fRobert Palmer sticks the fingers up at women‘s individuality, then Naomi Wolf replies with the fist of defiance. A bubbling force of impassioned anger and hope. which wrestle behind a pair ofearnest eyes. Wolfis the new driver of the machine'set to deconstruct the web of lies which she sees as surrounding today‘s woman, who may have pinched the odd seat of power, but is still more likely to pinch the odd inch.
The Beauty Myth is Naomi Wolf‘s exposition of the new social strait-jackets aimed at stultifying women‘s identities, in the absence ofthe now jaded propaganda of ‘the domestic adventure‘ to which women adhered in the 50s. ‘It is far more difficult to kill a phantom than a reality‘. wrote the other Woolf, and it is the glittering phantom of the ﬂawless, tight-assed. designer-dressed woman of today. splattered on every page of every woman‘s magazine, that Wolfwishes to exorcise. Wolf‘s ‘Beauty Myth‘; the anaesthetised image ofthe perfect woman, is epitomised by the air-brushing of female faces in magazines, to dispel the truth that some of us are less than perfect — a phenomenon which, ‘if you translate into racial terms with the lightening of the skin, takes on a shocking political resonance‘. Even ignoring the practice oftrimming photographs of female models down to super-skinny size, the average woman weighs 23 per cent more than her not-so-average glossy counterpart.
What does all this mean? Most women can handle the odd self-effacing glance at the glossies without collapsing into throes ofjealousy. or slicing the wrists of their evidently matt bodies. The scars run deep. however, insists Wolf, and the 60% of American college women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, for the sake of the goddess Beauty, are her evidence.
A third generation feminist, Wolf refutes the suggestion that this has all been said before. by writers Germaine Greer to Susie Orbach — both of which she quotes liberally in her book: “Previous feminist theories have looked at private psychology to the neglect of public policy. and they explain the rise of thinness as an ideal in psycho-sexual terms. They don‘t reach the conclusion that I reach, which is that really thinness doesn‘t matter; it‘s just symptomatic. What really matters is that masses of young women right now are hungry, weak, obsessed and ill so they won‘t carry on the feminist struggle.‘
Refreshingly divorced from the man-hating image of the feminist, Wolf claims to be the first to take the idea of beauty into the economic sphere where, she claims, there is a blatant attempt by advertisers of consumer goods to prevent women from carrying the banners which were thrust in the face of male dominance in the
1960s: ‘Where would the advertisers be if we didn‘t hate ourselves?’
Wolf was herself anorexic, or as she writes, ‘a wind up obedience toy‘. an experience which has left her very bitter. However. she does not regard herself different from any other woman in our beauty-polluted society: ‘Most of us are told that this is our problem, this is our fault; there‘s no one to be mad at. I know from my experience that the beauty myth is deadly, and that it can sow madness, but I don‘t think that I am different from any of the millions of anorexics who were not weak or crazy, and have become weak or crazy. I guess that I‘m convinced that we all have stories to tell — terrible experiences of bitterness.’
In the frightening situation where it has become the norm to clutch an academic qualification on
the outside and an eating disorder on the inside, Wolf asks why the newspapers are not headlining what amounts to the slow starvation of millions, not in some waterless hell halfway around the globe. but on our own fertile soil. ‘If 150,000 American women dying of anorexia each year isn‘t front page news, I don‘t know what is—we live in a world that treats women‘s experience as trivial.‘
At the core of her beauty myth lies Wolf‘s monster. the ‘Iron Maiden‘ — not that powerful old queenie with her eyes on a fifteen-year reign, but a hollow dolly with an artificial radiance, perfect on the outside and lethal on the inside. This ‘soft pornography‘ of the consumer beauty, which almost every woman feels breathing down her neck. is as harmful as the hard core images of women as splay-legged sex dollies. thinks Wolf.
‘The woman‘s movement has been cudgelling itself in an honourable effort to track the direct relationship between hard core porn and male violence against women. My contribution is to point out the direct link between soft pornography and women‘s violence against themselves. I mean. you don‘t need a smoking gun — there‘s the woman getting her breast cut open. there‘s the woman vomiting blood. here‘s the violence.‘
Has Wolf herself then. shaken the lethal beauty dust from her feet? She may be a proud woman but the beauty myth is one stubborn fairytale. ‘I don‘t know anyone. certainly not myself. who can say, fine. I just won‘t care about sex or about being sexually excitable. You can have the best intellectual will in the world. but as long as these images are portrayed as sexual. you‘re stuck with them‘. And despite being barefaced herself. she claims to have “no problem with cosmetics. What I object to is anyone handing to a woman a set of circumstances which says you will be naked if you don‘t wear make-up. you‘ll feel fat ifyou don‘t diet‘. As such. it is not beauty itself that is the evil, but the censorship; ‘the narrow spectrum that we are given in which to nurture our sexual selves. What I‘m interested in is a pain free beauty: a pain free sexuality.‘
In a situation where an array ofpornography aimed at the female voyeur is evolving. and numerous consumer magazines aimed at the image-conscious young male. surely the situation is being equalized. not in spite of. but thanks to the advertising industry. Although conceding that this may give women a taste of power in that they are looking. rather than just being looked at. Wolf is fairly sceptical. ‘The advertisers get it that this stuff works; creating sexual insecurity works. Even in the last five years, they‘re using images drawn from homosexual subculture and aiming them at men‘s sexuality. That is increasingly freaking men out and making them insecure. Finally, we‘re in this situation where both men and women are polarised. with this huge industry standing between us.‘
A New Yorker herself. living in Edinburgh ‘for the love of a Scot‘, Wolf must surely notice a more intense application of the beauty myth in America than in its relatively unpolluted
sidekick, Britain. ‘The worst aspects ofthe beauty myth are produced in America. sure. but they‘re being shipped here with a vengeance. and in 1992 when your airwaves are deregulated. I predict an astronomic rise in anorexia. in cosmetic surgery and in male pornographies, filtering into mainstream culture. I‘m warning British women — it‘s like exporting toxic waste‘. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf is published by Chatto and Windus, £13. 95, and is out now.
The List 28 September— ll ()ctoher l‘)‘)()9