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Donna Trope
Photography Donna Trope

30 years on from The Beauty Myth we ask Naomi Wolf 'what's changed?'

The renowned author on how the Kardashians are demystifying beauty and the commodification of the male body

In 1991, feminist scholar Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth, a big and bold work of nonfiction that put to paper the oppressive beauty ideals of the day. It cleverly traced the links between patriarchy, the ideals peddled in contemporary advertising and pornography and increased pressures for women to get surgery alongside rising numbers of eating disorder diagnoses. 

“Western economies are absolutely dependent on the continued underpayment of women,” she wrote in the introduction. “An ideology that makes women feel ‘worth less’ was urgently needed to counteract the way feminism had begun to make us feel worth more.” Gloria Steinem praised the book, while the likes of Camille Paglia criticised it heavily.

Today, more than half a dozen books later (most recently, Outrages, about sex and censorship in 19th century Britain), Naomi is sitting across from me in a cafe in Edinburgh, the city where she wrote The Beauty Myth 28 years ago. She was 28 when she wrote it, and I am 28 now, so we decided to have a conversation about how pressures for women to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’ have changed between our generations, and how much of her famous first book still rings true. 

To start with, if you can cast your mind back to 1990, why did you decide to write this book? Was it personal or political? 

Naomi Wolf: As the best of feminism teaches, there is no distinction! I would say it was both personal and academic and political. I actually wrote it here in Edinburgh. I used to wander these streets figuring out my thesis. I had just left Oxford, a good university with really smart young women around me who were overwhelmingly preoccupied with an obsession about their weight or their body or their appearance. It drained their energies, so we weren’t as politically motivated as we should have been. 

This wasn’t totally new: I’d studied in Oxford the nineteenth century and knew the first wave of feminists were struggling against a different set of norms imposed on them - the idea of woman was that doll-like, silent, tiny, child-like being. Then later, when Betty Friedan was writing, the perfect housewife became the unattainable ideal. Now, in the twentieth century, I could see among my own friends and myself that there was a similar backlash to women’s liberation, but it had morphed into these very rigid, thin beauty ideals - perfect, computer-enhanced images to which we were asked to be enslaved. For example, supermodels, or the breast implants which were being promoted in women’s magazines with no warning or caveats at that time – no studies. Doctors were getting insurance because the implants ruptured so often, right, but they weren’t telling their patients. Essentially, once I saw my thesis, I saw examples everywhere.

How would you summarise The Beauty Myth as a term? What does that mean? 

Naomi Wolf: I guess The Beauty Myth is the premise that there is a literal – albeit inhumane – state of physical perfection that doesn’t actually correspond to any human qualities but that nonetheless, as women, we’re all supposed to commit ourselves to.

"You don’t really understand anything until you understand who had money and who had power"

What I think happens a lot with seminal books, like yours, is that the ideas become so widespread that years on we think of them as obvious. But they weren’t at the time...

Naomi Wolf: Thank you. I appreciate that because something that worries me, especially about feminism, about any activist movement, is that we’re usually marginalised people who are not in charge of any media production or history, and so the history of feminist ideas is that generations have to keep reinventing the wheel from scratch, because the narrative is lost. 

Other activists and actually, each wave of feminists, has grappled with beauty ideals. I certainly had big shoulders to stand on. For instance, Amelia Bloomer was a First Wave feminist in the nineteenth century who did a lot of activism around dress reform; there were dress reformers who advocated not lacing so tightly. And it was reported that Second Wave feminists burned their bras in a trash can at the Miss America 1969 protest. So there had been other critiques of beauty ideals as oppressive, but in the early 1990s, we had really gone through a period of erasing and discrediting feminism. The media was full of the narrative that feminism was over with, that women were rejecting it, had no need for it. No one wanted to use the ‘F word’ to describe themselves.

So you were between waves when writing?

Naomi Wolf: Yes, but I guess you have to initiate a wave! There were other voices like Rebecca Walker writing at the same time as I was, who were starting to say ‘wait a minute, we’re not done with this’. But I would say that mine was the first book of the era specifically to deal with the production of beauty ideals that are normative now; digitised or at least computer-altered images, the beauty ideals of pornography which the Second Wave didn’t have to grapple with so much, and also anorexia and bulimia. 

I would also say if I’m going to look back and make a claim – which I think women should do if they’re entitled to! – I don’t know that there was a book that captured the relationship of beauty ideals to larger political and economic issues. I’m not interested in critiquing beauty ideals just for their own sake, or just to make people feel better; I’m interested in Marxist outcomes. I don’t mean “Marxist” in the sense of a centralised economy, but “Marxist” in the sense of: “follow the money.” You don’t really understand anything until you understand who had money and who had power, and so The Beauty Myth traces how beauty ideals keep women from having money and power. 

Your book is very much about how patriarchy uses beauty for the oppression of women. Some things have changed in thirty years, though. One thing is that we have had a lot of advancements in terms of equality – we’re still living in a patriarchal and heteronormative world but a tiny bit less so! Do you think that affects attitudes to beauty? 

Naomi Wolf: Totally. These things are very connected and I definitely want to stress that a lot of things have gotten so much better in thirty years and I think the LGBTQ+ movement is one reason things have gotten better. It’s much more common for my daughter’s generation, my son’s generation, to not think of the world in binary terms. I don't think that my daughter’s generation of young women feels enslaved to femininity and if my son’s generation dresses beautifully, they don’t feel like they are traitors to their gender. 

People say to me, 'how do you raise children who are not influenced by beauty norms?' You can’t get rid of these images, it’s everywhere, it’s capitalism, but young people can have a critique within their brains. The LGBTQ+ critique of heteronormativity and patriarchy has opened up the world for people to challenge male heterosexual patriarchal dominance. I think you see just generally a lot more people’s entitlement to individuality – like cosmetics for men, for women, for people with no specified gender. I think that there is much more of a sense of creativity, subjectivity and diversity. But while all of those things have gotten better, at the same time - I still see that levels of anorexia and bulimia are static. And more men are obsessed with their appearance as The Beauty Myth has kind of claimed the male body more, it has commodified the male body. 

“Capitalism had to do a lot of marketing to straight men to get them to be comfortable with self-presentation” 

Why do you think that’s happening? 

Naomi Wolf: When I was twenty-four, men observed and women were observed. But there’s been a lot of dismantling of the male gaze. One result of that is that men of all sexualities are well aware that they are being observed. They feature more as objects of people’s gaze. It’s not a gay thing or straight thing. Teenage men of whatever sexuality have a lot more self- consciousness in the Instagram age about being beautiful objects… “Am I hot?” It’s not a question men were really asking if they weren’t gay, in my generation. When I was growing up, a lot of straight men expressed their sense of entitlement as the observer by not taking care of themselves. And homophobia plays a part in this – young straight men were afraid of being seen as gay if they used a hair product or smelled better! I think it was a deeply homophobic time when it came to the male body and male self-perception. 

Capitalism had to do a lot of marketing to straight men to get them to be comfortable with self-presentation and to be physical beings that wanted to appeal to other people. What’s changed is mostly for good, but it’s also challenging for teenage boys in that they now have the kind of anxiety that teenage girls often have.

In what other ways do you think social media has changed things when it comes to beauty? 

Naomi Wolf: I do think there’s a lot more of a sense of diversity about beauty - there’s much more appreciation for the range of human fabulousness, and social media is a part of that. The other side of it is that no one is at rest. 

What else do you think has changed in the world of beauty? 

Naomi Wolf: The marketing of products. The big thing that was driving me crazy when I was writing The Beauty Myth is that people were lying about facial creams and saying that they penetrate the dermis and offer eternal youth and so on. It was a big industry – women were wasting a lot of money on these products. What I’m happy about is that this language doesn’t seem to be used anymore. People still sell face creams, obviously, but they can’t just lie any longer about the effects of the product – I know American consumer law has cracked down on that. So I think advertising standards have improved. 

You talk in the book about how beauty standards pit women against one another, a kind of divide and conquer thing, but also how standards make us put ourselves down. Could you say a bit more on that? It also reminded me of this Amy Schumer sketch from ages ago, the women in the sketch who say, 'you look incredible!' to one another and they’re each like, 'oh my god, no! I look like a piece of shit!' Have you seen it? 

Naomi Wolf: Yeah – it’s so funny! When I was growing up, women were encouraged to see each other as rivals for men’s attention, rivals for very few good jobs...

Because there were fewer opportunities for women? 

Naomi Wolf: Yes, it was also just a patriarchal society; if you encourage women to see each other as rivals, they’re not going to come together to try to change things. I don’t feel like the world is the same anymore. I really don’t! The Amy Schumer sketch is really funny because we are still encouraged not to take compliments but I see women enjoying each other’s beauty much more now and appreciating each other.

Why do you think that is?

Naomi Wolf: Well, honestly, one part of it could be that many of your generation and the generation below yours have deconstructed heterosexuality as the norm. More young people than ever before define themselves as something other than heterosexual… so I think it’s more common that women are like, “she’s hot… I want to sleep with her”. It’s not everyone’s experience of course but I think that even among women who don't identify as fluid in their sexuality – there’s a lot less phobia about the idea that women might want to sleep with other women. 

"We need a new version of The Beauty Myth for today"

We’re living in a time when one can hypothetically, through science or technology, change their physical body or digital body to look however they want it to…. Means and access allowing, of course. It is much more possible to actually transform yourself into the person you want to be. How does that change our relationship with The Beauty Myth?

Naomi Wolf: I mean I don’t think we really know yet. It could be really liberating or it could be kind of Orwellian – or both! I think you’ve really put your finger on a deep philosophical question. When I was growing up, you were kind of stuck with what the fates handed you, physically, unless you made huge efforts to alter your physical reality. Now all kinds of things are possible and you’re not stuck with your gender or with really anything except your mortality. And so I feel like… I’m not the right generation to answer that question! 

The fact that it’s even possible to transform yourself like this simultaneously makes me feel as if The Beauty Myth is working stronger than ever before – that we are finding more ways to submit to dominant beauty ideals. But on the other hand, if you can change everything and achieve the “perfect body” (whatever that means), it takes away a lot of the mystique, as in it’s no longer an ideal because it’s kind of surgically attainable. I can’t really figure out which it is… maybe it’s both!

Naomi Wolf: That’s why we need a new version of The Beauty Myth for today! I was 24 when I first started writing this book, beauty was kind of mystified… like God gave it to you or didn’t. It was more primitive. Now we see people like the Kardashians transform themselves through interventions or product and aspects of that are available to anyone who can save up enough money. By de-mystifying, I do think people feel less obligated. 

When I was your age it was so common to think, 'Oh no, I can’t look any older!' and the fear of ageing really affected me as a young woman. Some women are going to worry about ageing or try to prevent that, others aren’t. I feel like these fears are more voluntary in your generation. 

That brings me to my last question… what have you learned about beauty at 56?

Naomi Wolf: The British media are really weird because they are so misogynist... They really demonise older women, but actually among the older women I meet, who have been busy with their lives, I don’t know any of them who are not really thrilled to be their age (as long as they are healthy) and are really happy with where they are at, physically and in every other way.