Is There Really a Beauty Myth?


Following on from Tuesday’s earth-moving post about beautiful women and heart health, last night I went to see prolific feminist author Naomi Wolf speak on her book, The Beauty Myth, and how images of beauty in the media are used against women at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas in Melbourne.

The common perception about “feminists” is that they’re allto borrow a quote from Bring It On“big, dikey losers” who burn their bras and don’t shave under their arms. But at the risk of sounding cliché, I don’t believe you can be female and not be a feminist.

There was an overwhelming amount of people packed into the Capitol Theatre, off Swanston Street, and the majority were your average woman on the street, most coming from work or uni, with the odd flanny-wearing, mullet-rocking stereotype. And a few men, too, one of whom posed the question as to whether women’s magazines facilitate the media’s ideal of what a woman should look like. (More on that later.)

I also don’t like the notion, and nor does Wolf, that to be a “feminist”, or to even be interested in the topic without adopting the extremist views that some “second-wave feminists” espouseCatharine MacKinnon, I’m talking to youis to be a Germaine Greer tome-thumping man-hater. She touched on this when she mentioned that whenever there’s a move forward for women (ie. the right to vote, the availability of the birth control pill meaning women could have “sex without the punishment of pregnancy”, Jennifer Hawkins posing nude and unairbrushed on the cover of Marie Claire), there is the inevitable backlash.

It was interesting to note the fact that that the three most important pieces of literature on feminismThe Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and The Beauty Mytheach have twenty-one years between their publication dates, a “coming of age” of sorts in understanding the “lexicon of feminism”, the MC said.

Another point of interest was the beauty and vivacity of the author herself, not to mention her fab shoes!

Wolf said she loved Australia because we’re so candid and unselfconscious in our responses to the issues she raises, and that nowhere else do “visiting feminists get treated like rock stars.”

Speaking of rock stars, an certain icon in history has been not only a rock star, but a gymnast, teacher, astronaut and mother, amongst many other occupations. This icon is Barbie, and she was a hot topic on the night.

Barbie represents the “universal ideal” of “transcendental beauty”, in the Western world in particular and, according to Wolf, she is a valuable media tool in the cosmetics, dieting and plastic surgery industries.

Wolf asked why we never see women who are not under 40, thin, tanned, blonde, blue-eyed and Caucasian (ie. Barbie) in the media (which I personally disagree with; Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Ellen DeGeneres, Christina Hendricks, Kim Kardashian, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey and the Grey’s Anatomy women are a few examples that counter this theory). Here is the one word answer: advertisers. They are the reason the Barbie-stereotype is on the cover of magazines every month.

Sure, magazines get most of their revenue from the advertisers, and if they think their brand ideal will be jeopardised by running an ad in Glamour magazine, which has been running a lot of plus-sized photo shoots recently and garnering a lot of attention for it, for example, they will not give their ad money to that magazine. So therefore, Glamour has a lower budget to promote itself to readers every month. Then its loyal readers receive less of the content they keep coming back for, ie. women who look like them, and will stop buying that magazine.

On the other hand, as Mia Freedman talks about in her memoir, Mama Mia: A Memoir of Mistakes, Magazines & Motherhood, and editor of Shop Til You Drop magazine Justine Cullen writes in this month’s issue, women don’t buy the Ellens, Meryls and Kims, they buy the Jennifers and Kates. So, Wolf said last night, “it’s something you’re doing” as media consumers.

So it’s a double-edged sword. We complain that we want to see more “real women” in magazines, however we’re not willing to shell out for them, therefore sales go down, advertisers move elsewhere, and “we don’t know what we’re missing” because “women doing interesting things are omitted” from the mainstream media, and instead we get another story on Jennifer Aniston’s desperation over Brad and Angelina’s marriage, or some crap. I think Wolf is right in saying that we need to consciously refuse to buy into those kinds of stories and look towards other instances of women in the media.

However, I don’t agreeand this seems to be the consensus, especially amongst those who don’t actually consume women’s magazines on a regular basiswith the belief that all women’s magazines try to sell us are diets, $350 beauty products that don’t actually work, and low self-esteem. To people with this view, I say, try picking up a copy of Cosmopolitan, Frankie or Girlfriend magazines. These are all publications that are geared towards different demographics of femalessexually active and assertive women in their late teens to mid-to-late twenties; alternative, crafty women, most likely studying design or politics; and the teenage set, respectivelythat DO NOT run diets, do recommend fashion and beauty products at the affordable end of the spectrum, and present women of all shapes and sizes in a positive light. Not all women’s magazines are at the crux of this “beauty myth”.

Another major point in Wolf’s theory is the abundance of pornography in today’s society, which she also talks a lot about in this past weekend’s Sunday Life supplement in Melbourne’s The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. She argues that this lowers the sexual confidence of both men and women, but young women, in particular, feel they have to offer an array of sexual activities they’re not necessarily comfortable with in order to “feel competitive in the sexual marketplace”. Because men, in particular, have such “strong, Pavlovian responses” to porn, excessive consumption can lead to desensitisation to the real thing, which is why there is such a surge in impotence in young men.

Where once it were supermodels who determined the sexual ideal of women, it is now female porn stars, with their svelte, childlike torsos, fake breasts and meticulously trimmed pubic region, society uses as the benchmark. Bodies that share similarities with who else?! Barbie.

One could argue that Brazilian and XXX waxing is a way for the male-geared porn industry to beat women into submission, so that they become childlike and are able to be dominated. Another intriguing point Wolf puts forward can be traced back to the dieting industry, in that striving to look the way of the porn star, with a super-slim body and low body mass index actually diminishes the libido. Is this really what society wants whilst pushing such a sexual culture? Or is it in tune with the subservient nature of females in porn?

Wolf also addressed the perception that women with eating disorders and negative body image are “crazy”. As an anorexic in her teens, Wolf debunked this, saying that “physiologically, low calorie count causes mental impairment,” and is a “form of control” by the dieting industry, the media, and society to control and suppress women’s ambitions. Because when you’re thinking about food and exercising and the way you look, you’re not thinking about education and work and your future.

She added that a way to counteract this is to form “active critical thought” about images of beauty, which apparently 33% of women do. Another 18% become obsessed by these images, which in turn leads to eating disorders and body dysmorphia. The rest of us hover somewhere in between.

During question time, one audience member asked why shewho comes from an educated, loving and supportive background; is surrounded by encouraging and non-judgemental friends and family; who does form critical opinions about the media’s portrayal of womenfeels ugly, fat, not good enough and constantly compares herself to other women, in the media or no, and how “active critical thought” can really alter this.

I thought this was a very brave and fascinating question put to Wolf, however her response was more disheartening. In a nutshell, she basically said that at the end of the day, if being open to different images of beauty, both from the mainstream and non-mainstream media worlds, and being able to confidently and objectively realise that not everyone looks like that and that is not the real-life ideal, still makes you feel like crap, there may be some underlying issues that only a therapist can fix.

Which poses another question: how far have we really come? From the 1920s “flapper body style” that emerged when women first won the vote and somehow felt they had to look more masculine to adapt to this, to an auditorium full of beautiful, successful, smart and “critically thinking” independent women in 2010, does this notion of the “beauty myth” really exist? Is there a beauty myth that we have to expose?

9 thoughts on “Is There Really a Beauty Myth?

  1. Wow Scarlett, this is really interesting stuff.
    I think it is essential that women be open to different ideas of beauty, and stop clinging to the notion that they are ‘not good enough.’ (‘not good enough for what?’ is my question.) Many women, it seems, may be addicted to this self criticism, and constantly search out impossible ideals against which to measure themselves, its scary actually. 3rd wave feminism may not be against the patriarchy, but against women’s view of themselves!

  2. I also found this interesting Scarlett…

    I tend to waffle, so apologies…

    The *beauty myth* is just that, a myth… Every generation has had the *perfection* doll hung just out of reach, bouncing around like a puppet on a string, clothed in the $ signs of those that have *that diet*, *this makeup* *have beautiful cheekbones/lips, butt* etc etc or whatever was the must have of the era to push…

    Sadly, a percentage, men & women, regardless of sexual orientation, will always aspire to that myth… & when those individuals take that one step too many in trying to achieve that purported perfection, they are then villified & hung out to dry as a tragedy…

    The Brazilian & XXX are not new inventions, a today *discovery*…Like hairy pits & legs, we have the cultural & personal choice factors to add into this equation, so I find it extremely interesting listening/reading as others debate with the *porn or feminist* hook attached…

    Being secure & comfortable with self image & confident of self worth is learned from the moment comprehension *kicks in* as a child… it goes without saying that the opposite is also true…

    ’til the end of time the *beauty myth* will be with us, in it’s many guises, , for beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially from the looking glass…

  3. Thanks for the feedback, guys.
    Leonie, I liked how you pointed out that those who succumb to the “beauty myth” are turned on by society. I think the perfect example of that today is Heidi Montag from The Hills, who was absolutely beautiful to start off with, and even after her first surgery back in 2007, she wasn’t looking too shabby. Now, she’s pushed it too far and is a shadow of her former self. Like Pamela Anderson and Farrah Fawcett before her.
    I, too, believe that to a certain extent it boils down to the environment you were raised in, but to take it a step further, maybe it comes down to basic biology. Personally, I grew up around people who didn’t have the healthiest body images, but I feel I have come out on the other side with a healthy perception of myself and the people around me. So it’s hard to really put a finger on nature VS. nurture VS. the media VS. the voices in your head VS. health VS. just about every external factor we are exposed to.
    But I do agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which is a message that should be pushed harder, especially to the young who are susceptible to the media.

  4. Very interesting stuff and definitely food for thought. One of the things I also picked up from Naomi Wolf’s presentation was the obsession of the mainstream media with youth. As she herself is aging, yet brilliant, she said that many of the anti-aging creams and cures form the majority of the cosmetic industry’s profits. Of course, there’s always surgery.

    I can’t help but feel, however, that I agree with the brave girl who spoke about being wll educated and exposed to the lies and the “beauty myth” yet still felt unnatractive. I also have days when I feel horrible. I don’t feel that I need therapy. Naomi dropped the ball on that one, I think. Maybe it’s the attitude of the USA vs Australia?

    Great review, Scarlett.

  5. I think you’re right, Laura, in that the US has a different attitude than Australia; ie. the US ideology is therapy, whereas Australia has more of a “get over it and get on with it”. Whether these are accurate and in the best interest of our citizens is another question.
    I thought the question you’re referring to was a really brave and inspiring one, but I agree that Naomi “dropped the ball” in her answer.

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