In 1991, author Naomi Wolf challenged an entire generation of women to throw off the oppressive bindings of what she called The Beauty Myth and likened to a torturing Iron Maiden. The modern concept of beauty was constricting, like a religion, violent. A new, third wave of feminism was necessary to break through the last major stronghold of patriarchy — psychological subjugation. Wolf treats beauty as a new religion, comparing anti-wrinkle cream to holy oil and day spas to ancient purification rituals. Sufferers of anorexia and bulimia are not mentally unwell; they are political prisoners within their own skin. Medicine has turned against healthy women, surgically altering them beyond the point of recognition. The world of institutional glamor in which Wolf lives resembles a military state in which women can be fired for being either too sexy or too frumpy. It is a world that needs a dramatic revolution. It is a world that needs feminism.
Twenty-one years later (the span of nearly my entire life), where are we? Do women still need feminism? Have we overcome the Beauty Myth?
My short answer is: Of course! Don’t be silly. Do you remember my trip to the Connecticut Forum? The four panelists (Michelle Bernard, Ashley Judd, Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem) did a pretty good job analyzing the current state of women both in the United States and abroad, and they all concluded that feminism is still an essential.
I was thinking about The Beauty Myth when I noticed through Jezebel.com that Ashley Judd may or may not be running for office in the future. Through some hyperlink clicking, I arrived at an essay written by Judd last April in which she talks about beauty. Based on her story, I think it is safe to say that the religion of beauty has not gone away.
Last March, Ashley Judd was sick. So very sick. Logically, her doctor put her on a medication that, as a reaction, caused her face to puff up a little bit. And instead of asking Ashley Judd what was going on with her face, the internet mongrels went through a barrage of insults under the assumption that she had had plastic surgery.
The Iron Maiden jabs its blades into my generation differently than it did to Wolf’s. The presence of airbrushing in the media has long been exposed (though it still happens regularly, at least people know on some level that those models don’t look like that). I can think of enough subcultures in the US, especially within youth culture, that propose alternate visions of what looks “beautiful.” But by no means does that change or challenge the Beauty Myth. If anything, the problem has become more insidious. People still get hired or fired based on their looks. Women are still being raped and blamed for it. Women (and increasingly men) are still struggling with anorexia, and plastic surgery is still going strong. And on top of all that, we have the internet.
The internet is the big difference between 1991 and now. Not only are people hyper-connected to social networking, but the internet offers a level of anonymity and mystery — and the hecklers love it. Ashley Judd was attacked because of her looks on the internet. And her accusers didn’t let their comments hide in the shadows of constant disapproval; they ripped her to shreds. And they could do so because of the remove of the internet. When you’re staring at a computer screen, it’s even harder to recognize the very real human within the photo.
Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth at the cusp of third wave feminism. Now that the third wave has come and broke on the beach, and I’m talking with my professors about feminism with the addendum, “Well, if you really want to talk in waves…”, where are we? And what do we make of this internet culture? Beauty is still a religious cult forcing itself onto women and men in our society, regardless of age or ethnicity. The ideal standards may have shifted over time, but the standard still exists (as if Plato himself were the secretary women).
But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In 1991, Naomi Wolf challenged her audience to assume a new wave of feminism. That challenge, that rallying cry, is still ringing. And as more and more people break out of their own Iron Maidens, we could see great change. Even on the internet. I want to end this post with a comic from XKCD.com drawn by Randall Munroe, bemoaning the treatment of women on the web. So enjoy!