Friday, September 30, 2011

"Ideal beauty is ideal because it does not exist:"

The action lies between the gap between desire and gratification. Women are not perfect beauties without distance. That space, in a consumer culture, is a lucrative one. The beauty myth moves for men as a mirage; its power lies in its ever-receding nature. When the gap is closed, the lover embraces only his disillusion. (176)

Naomi Wolf (1962-) is leading spokeswoman of the Third Wave feminist movement. In addition to her work as a political consultant, she is also the author of several books, including The Beauty Myth, Promiscuities, Misconception, The End of America, and Give Me Liberty.

The Beauty Myth (1991) argues that the titular myth developed in the 1970s as a backlash against the Second Wave feminist movement. It is not a deliberate conspiracy engineered by a shadowy cabal but a collective impulse to control women when the grip of other myths – such as domesticity and sexual purity – has been loosened. Fueled by advertising and mass media, the Beauty Myth conditions women to believe that their physical appearance is paramount above all else, including autonomy, authenticity, and personal identity. Adopting the metaphor of the Iron Maiden - an archaic torture device in which the victim was sealed in a coffin shaped like a smiling woman - Wolf articulates a kind of neo-Platonic ideal that coalesced out of the constant bombardment of advertising and mass media. The Iron Maiden represents a marriage between misogyny and consumer capitalism in which women are driven to spend and spend in pursuit of perfection that never comes, at the expense of their own well-being and place in society. Woman's pursuit of beauty is not frivolous but literally a matter of survival.

Wolf's words are vivid and violent, giving a work of cultural theory the feel of a twisted fairy tale. She likens the department store makeup counter to the born-again experience of a cult conversion, mixing the desire for redemption with spiritual destruction. A thousand different emotions pour through her writing, ranging from slow suffocation to intoxicating freedom, from the college girls in a self-imposed famine to a vision of youthful health who "might rip her stockings and slam-dance on a forged ID to the Pogues, and walk home barefoot, holding her shoes, alone at dawn. . ." (217). She goes deep into the trenches of our shared subconscious, a dystopic place akin to Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell, where the human body can actually be mass-produced as a prosthetic "shell." His work introduced the old Greek paradox of the Ship of Theseus, in which the effort to preserve a famous war vessel results in it being gradually rebuilt as board by board requires replacement. Is it still the same ship in the long run? What becomes of woman-made woman when there is man-made woman? Likewise, what Wolf describes is no less than a tug-of-war between women as humans and women as disposable blow-up dolls who signify sex, submission, and interchangeability. Barbies who can be played with, pulled apart, and thrown out. Not surprisingly, the Beauty Myth can also be linked to a rise of violent sexual imagery directed at women, and a dangerous shift in cultural attitudes toward sexual assault. According to a 1988 report from Ms. magazine, only 27% of women who experienced coerced sex at the hands of an acquaintance could even identify their experience as rape, possibly due to the normalization of sexual violence against women in movies and music videos.

While her gaze into deadly cultural undercurrents is piercing and critical to a fine-tuned point, Wolf, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman before her, falls short in one crucial area. Her relentless focus on gender oppression ultimately precludes her from recognizing where she does have privilege in our hierarchical society, and herein lies an enormous oversight in an otherwise gripping book. For all her contributions to Third Wave feminism, Wolf seems to have adopted little of its intersectionality. The Beauty Myth purports to be about Western women, particularly those living in Britain and the United States. Unfortunately, this "Western woman" Wolf so frequently refers to is a monolith coded as white.

When tracing the history of Western misogyny, for instance, Wolf describes the older myths of female invalidism ("Victorian Novel Disease") and the Angel of the House as though they were universal to all women and not just middle-class white housewives. While I understand that she is speaking of collective ideals propagated by the ones with the power, rarely does she address the situation of women completely outside of the Beauty Myth and its previous incarnations: women of color, disabled women, and lesbian/bisexual and trans women.. How do these myths impact women who must negotiate other sites of oppression? In the section on "Work," Wolf argues that
Cosmetic surgery and the ideology of self-improvement may have made women's hope for legal recourse to justice obsolete. We can better understand how insidious this development is if we try to imagine a racial discrimination suit brought in the face of a powerful technology that processes, with great pain, nonwhite people to look more white. A black employee can now charge, sympathetically, that he [emphasis mine] doesn't want. to look more white, and should not have to look more white in order to keep his [emphasis mine] job. We have not yet begun the push toward civil rights for women that will entitle a woman to say she'd rather look like herself than some "beautiful" young stranger. (55)
This passage is problematic because she is basically saying that misogyny and racism are two separate issues. Note Wolf's use of the male pronoun to refer to the hypothetical black employee. In a book of over 300 pages she scarcely addresses the intersection of white and male supremacy that spawns an Iron Maiden far more oppressive than one that merely demands youth and thinness. Reality is -

The Iron Maiden is a white woman.

In the section "Eugenics" in the chapter "Violence," Wolf makes an intriguing connection between cosmetic surgery to correct female "deformities" (fat, wrinkles, small/sagging breasts) and the attacks made by the medical community on other historically marginalized groups. The white male is standard and anything that deviates from him ugly, useless, and essentially inhuman.
Women are surgical candidates because we are considered inferior, an evaluation women share with other marginalized groups. Nonwhite features are "deformities" too: The Poutney Clinic's brochure offers "a Western appearance to the eyes" to the "Oriental Eyelid," which "lacks a well-defined supratarsal fold." It admires "the Caucasian or 'Western' nose," ridicules "Asian Noses," "Afro-Caribbean Noses ('a fat and rounded tip which needs correction'), and "Oriental Noses" ('the tip . . . too close to the face')." And "the Western nose that requires alteration invariably exhibits some of the characteristics of (nonwhite) noses . . . although the improvement needed is more subtle." White women, together with black and Asian women, undergo surgery not as a consequence of selfish vanity, but in reasonable reaction to physical discrimination. (264-265)
Unfortunately, she only carries this premise for two pages and then abandons it, despite the fact that white people are a worldwide minority with an overwhelmingly dominant media presence. The concerns of women of color are not a mere axillary issue to those of white women. Skin lightening creams, for example, are widely used in India and parts of Africa and Latin America. Colorism is entrenched in the African-American community, a legacy of white racism reinforced today by the black Beauty Myth. Hip-hop videos feature predominantly light-skinned models, a preference expressed by several rappers including Lil Wayne and Kanye West. ("If it wasn't for race mixing, there would be no video girls.") According to this article, skin lightening creams may contain high levels of the steroid corticosteroid (typically used to treat eczema and psoriasis and can only be safely used for up to two weeks), the steroid hydroquinone (banned in the EU for potential to cause skin cancer), and even mercury.
For years, Allison Ross rubbed in skin-lightening creams with names like Hyprogel and Fair & White. She said she wanted to even out and brighten the tone of her face, neck and hands. Mrs. Ross, 45, who lives in Brooklyn, also said that she used the lightening creams “to be more accepted in society.”

After months of twice-a-day applications, her skin was not only fairer, it had become so thin that a touch would bruise her face. Her capillaries became visible, and she developed stubborn acne. A doctor told her that all three were side effects of prescription-strength steroids in some of the creams, which she had bought over the counter in beauty supply stores. . .

Users are not necessarily immigrants, said Dr. Eliot F. Battle Jr., who has a dermatology practice in Washington, where he treats side effects from lightening creams “not only containing corticosteroids, but mercury,” a poison that can damage the nervous system. The patients are “Ph.D.’s to women from corporate America, teachers to engineers — the entire broad spectrum of women of color,” Dr. Battle said. (New York Times)
While Wolf rightfully points to the use of computer manipulation to alter women's bodies to a surreal extent, never does she mention what can be done to redesign and erase an individual's racial and cultural identity.

Via Womanist Musings

Wolf points to the economic costs of the Beauty Myth as additional money drained from women for extra maintenance to appear socially and professionally presentable. Apparently she hasn't noticed that black women worldwide – who on average earn even less than their white counterparts – are all but required to spend hundreds of dollars over a lifetime on heat styling and chemicals to alter their hair. These processes can burn the scalp and lead to permanent hair loss in the long term, leaving many black women in a "damned if you do damned if you don't" position. From the blog What Tami Said:
My beautiful, straightened hair came at a price. It meant ears burned by slipped hot combs and scars from harsh chemicals. It meant avoiding active play and swimming pools, lest dreaded moisture make my hair "go back." It meant having a relaxer eat away at the back of my long hair until barely an inch was left. It meant subtly learning that my natural physical attributes were unacceptable.
If beauty is a prerequisite for employment, it would be pertinent to bring up the historical controversy surrounding natural black hair – a controversy that affects black women primarily because it is they who usually wear their hair long. Natural black hairstyles, such as dreadlocks and the Afro, are seen as messy, "savage," or overtly political and therefore unsuitable for a professional setting.

Asian women, meanwhile, are more likely to have cosmetic surgery than any other group.
We’ve all had those awful moments of realization: We have our mother’s moon face. A third-world flat nose. Our dad’s beady-little almond eyes. Sausage knees. A flat ass. Non-existent cheekbones. Five feet of tiny height. Or whatever else is wrong with us, that can be magically assessed in a highly unforgiving full-length mirror.
If you want to discuss the dehumanization of women into living Barbie dolls - mass-produced and commercialized - you would do well to bring up the fetishization of Asian women as geisha dolls and inscrutably exotic Dragon Ladies that persists to this day.

Looking back, I think Naomi Wolf laid the groundwork for other women to build upon. She erases and oversimplifies (she exaggerates at times and some of her eating disorder statistics are obviously inflated) but the foundation is there. The Beauty Myth angers and inspires but is by no means anti-beauty: on the contrary, she celebrates the innate drive in all of us to adorn, take pride in our appearance, and own our sexuality. Unfortunately, she does go deep enough and The Beauty Myth is best read alongside other, similar, later works. Feminist/womanist blogs are a great place to start. Any other recommendations?

A Year of Feminist Classics is a project started by Amy, Ana, Emily Jane and Iris, four book bloggers who share an interest in the feminist movement and its history. The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for all of 2011, we will each month read what we consider to be a central feminist text, with one of us being in charge of the discussion. . . What we hope to achieve is to gain a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times. We welcome all voices and perspectives, and we would love it if you joined in and added your own.


Unknown said...

Good points all ways 'round. I have trouble with feminist work that is unable to take its exploration beyond the neat white boundaries that society imposes. The failure to recognize other experiences and reactions that are rooted in something beyond the middle class white American female is pretty meaningless.

This is where I recommend Dorothy Allison's essay collection - Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature. Kathy Acker is also important. I also find Pat (now Patrick) Califia's work enlightening - not just the erotica, but also the essays in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, Macho Sluts is also excellent.

There are oodles of alternative views on what it means to be female, beautiful/not beautiful, and all the different ways that women express themselves that have nothing to do with makeup counters or middle class white uptightness. I always find Naomi Wolf interesting to read, but ironic in actual life given her clear personal commitment to standard beauty as a way to be heard. I wish she was more self-aware.

Great review.

scribeswindow said...

And what a seminal text The Beauty Myth is, that I too think has acted as a springboard for many women. I don't normally do this, and I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to add a link here to a couple of blog posts that I wrote ages ago about feminist issues. It's just another female perspective.

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