Wolf, N. 2002/1991. The Beauty Myth.

Wolf, Naomi. 2002 [1991]. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: Harper Perennial.

The Beauty Myth

  • Despite gains in political and economic fields, women are still being hindered by unrealistic beauty standards that can seriously impact their lives, to the point of illness or fatality (i.e. cosmetic surgery botches, anorexia). Though representation has increased in public sphere, private sphere (and personal ones) are tainted by fears of aging, fatness, and perceived physical flaw – capitalized upon by a multibillion-dollar industry.
  • The Beauty Myth: “The quality called ‘beauty’ objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary” (12). However, this beauty myth is a fiction, as it is not a cultural universal, a product of sexual selection, nor a historical/cultural core, serving to sustain patriarchal power. This is not by telling women how to look, but by prescribing behaviors.
  • Modern beauty myths source no earlier than 1830’s – prior to which, families and mating were productive. Beauty myths propagated by technologies and reach of distribution.
  • The beauty myth serves to reconstruct patriarchal authority and undermine women’s (self-) perceived authority in work, politics, religion, etc.


  • Beauty becomes a means to cut down successful women; an extra credential to be fulfilled in an increasingly individualized and meritocratic workplace. However, for working class women, beauty may serve as a way to avoid exploitative labor. Argues that beauty no longer stands for “material pleasures” (sex, love, expression), but now becomes a mandate of economies, alienating people. Used as criterion of hire, as an informal way to phase out people in service and media industries. Women in the workplace have to negotiate exploitative dress codes (to which there are no comparable requisites for men), and are then fired for non-compliance, or are penalized through being “too sexy”- inciting sexual violence from their supervisors or peers. Fear and competition keeps women isolated, and transforms the body as a stage for playing out economic roles.


– Cultural depictions of women normalize the imperative for beauty. Men are exposed to images of beautiful women, but do not see them as figures to emulate. Beauty becomes taken-for-granted, as women with exceptional skill, talent, etc. are often considered anomalous – more so, if they’re beautiful. This reinforces mind-body dualism. Similarly, literature and cultural discourses frequently posit women in competition with each other, often for the heart of the hero. These battles become the staging for showing valued femininities. Increased women’s literacy prompted boost of women’s magazines, advertising, and consumer goods, forwarded by women’s liberation and wartime exposure to the workforce (having independent funds and spending ability). Media and cultural tropes of feminists cast them as unlovable, undersexed, and most prominently, ugly. Thus, women’s political involvement becomes cast as unsavory, preventing women’s organization, and legitimizing continued denigration (isolation, lack of representation, lack of political/social change). Women’s magazines and advertisements (particularly during 1970’s) frame consumption as a way to “make a difference;” in 1990s, to “make an expression” – reflecting a change from community organization to individualized interests (kx^ – post-feminist evolution?). This fragmentation contributes to women’s fear of other women, promotes competition, and because of appearances (rather than internal ambition, etc.) are external, they are easily judged – fragmenting women’s alliances, yet simultaneously bridging these gaps through adornment rituals (which tend to be infrequent and cursory). Older and conventionally-unattractive women are erased, leaving dominant discourses of femininity to be represented by normative images.

-skipped Religion-


“Very nearly released by the spread of contraception, legal abortion, and the demise of the sexual double standard, that sexuality was quickly restrained once again by the new social forces of beauty pornography and beauty sadomasochism, which arose to put the guilt, shame, and pain back into women’s experience of sex” (132).  Beauty, though considered a mandate, presents its wearer with a target to wear – as a potential victim of sexual violence. Increased pornographic themes and popular depictions of sex as S/M — (kx^ – an issue) – helped to normalize sexual violence.

“The current allocation of power is sustained by a flood of hostile and violent sexual images, but threatened by imagery of mutual eroticism or female desire; the elite of the power structure seem to know this consciously enough to act on it” (138) – through promoting pornography, metaphors and depictions of sexual violence. Though utilizing images of nude women, material that is informational or erotic to women’s interests (such as centerfolds of naked men, or breast examinations) are quickly censored. Women’s nudity becomes a reflection of vulnerability, economic dispensability, and devaluation.

“With women experimenting sexually, men risked hearing what women hear every day: that there are sexual standards against which they might be compared. Their fears are exaggerated: Even with sexual freedom, women maintain a strict code of etiquette […]” (153). “Men’s fears of being objectified in the way they have objectified women is probably unfounded: If both genders were given the choice of seeing the other as a combination of sexual object and human being, both would recognize that fulfillment lies in excluding neither terms. But it is the unfounded fears between the sexes that work best to the beauty myth’s advantage” (154). Women’s bodies become economized for profit,  but not for themselves or other women; conversely, men’s bodies are not similarly eroticized for women. Music and media eroticizes and normalizes sexual violence – coming from pedestals of power and admiration, their words are impactful. Non-beautiful women are deprived of romantic love; yet beautiful women are trained to consistently self-doubt and are viewed as objects.

“Cultural representation of glamorized degradation has created a situation among the young in which boys rape and girls get raped as a normal course of events. The boys may even be unaware that what they are doing is wrong; violent sexual imagery may well have raised a generation of men who rape women without even knowing it” (167).

“Since their [girls] bodies are seen from the point of view of strangeness and desire, it is no wonder that what should be familiar, felt to be whole, becomes estranged and divided into poarts. What little girls learn is not the desire for the other, but the desire to be desired” (157).

“An erotic life based on nonviolent mutuality [between men and women, here] rather than domination and pain teaches firsthand its appeal beyond the bedroom. A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman lovers her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights. It’s true what they same about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands:  payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, child-care, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world” (145).


Controlling women’s hunger translates to a control of body, sensuality, sexuality – and thus, as mentioned above, their power to instigate political and cultural change.


Control of women’s bodies has moved from psychological care (hysteria, etc.) to the monitoring of beauty – associated with healthcare, sexuality, reproduction, and

Beyond the Beauty Myth

“Costumes and disguises will be lighthearted and fun when women are granted rock-solid identities. Clothing that highlights women’s sexuality will be casual wear when women’s sexuality is under our own control. When female sexuality is fully affirmed as a legitimate passion that arises from within, to be directed without stigma to the chosen object of our desire. The sexually expressive clothes or manner we may assume can no longer be used to shame us, blame us, or target us for beauty myth harassment” (273). […] “Women will be able thoughtlessly to adorn ourselves with pretty objects when there is no question that we are not objects. Women will be free of the beauty myth when we can choose to use our faces and clothes and bodies as simply one form of self-expression out of a full range of others. We can dress up for pleasure, but we must speak up for our rights” (273-274).

Recommends third-wave feminist consciousness-raising, renegotiating meanings of beauty, taking claims to the public sphere, pursue sexualities without violence or exploitation, embrace nudity and bodily appreciation (particularly as a communal activity with other women), and to forge new/intergenerational alliances of women.

*** Pretty much, just use the recommendations section to write your own. Because, damn.  


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