It's been three decades since Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth was published. Joanna Mathers examines its currency and legacy.
White teeth, glowing skin, luscious hair, golden legs. These are the missiles launched from magazine covers and billboards by glossy-tressed angels with beatific smiles.
Everyday women, barraged by such ridiculous beauty, spend hard-won, independently earned money on potions that promises to make them sleeker, glossier, more desirable. Having been freed from the kitchen, the battlefield is now women's bodies, starved and cut with scalpels and covered in expensive gunk.
Western women transcended the tyranny of biology with the invention of the "pill" in the 1960s, the right to vote was gained half a century earlier. Women hold positions of power that were unheard of merely decades ago. But the patriarchy and its running mate, capitalism, have found a way to subjugate women by targeting their selves, their bodies.
Together, capitalism and patriarchy, create images of perfection and then sell women the means by which to embody such perfection (cosmetic surgery, face creams). These products are bound to fail, as humans are subject to the ravages of time. And so, the cycle — ever striving, ever failing — continues.
These are the central tenants of Naomi Wolf's feminist classic The Beauty Myth, and they are still as compellingly, disturbingly, pertinent 30 years on.
Wolf may have become somewhat of a laughing stock among the chattering classes, but in the early 1990s The Beauty Myth's passionate (although slightly rambling) polemic, was a rallying cry.
The book's introduction spells out her intent in searing prose.
"The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us ... During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing medical speciality ... Women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers."
Wolf continues her argument, discussing the ubiquitousness of commercially created and reproduced images of "beauty" created at the time: "The modern arsenal of the myth is a dissemination of millions of images of the current ideal ... it is summoned out of political fear on the part of male-dominated institutions threatened by women's freedom."
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They are fighting words and they made their mark. The book was lauded by first-wave feminists such as Germaine Greer (she proclaimed it the most important feminist publications since The Female Eunuch, which she wrote). It was an international best-seller and remains an important insight into gender power structures.
The book wasn't without its critics, however. Wolf's relationship with the truth was somewhat shaky (she famously claimed that 150,000 women died in the United States from anorexia each year, when it was more like 200) and many viewed her writing style as confused and rambling.
More recent blunders have been along the same lines – she said in her latest book, Outrages, that dozens of men in Victorian England were executed for same-sex relations, this was embarrassingly countered on air during a BBC interview. Her book Vagina (2012) was littered with odd pseudoscience factoids that had people chuckling and shaking their heads in turn.
But for all her PR disasters and lack of research rigour, Wolf and The Beauty Myth remain an important part of feminism's written history. And in our age of digitally enhanced Instagram influencers, it may be worth giving the book another airing.
Anna Vasilyeva, a 27-year-old University of Auckland PhD student, certainly believes that the book's key tenets are still extremely pertinent. She read The Beauty Myth when she was younger and found it transformational. It's given her more tools with which to dissect and understand impossible images of stereotypical beauty.
Vasilyeva is originally from Russia, where a premium is placed on women's physical appearance.
"There are far more women than men in Russia, due to the many years of conflict that Russia has been involved in, so men are regarded as very precious," she explains.
In Russia (and Moscow in particular, where she was born and raised) women are pitted against each other in a beauty competition with no end goal, no prize. This hyper-competitive quest for beauty has to take its toll; it certainly did for Vasilyeva.
As she moved from childhood to teenager, Vasilyeva found herself in the midst of a huge struggle around her looks and identity. She had put on a little bit of weight as she'd gone through her teens and as she viewed the impossible beauties in women's magazines, the pressure to be slim started to become a heavy burden.
"I really felt that the only way I would be appreciated was to be skinny," she admits.
It was the start of a slippery slope that led her into dangerous terrain and she became anorexic. This would be a hard-won battle. But intelligent and inquisitive, rather than letting the illness overcome her, she decided to research the truth behind the images of beauty being fed to her by the women's magazines in order to gain an understanding of the machinations at play.
"I started looking at before and after photos of celebrities in women's magazines – it totally changed the way I looked at [images of beautiful women]," she says.
The images were totally false representations of an impossible reality. Representations as harmful as they were ubiquitous.
She is now working on her PhD, focusing on young women and how they view beauty and the pressure to be conventionally "beautiful" as informed by social and mainstream media. She hopes that by bringing to light the truth behind the imagery, she may help other women find their way through the pain.
For her research, Vasilyeva spoke to 16 female University of Auckland students from 12 different countries. She was shocked to discover that only three of the 16 were able to identify pictures that had been Photoshopped.
She is shocked that in 2019, media literacy is so non-existent that even intelligent, savvy university students are unable to identify the real from the fake.
"Younger women don't realise that the Kardashians look the way they do because they have had plastic surgery," she says.
It's something close to her heart. When she was a master's student, she had a friend from China, a girl who was beautiful, intelligent and caring, who died from an eating disorder. She was living in Bangkok at the time and says that the need to be skinny and "perfect" is overwhelming in many Asian countries.
"Some of my people in the research group are from South Korea," she says. "They have told me that parents are actually paying for their daughters to have plastic surgery as a 'reward' when they graduate from university. This is new — you would never had found parents offering to pay for plastic surgery [before the rise of social media]."
But she believes that little has changed since the publication of The Beauty Myth — in fact her research indicates the issues raised in the book may be more prevalent than ever before.
Vanisa Dhiru, the president of the National Council for Women, also believes that the pressure to be "perfect" has increased in the 30 years since the publication of Wolf's book.
"Yes, it has absolutely increased, and social media has played and continues to play a key role," she explains.
"We see a very narrow representation of beauty with an unnecessary focus on appearance and how women are conforming to traditional gender roles, rather than their achievements and who they are as an individual."
Dhiru says that young women growing up in the world of Instagram and other forms of social media are facing completely different challenges to those faced 30 years ago, or indeed at any time in the history.
"Young women, and young people in general, are spending their formative years living through a distorted reflection of the world," she says.
"The normalisation of filters, selfies, plastic surgeries and self-promotion create a terrible perception that physical appearance is something that can and should be 'fixed' to adhere to traditional concepts of beauty."
She also believes that media literacy is key when it comes to understanding and unpacking the proliferation of "perfect" images that we are constantly faced with.
"Instagram is a very curated view of the world, can lead by influencers, and that trying to mirror what you see on this platform is as unrealistic as trying to emulate dolls. We need to celebrate all types of beauty and all genders, and be aware of the content that we interact with and how it affects the way that we perceive the world."
The need to be Instagram-perfect reaches its zenith in 21st century Los Angeles. In an interview I conducted earlier in the year, Hollywood plastic surgeon Dr Ty Steven Ip explained that the surge of interest in plastic surgery since the emergence of social media is unprecedented.
"Social media has changed everything. People are actually openly documenting their procedures and putting it on Instagram," he explains.
From hand-fillers to butt enlargements, the people of LA flock to see him in order to emulate their favourite celebs.
"People are following what Instagram influencers do, coming in and asking for the same lips or dimples that their favourite celebrity has. And if the celebrity has a treatment reversed, they follow suit and get it reversed as well."
Jia Tolentino, New Yorker writer, cultural critic and author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, sums up the plastic surgery trend, postulating the concept of the "ideal women" in the mid 21st century: "The work formerly carried out by makeup has been embedded directly into her face: her cheekbones or lips have been plumped up, or some lines have been filled in and her eyelashes are lengthened every four weeks by a professional wielding individual lashes and glue. The same is true of her body, which no longer requires the traditional enhancements of clothing or strategic underwear; it has been pre-shaped by exercise that ensures there is little to conceal or rearrange."
The Beauty Myth, pumped up, hyped up, digitally and cosmetically enhanced.
It all seems rather dire and damning, for those of us middle-aged feminists who remember the ecstasy of a cultural analysis that unveiled the ugliness behind "beauty".
Rachael Pilcher, a copy writer from Auckland who read The Beauty Myth in the late 1990s, agrees that women are bombarded by images of beauty at an extent that never existed before.
"I think women are much more concerned [about their appearance] than they used to be, and also have more options to make radical alterations to themselves. Beauty advertising and pressures are coming in from ten times as many media sources as they were 20 years ago too.
"When The Beauty Myth came out, there were magazines, TV, movies, and billboard ads. There is literally no escape for women today with social media and the state of the internet in general—it's a daily onslaught."
And while she believes that body positivity is being more embraced than in the supermodel worshipping 80s, female beauty focuses on the face – if you're not born beautiful, you're going have to pay for it.
"Botox, facial fillers, collagen injections, microblading, hair weaves, Invisalign ... are making women alter their appearance in more drastic and invasive ways, from a much younger age."
Thirty years on, it seems the lessons of The Beauty Myth are yet to be learned.
Perhaps it's time for us who remember the thrill of discovering the truth behind the glossy images to hand over our well-thumbed copy of Wolf's classic to a new generation.