Two feminist books that have really got me thinking lately are The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. While the two were published almost 30 years apart (the former in 1990, the latter in 1963), and neither of them recently, there is an insightful continuity between them and an unsettling relevance despite the years that have gone by since their publication.
Both works discuss two different – but related – phenomena that have defined the place of woman in (Western) society since WWII. Friedan was the first to document, through a series of interviews, the growing feeling in the 1950s among young homemakers that there could be more to life than what the confines of housewifery could offer. Expanding on this, Wolf argues that while the modern era and the second-wave feminism brought with it have allowed women to break through long-established power structures, we have simultaneously seen a widespread increase in eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, the weight loss industry and the popularity of degrading pornography.
When the cult of domesticity that Friedan discusses was no longer a marketable product, it was instead transmuted into a cult of beauty, or as Wolf describes the shift: “the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood”. Same audience, different spin. Instead of being sold vacuum cleaners and kitchen aids, women are now the designated consumers of all things beauty, from lipsticks and compact powders to facial mists and firming eye creams. It’s true, in some countries women are no longer tied to the kitchen – and thank goodness for that! – but we are tied to a perpetual cycle in which, through the guile of beauty advertising, we become willing consumers of the harmful images that consume us in turn.
But how? How did we get to this point? In order to sustain itself, the beauty myth relies on a lack of realistic images of women in the media, leading to the false notion that the engineered bodies which appear between the glossy pages or behind the glow of the screen are real ones, and therefore normal ones. I don’t remember the last time I saw a breast that didn’t belong to a woman who auditioned for the part. In fact, the only real female body I see with any frequency is my own, and if it doesn’t fit the definition provided by the world around me, how am I to know, to really believe, that it is beautiful? When there are very few realistic, relatable depictions of women’s (and men’s! Anyone’s!) bodies in the media, how do we know what’s normal, how do we feel good about who we are?
It’s a tough one. Yes, we can boycott media that don’t portray women’s experiences and bodies in ways that are varied, realistic and empowering. Saying no to a spoonfed diet of mass media images is helpful – and needed – but I think the most powerful thing we can do on an individual level against the beauty myth is to consciously change the voice within. When the messages we tell ourselves change, the world around us magically transforms too and can take on a whole new perspective! For me, this scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles really gets at the issue (albeit in a slightly different context):
“You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. Well, you think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.”
This scene really speaks to me (how great is John Candy?), and I think it speaks volumes about building resilience against negative messages and finding a sense of adequacy from within, not from without.
Think what you want about me. I’m not changing. I like me.
Now that’s an empowering message. Say it with me now! I like me…