualification, the Rites of Beauty, the Surgical Age, and so on.
Still, leaving niggles aside, Wolf’s analysis is devastating, her critique uncompromising, as she tackes a range of aspects of women’s experience in modern Western culture.
Work covers the ways in which the Beauty Myth undermines the huge strides that women have made in the wokplace.
Wolf discusses how women – held back by having to work two shifts (one of paid work for an employer and another unpaid at home for the family) compared with the single shift worked by men – still made strides; and how the addition of a third shift (the beauty shift – all that shaving, plucking, painting, curling, styling, toning and trimming) serves the purpose of keeping them down by keeping them tired and distracted. Too tired and distracted to be successful at work, and too tired and distracted to become involved or even interested in unions or other political action that might help to change the situation. The beauty myth also serves an important function in undermining women’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, so as to reduce their aspirations, ambitions and expectations to what the system can cope with.
Wolf also describes how, despite the introduction of bans on sex discrimination, women have been subjected to all manner of continued, permissible discrimiantion in the matter of their appearance – what Wolf calls the PBQ. Naturally, the PBQ only applies to women. Male newsreaders for example need not be youthful, charming, elegant or graceful; male newsreaders acquire gravitas with age, not their P45. But the same does not, alas, apply for women who find that when sacked because they are too old or too ugly to read the news (a complaint rarely made against men in the same job), the courts charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws find ways to uphold their employers’ right to do this. It is treated as just the unchangeable way of the world, that viewers like to see young, beautiful women with their breakfast news, and therefore that older, less beautiful women can justifiably be sacked, however good they are...
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