Naomi Wolf

Beauty: A New Trap for Women?

VTR Date: March 10, 1991

Naomi Wolf discusses "the bad side of looking good."


GUEST: Naomi Wolf
VTR: 3/10/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, where my qualifications for dealing with many of the topics we touch upon at this table each week have largely to do with having an open mind – though, hopefully, not so open that my brains have fallen out – and a real interest in our subject and in my guest. Which is particularly true right now…for what I know about beauty – today’s topic – is only skin deep once we get beyond my historian’s delight in a favorite Woodrow Wilson ditty: “For beauty, I am not a star. There are many more handsome by far. But my face, I don’t mind it, for I am behind it. It’s the people in front whom I jar”.

But I do want to focus today on a thought –provoking new book (and its author) that Time magazine in its section on “ideas” recently highlighted as “the bad side of looking good. A young American author causes a storm by arguing that women have become victims of a punishing cult of beauty”.

Indeed, the subtitle of Naomi Wolf’s new William Morrow book, “The Beauty Myth”, says it all: “How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women”.

Now, perhaps Ms. Wolf would have been better advised to have subtitled her book “How images of beauty have long been used against women”. For though her thesis is that: “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: “The beauty myth”…she adds importantly, “It is the modern version of a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial Revolution”. So much, then, for the criticism that the “Beauty Myth” is old hat. And I would ask Ms. Wolf if she doesn’t really strive to make that point herself? That it is “old hat”?

Wolf: Well, exactly. We do…we’ve lived under a patriarchal system for as long as there’s been recorded history and ever since there have been records, women have been controlled in various ways. And you could say that the cult of beauty is, is ancient. What I’m pointing out though is that just at those historical moments when other material constraints on women loosen, the beauty myth, especially here in the West, tightens to take on the work of social control that other myths about feminity like “the feminine mystique, for example, which we so recently freed ourselves of, can no longer manage.

Heffner: But are you so certain that those holds, those restraints have tightened recently? After all, it seems to me from much of what I read in this quite telling book, has to do with things that I remember, from long, long ago…

Wolf: Certainly. There are two points I want to make about that. One of them is that we’re supposed to be free now; the Women’s Movement of the 70s was a tremendous revolution. I believe it was the greatest revolution in the history of the species. We should not be victims…actually I would argue with that word…we should not be survivors of a system that’s still trying to manipulate and control us in this particular way. The second point I wanted to make is that you ask “Has it gotten worse?” If you just look at the numbers that I cite, and my book is full of quite shocking and horrific statistics…eating disorders, just to take one example, have grown so exponentially in Western industrialized nations that now, according to Time magazine, 50% of all American women between the ages of 10 an d30 suffer form either anorexia of bulimia. That’s mind-blowing. Cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing medical specialty. The profession of “image consultant” grew by eight-fold over the course of the 80s. Clearly something’s happening here. It seems to me inarguable that if now half, roughly half the young women on American campuses can’t eat properly that something profound and terrifying is happening.

Heffner: But, you know, it’s interesting, you say “if they can’t eat properly” and before you used the word…and then I think I retracted it…”victim”…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: Now, why say that women are “victims” and why say that they can’t eat properly? Who is doing this to whom?

Wolf: Who is doing this to whom? Western women since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have been uniquely controlled by ideals. In the 19th century the perfect beauty was an ideal of sickness. And I argue that repeatedly whenever there’s a class of Western middle class women who are literate and idle and there’s a ferment of feminism in the air as there was in the 19th century, some ideal is going to be needed to, to control them and make sure that does not get out of hand. And sure enough, this cult of invalidism in the 19th century grew and flourished, publicists all around told women that…middle class women…that they should be sick…a booming industry of sexual surgeons and sexual doctors attending to “female” complaints grew up telling them that normal, healthy female processes were, in fact, were diseased, like menstruation and sexual desire were manifestations of disease. And middle class women got sick. Again in the 50s, when the economy needed women to leave their war work, when men were returning from the front, this society desperately needed an ideology that would drive women back into the home and convince them that the ideal woman was the full-time, happy homemaker, absolutely obsessed with the shining, perfect floor. Well, Betty Freidan and “The Feminine Mystique”, her book and the Women’s Movement of the early 70s took apart that domestic fiction and I argue that we’re seeing exactly the same process again, that this society controls women through notions of perfection, right. And that this is just the latest example of this means of social control. And that it’s working. When I say “victims” I want to point out that women do very creative things with the circumstances handed to them, but that if, if…since the Women’s Movement took off in the early 70s and just simultaneous to that, the weight of fashion models plummeted by 23% below the weight of the average woman. And the average woman wants to lose 23% of her body weight to fit the ideal, and at a body weight loss of 23%, all kinds of psychological disruption sets in, as my research shows that it does, and this leads to the levels of eating disorders that I cite in the book. Then it seems to me that we have to stop looking at the ideal of “thinness” for example, as an aesthetic ideal and start looking at it as a political ideal. In other words, beauty is always the ideal, is always prescribing behavior and not appearance.

Heffner: Do you think that men are equally the victims of this ideal?

Wolf: Certainly in the last five years of so…advertisers have figured out that it works, that you can target a vast market by making people feel sexually inadequate, and sexually insecure and increasingly there’s a new beauty myth being developed in mainstream media…aimed at men to undermine their feelings of aesthetic self-worth. And psychiatrists are predicting rising eating disorders among young men. However, I don’t believe in my lifetime, as long as men hold the balance of economic power, that they will feel that their appearance determines not only their attractiveness to women, if that’s who they’re interested in, but their entire self-worth as a human being. In other words, men have role models in the world all around them. Women’s role models that they see are largely confined to fashion models. And so until the balance of power in society changes tremendously I doubt that men will see fashion models, male fashion models and view them as role models.

Heffner: Then you are essentially talking about power.

Wolf: Exactly, that’s precisely what I’m talking about. Can I…I left out an interim link there when I was explaining…who’s a fault, who’s to blame…

Heffner: Please.

Wolf: …I described a social mood in which a new ideology was desperately necessary. One of the new themes, new points which I make in my book which is very important is that I am not blaming men as individual lovers, husbands, fathers. I don’t believe that the pressure of this intensified, what I call “beauty-backlash” comes from individual men. I believe it comes from institutions, male dominated institutions that are safe-guarding political power.

Heffner: Such as…

Wolf: I’ll give you a very good example. As soon as in the early 70s feminism, thank heavens, made it illegal to discriminate against women in the work place on the basis of our gender, case law evolved…and this is mind-blowing, but true…in Britain and America that makes it legal to discriminate against women in the workplace on the basis of our appearance. So now there’s this Byzantine legal situation where you can be fired or demoted if you…if you’re a woman if you look too feminine, and fired or demoted if you don’t look feminine enough. And that increasingly, as women entered the professions, television is a wonderful example…qualifications from what I call the “display professions” like fashion modeling and prostitution, increasingly were applied to them by employers as a way to have risk free employment discrimination. In other words, it puts the discrimination back in through the back door. And what this safeguards is a situation where , according to my research, 25% to 40% of the gross national product of western countries is work women do for free, or for less pay, unpaid female labor, and the economy depends on that. And you have a situation now where women have to feel that they’re worth half as much and work twice as hard because they’re being told that their appearances is part of what makes them valuable as a worker and that that’s legitimate.

Heffner: You know, as I read your book, I had the feeling that what you were talking about, though you say “no” to it in the book, that you were talking about exploitation for profit on a much narrower basis…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: …on the part of those who sell the products…

Wolf: That’s…

Heffner: …that would make women…

Wolf: I’m so glad you…

Heffner: …beautiful.

Wolf: …you brought that up because that was where I was getting to.

Heffner: I’m a good straight man.

Wolf: (Laughter) You’re very good. The link I left out was in the midst of this demand for social control of women and for a new way to put discrimination back into the work place, four major industries exploded over the last twenty years. One of them is the $20 billion dollar cosmetics industry which censors mainstream women’s media and increasingly mainstream media selling useless anti-aging creams, but the fact that these are some of the major advertisers of mainstream and women’s media, means that there’s very little room to negotiate with the beauty myth within those pages. Another industry is the $33 billion dollar dieting industry. This industry would vanish overnight if women, if low feelings of self-worth were not instilled in women. And again, these are major advertisers in women’s magazines. They have the same censoring effect that and promotion of the beauty myth that advertisers for domestic products and household appliances used to have in propagating the feminine mystique in the fifties. Ah, so they really limit debate and they limit the kinds of spectrum of role models that women can see out in there in the world. Third industry is the $300 million dollar cosmetic surgery industry, fastest growing medical specialty; totally unregulated…87% of the patients are women. Finally, the $7 billion dollar pornography industry, which is incredibly enough larger than conventional films and records combined, and has more outlets than McDonald’s. All of these industries desire to manipulate what women can see and take in in terms of the media environment, and they do so in a rising economic spiral.

Heffner: Now, do you feel yourself to be capable of being manipulated that way?

Wolf: Absolutely.

Heffner: You do?

Wolf: Absolutely. I’m a woman in this culture.

Heffner: You’re also a scholar, you’re also extremely well educated, you also have developed a protest against what you’ve been talking about.

Wolf: Finally. But my protest came out of the experience of having the beauty myth used against me as a political weapon against my advancement. Let me give you an example. I pointed out in the book that because, according to my theory the closer women get to power the more intense pressure the beauty myth places on them, as a way to undermine that power. It’s not surprising that the ground zero of anorexia and bulimia is at the most prestigious men’s and women’s colleges, in other words the most prestigious Ivy League colleges. Usually the most brilliant students, women students on those campuses are the closest to full starvation…this is not an over-statement. I was anorexic…so was almost every one of the other women Rhodes’ Scholars that I know at Oxford University. I think that we’ve got to recognize that you do not become free of, of the beauty myth by living from your neck up. In fact, the way the beauty myth undermines women’s power is to say, “You can either be sexual or serious, but not both”. Of course, to make that false choice, to make that false dichotomy…absolutely weakens women. Men are not expected to choose between being sexual or serious. In fact, their seriousness is taken to enhance their sexuality. So I would say that just because I was well educated and fortunate to be educationally privileged, doesn’t exempt me in any way from these things…makes me angrier.

Heffner: So you feel yourself still to have been a victim of the beauty myth.

Wolf: A survivor of the beauty myth. Yes.

Heffner: But now, you know, let me go back to this business of victimization…

Wolf: Sure.

Heffner: …today there is the, the “mommy trap”…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: …there is the “beauty trap”…there is, there was the feminine mystique, which was the “feminine mystique trap”…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: Ah, you put it on political basis, you put it on, on an economic basis…

Wolf: Absolutely.

Heffner: Why haven’t you been willing to accept, to limit yourself, your critique…to the economics of salesmanship or saleswomanship?

Wolf: Because that’s not adequate. You have a choice, when you’re being bombarded with advertising. Ultimately you have a choice whether to buy or not buy that product if your livelihood doesn’t depend on it. What’s happened over and above the ways these four industries are manipulating mass media is that increasingly the beauty myth is being used to make women not only feel, but believe…to make it be true, that their careers, their income, their livelihood depends upon their conforming to these stereotypes. That their sexuality depends upon conforming to these stereotypes. That their sense of self-worth as human beings depends upon it. That their visibility on the planet depends upon it. Now those are very difficult things to negotiate with. Impossible, I would say. And I think it’s therefore inadequate to stop short…also it’s, it’s certainly been done before and it’s not an adequate explanation to me to blame either men’s sexual desire, which I think is not, as I said, the source of this pressure or you know, the capitalist economy. I mean certainly the capitalist economy stimulates and exacerbates this, but it would not have the breakneck power that it increasingly has…look at our own profession. It’s no news that you will not vanish from the airwaves because you’re mature and have the authority…

Heffner: You mean an old man.

Wolf: But a woman in your position is likely to vanish from the airwaves because she’s no longer what the industry calls an “anchor clone”. And that that paradigm on television of the, the older man, who looks like an individual, and the younger, nubile, interchangeable heavily made-up anchor clone who disappears as soon as the first wrinkles show up on her face, has become the, the paradigm for the relationship between men and women in the workplace everywhere. And I’m just suggesting that with this development, the backlash has used much more powerful weapons than it’s ever had before.

Heffner: You know what took me so much about your book is that I agree with so much of it.

Wolf: Well, thank you.

Heffner: Well, I agree with so much of it, but there is one part that concerns me greatly and that is the…and you as a scholar will recognize the phrase…the Devil Theory of history…

Wolf: Yes. (Laughter)

Heffner: You’re looking for a devil and you don’t find it inside ourselves, you find it in a manipulation, in a creation and a manipulation of that creation by forces outside and you’re not even satisfied with an economic approach…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: …you want to make it something larger…there are forces at work in our society that purposefully…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: …manipulate women to keep them in the home.

Wolf: Yes. Or to keep them feeling them imprisoned in their bodies. Yes, I have no apology for that. The way I put it in the book is this is not a conspiracy theory, it doesn’t have to be. I’ve become convinced, and I’m very influenced by the work of Barbara Ehrenreich who I think proved this absolutely, without a doubt, in her book For Her Own Good: A 150 Years of the Experts Advice to Women, that if you look at the history of how middle class women do…are made to do what needs to be…what the economy and what society needs them to do at any given moment, you’re looking at manipulation which is so necessary and so, almost reflexive, that it doesn’t even have to be conscious.

Heffner: How different is that, though? I, I…again, I don’t disagree with you…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: …but how different is that from the way men are manipulated when you’re talking about advertising, when you’re talking about what appears for commercial purposes in the press?

Wolf: Two big examples. One, I talked about employment…

Heffner: Yes.

Wolf: …and as long as men are not judged on what I call the PBQ, or Professional Beauty Qualification in the work place, men will have a freedom to negotiate their version of the beauty myth far beyond what women have, if they really are convinced, and as I say, increasingly it’s true, that they feel that their appearance is going to limit or constrain their exercise of their gifts on, you know, in this one life…in the work place. And lead directly to whether, to whether they can feed their families or not. Another example is…and this is a sensitive subject…but, in terms of their sexuality. In the last 20 years I think there’s been a real generation gap. In about 1960, I think women born after 1960, like myself, were developed somewhat differently than women born before 1960. And I call us the anorexic, pornographic generations…and what I mean by that is that there was in the sixties and seventies a spill-over of imagery from soft core pornography increasingly into mainstream culture and women’s culture and movies and television…MTV…and what this means is that women my age and younger learned about what sexuality was supposed to look like, if you were a woman, and what sexual perfection looked like before we learned about sexuality from other human beings. And this, I think, means that the beauty myth in our generation goes deeper than skin deep. And it’s much more difficult to negotiate with something that’s telling you it’s held your sexuality for ransom, and again, that’s a distinction that I think most heterosexual men just don’t feel. I don’t believe that they feel as sexually vulnerable in relation to images of male physical perfection as women feel. And those are two enormous changes. And yes, I, I do believe that there’s a tremendous…I think, I think, I think we collectively, because we’re Americans, and we celebrate the notion of individual progress and, and meritocracy and so on. I think we underestimated just how much of a threat a truly successful women’s revolution would have been to this culture. Particularly an economic threat. And I think that it’s not surprising that a sophisticated and, I think I’ve proved, by looking at, at dozens of areas where institutions are using the beauty myth to constrain women right now. I think it’s not surprising that institutions would collude right now in these very overt ways to protect power because there’s a lot at stake. If women really moved freely, in free bodies, through a free society and were judged according to their merits…50%, at least 50% of the top jobs would go to women.

Heffner: You use the word “censorship” before or “censor”…what were you referring to?

Wolf: Well, it’s quite a dark and upsetting thing, if you care about civil liberties. According to my chapter on culture, according to the research I’ve done on the influence of advertising on what can be shown in women’s magazines, and increasingly according to places like the Columbia Journalism Review, in mainstream media, the balance of power has shifted to advertisers from editorial in most newspapers and magazines, and what that means is that editors are under pressure to make a favorable advertising climate for their advertisers. What this means is that particularly the representation of women is absolutely conditioned in our culture by what the advertisers need the audience of women to care about.

Heffner: Do you think that for a moment that whether it is in television, or in print, magazines…not just women’s magazines…but general magazines, newspapers, that there is less of a relationship between what is good…not for General Motors, but what is good for the advertiser or sponsor and what appears on the page, on the screen or what have you? You seem to be discovering something that many of us learned a long time ago…

Wolf: Sure.

Heffner: …that where the power is…

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: …and you talk about power is where the dollar is.

Wolf: Absolutely. There’s a tremendous difference, though. One of the scariest things that’s…that I’ve experienced personally and I want to talk a little bit more about censorship, is to see first hand and to hear first hand from women in the media about how the representation of women is censored by this advertising need to serve the, the beauty myth. MS Magazine couldn’t show Soviet women not wearing make up…another magazine couldn’t show women with gray hair on their cover because Breck would withhold advertising dollars. All I wanted to say is that sure this happens in men’s media and sure, this happens in a way that affects men, but that you have a whole spectrum…I mean the world is run by men…you have a whole spectrum of representations of men in Congress, in Parliament, fighting fires. The representation of men in the world is not limited to those men who are beautiful on the cover of Time magazine. I did a little survey of what was on the cover of Life for the last 50 years an about of all the covers, the men on the covers were individuals…politicians, statement, anchormen and the women on the covers, except for I think about 19 out of 50 years…were models or actresses. All I’m suggesting is that in this environment of heavy media censorship there…it’s almost impossible to have the imaginative range as a woman to see yourself aging, to see yourself being an individual instead of a stereotype. Another example is that the faces of older women evidently are routinely air brushed so that we never, or almost never see older women represented admiringly in culture looking their age. Now what this does to a woman who’s aging never, ever to see a beautiful 65 year old face that looks 65 is, is crippling. And I doubt that men would be a strong as they are in their own confidence if their representation were limited to nubile young men.

Heffner: But doggone it, aren’t you talking about the same thing as the very, very helpful young woman who walked in here before because there was a hair sticking up on my head and that can’t be shown. You’re talking about appearance, image. You’re talking about something that impacts upon our whole society…increasingly.

Wolf: It certainly does…

Heffner: Not less and less, but increasingly.

Wolf: …increasingly, and I would stick to my gender guns, Mr. Heffner. I’m sorry. The fact is how many women who are your peers and colleagues are in this profession?

Heffner: Sure, you’re right. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I don’t deny that for a minute. But I do think that you have found a way, in part, only in part, to reinvent a wheel that has run over men and women with impunity…

Wolf: I, I…I’m going to…

Heffner: …over the years.

Wolf: I’m going to have to argue for the special case and insist on it. Because we’re still 20 years into the second wave of the women’s movement in a situation where women make 59 cents for every male dollar. When we make equal incomes, then we can talk.

Heffner: And until then you’re going to insist that the beauty myth plays a major role…

Wolf: Absolutely, no question.

Heffner: …in this.

Wolf: Yes, I do.

Heffner: Well, no problems with that at all. Tell me what the reaction…the book has been published in England…

Wolf: That’s right.

Heffner: …have there been already, and now it will be published in the United States. Have there been those who’ve said…women who have said “you make us look like such ninnies that we are motivated and molded and moved by what these people are doing to us”?

Wolf: It’s extraordinary to me that there can be such a grave misreading of my book. We are so conditioned to blame women for the bad things that are done to them that it’s not surprising, although it’s very disappointing that my book, which is the first thing I’ve read about the beauty myth, which lays blame precisely where it’s due, which is outside of women, should be misread as blaming women or attacking women for our own predicament. My premise was that women are not victims…women are survivors…women are smart…women are strong. If there are obsessing about something, as all the research that I show, and I have 600 footnotes, proves over and over that they are, it must be something serious and something grave and not something trivial, and that’s indeed what I found.

Heffner: You think it would be trivial and we have 30 seconds left, if much of what you’re talking about comes from inside, rather than from outside?

Wolf: I think we’d be in a greater state of freedom.

Heffner: In a greater state of freedom?

Wolf: Yes.

Heffner: Naomi Wolf, I do enjoy the fact5 that you came here today and talked about this book that is controversial, “The Beauty Myth”. I wish you luck with it…

Wolf: Thank you.

Heffner: …thanks again for coming.

Wolf: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.