Over twenty years ago, author, journalist and political advisor Naomi Wolf released a book that became an overnight bestseller and a subject of controversy. Iconic second-wave feminists such as Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan praised it, while other commentators disagreed with its premise, as well as the research and statistics Wolf had used in it.
Wolf’s central argument – that even as women gain greater social and political prominence, they are still held hostage to cruel and arbitrary standards of physical attractiveness – still stands.
In her introduction to the book, Wolf argues that this “beauty myth” is intensified by the commercialisation of the mass media and contributes to the systemic harm of women:
“More 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.”
A 2005 review in The Guardian called The Beauty Myth “a brilliant, bracing book”, adding that the “world has changed – a bit – over the past decade and a half, but not enough: this remains essential reading.”
In a 2011 article, Wolf reflected on her book, “Since then, many of the issues I warned about have, indeed, gotten worse. The body size of fashion models and starlets has dropped still further; fashion ads showcase women who look as if they should be hospitalised. The technologies of cosmetic surgery have become so commonplace that there are communities in which women with unreconstructed faces are seen as bucking the norm.”