When Naomi Wolf's 1991 book, The Beauty Myth, hit the book stores, it struck a chord with many women, and simultaneously stirred a national debate about female beauty and the role of media in perpetuating the slim, blond ideal.
In a new introduction to the book, Wolf writes about how things have changed for women and girls, more than 10 years later.
The following is an excerpt from The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.
When The Beauty Myth was first published, more than ten years ago, I had the chance to hear what must have been thousands of stories. In letters and in person, women confided in me the agonizingly personal struggles they had undergone — some, for as long as they could remember — to claim a self out of what they had instantly recognized as the beauty myth. There was no common thread that united these women in terms of their appearance: women both young and old told me about the fear of aging; slim women and heavy ones spoke of the suffering caused by trying to meet the demands of the thin ideal; black, brown, and white women — women who looked like fashion models — admitted to knowing, from the time they could first consciously think, that the ideal was someone tall, thin, white, and blond, a face without pores, asymmetry, or flaws, someone wholly "perfect," and someone whom they felt, in one way or another, they were not.
I was grateful to have had the good luck to write a book that connected my own experience to that of women everywhere — indeed, to the experiences of women in seventeen countries around the world. I was even more grateful for the ways that my readers were using the book. "This book helped me get over my eating disorder," I was often told. "I read magazines differently now." "I've stopped hating my crow's feet." For many women, the book was a tool for empowerment. Like sleuths and critics, they were deconstructing their own personal beauty myths. While the book was embraced in a variety of ways by readers of many different backgrounds, it also sparked a very heated debate in the public forum. Female TV commentators bristled at my argument that women in television were compensated in relation to their looks and at my claim of a double standard that did not evaluate their male peers on appearance as directly. Right-wing radio hosts commented that, if I had a problem with being expected to live up to ideals of how women should look, there must be something personally wrong with me. Interviewers suggested that my concern about anorexia was simply a misplaced privileged-white-girl psychodrama. And on daytime TV, on show after show, the questions directed to me often became almost hostile — very possibly influenced by the ads that followed them, purchased by the multibillion-dollar dieting industry, making unfounded claims that are now illegal. Frequently, commentators, either deliberately or inadvertently, though always incorrectly, held that I claimed women were wrong to shave their legs or wear lipstick. This is a misunderstanding indeed, for what I support in this book is a woman's right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what market forces and a multibillion-dollar advertising industry dictate.