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Revisiting the Beauty Myth

There does seem to be more visibility of a broader spectrum of "beauties" in the world today. Beauty is becoming more expansive, less exclusive. And yet it seems to me that the pressure of looking one particular way may have been replaced by a more intense pressure of "making an effort."
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I have just finished Naomi Wolf's polemical debut, The Beauty Myth. First published in 1990, it details the new societal obsession with female appearance as a calculated move by the oppressive patriarchy. We were moved out of the kitchens by the first two waves of feminism -- and straight into the bathroom to obsessively shave, pluck, scrub, cleanse, tone and moisturize. Reading this fifteen years later as a young woman and "beauty" enthusiast, I found it extremely striking. Some of what I read aligned alarmingly perfectly with many of my deepest fears about how femaleness and beauty are related. It's hard to ignore the predictions Wolf makes which seem to be becoming scarily true. Yet much of the book reads now in a positive light -- about the ever-broadening spectrum of what is considered acceptable and even beautiful today.

The recent release of the 2016 Pirelli Calendar illustrates this nicely. It was a cultural phenomenon I had remained completely unaware of until this year, when shocking images of women nakedly having stomachs and sometimes even wearing full outfits appeared. (Although I am being a bit facetious about it, I just looked at the 2015 calendar and actually found it terribly frightening, so while these images probably shouldn't be classed as shocking, it's good that they've replaced the traditional Pirelli fare.) This seems to be a Good Thing: that it's the "real" (shudders) images of females which gain attention and, for the most part, applause. Seeing stunning images of dark skinned women and old women and young women and women with lots of hair and women with not so much hair and women with stomach rolls and women with stretch marks shouldn't be this shocking -- but at least it has happened.

So are things getting better or worse? There does seem to be more visibility of a broader spectrum of "beauties" in the world today. Beauty is becoming more expansive, less exclusive. And yet it seems to me that the pressure of looking one particular way may have been replaced by a more intense pressure of "making an effort." The regimented routines women are expected to keep up to maintain their youth and maximize their assets (shudders again) seem more accepted than ever. And if you can manage to make a concerned and concentrated effort and still come out appearing "effortless", even better. Why?

It's a scary thought that the reason women are expected to do all of these things may actually have nothing to do with the end result, that it's the process which is imperative. Now women have somehow got the idea that they can do anything they want, best to make sure they still have some duties to occupy their brains a bit. Now they can be financially stable individuals, best to impose an obligatory "woman tax" on their incomes, accounting for all the lotions and potions they are required to own. Do I think this is totally true? Probably not. I never buy beauty items because I feel like I have to, it's a hobby which I enjoy and has little to nothing to do with society. That's my stance -- but I worry that I can't say with absolute confidence that I'm not at least a little bit mind controlled by what is, essentially, a money-making, woman-oppressing industry.

The ending of the Beauty Myth was perhaps my favorite part -- not least because it was the section which reassured me that I could be a Good Person and still want to spend twenty minutes playing with lipsticks most days. Wolf talks of a conscious decision met by all women who like doing things to their faces -- a choice between expression and oppression. I think this mantra is the thing all face-having women today should embrace. There are enough things in life to make women sad and cross and poor and self-loathing. Don't, for God's sake, let the contents of your bathroom cabinet become another one. Since lots of aspects of the world seem geared towards undermining ones confidence, don't invite more of the same into your very home. If it isn't making you happier, get rid of it. It isn't essential and you aren't obligated to do anything. A decision has to be made between joy and pain. Between choice and obligation. Between the beauty myth and a beauty reality.