January 30th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth is the 11th book of my overlong 2012 Reading Challenge. Closer every day!

I know, I know–what’s wrong with me? This book came out in 1992 and 20 years later, I’m just getting around to it? In fact, my mom even read it right when it came out, and mentioned that my newly teenaged self might benefit from reading about where the enforced self-consciousness of females in our culture actually comes from. But I wasn’t interested. I did for some reason read Misconceptions when it came out in 2003. It was a fascinating but to me entirely irrelevant accounting of the medicalization–some would say patholisation–of childbirth in our society. It was also astoundingly gory–childbirth is, I guess. At that time, I didn’t know what an episiotomy was, and was much dismayed to find out. It was an eye-opening read.

At this point in history and in my life, *The Beauty Myth* was much less eye-opening. The link above on Naomi Wolf’s website says this book changed how we think about beauty and it’s true–Naomi Wolf’s dense and well-researched, imaginative and forceful treatise has wormed its way into the public consciousness. No one reads advertising or, indeed, models the same way anymore, and I’ve seen countless less-incisive writers spouting her ideas if they were original. They feel original; they feel as if we never didn’t know.

It was very interesting to go back to the source and read about how she investigated this stuff at a time when it just was what it was. But it was also…so earnest! One thing Wolf lacks is irony–her Biblical exegesis is soooo grad school (uglyness as sin), which doesn’t make it less brilliant. But sometimes, her inability to see pneumatic breasts and $100 skin cream as a humourous gets a little tiresome. I guess, too, I have the luxury of vantage point–Wolf didn’t know the near future would turn out the way it did. She assumed a woman’s ideal breast size would just keep getting bigger until we couldn’t walk upright, when in fact the ideal is now smaller but firmer, a la Megan Fox. Who knew?

So the reasons I don’t entirely relate to the book are various–20 years of distance and irony, the fact that I’m not exposed to a tonne of media–but intriguingly, the chapter that really resonated with me was the last one, “Violence.” I don’t know what I was expecting–domestic violence, I guess, which doesn’t really suit the context at all. It turns out that that chapter is about plastic surgery, and as in Misconceptions Wolf spares no sensibility in her gory evocation of how it really goes down.

Some of her panic is justified–in the late 80s and early 90s, women were dying from complications from liposuctions, breast implants were having to removed because they’d “gone rigid”–early plastic surgery was not a good scene. But it’s also improved greatly since the book was written, as all medical technologies do–she must have known that would happen. And also, though there’s always going to be a market for this sort of thing, most people actually don’t get their faces and bodies reconstructed. They don’t even think about it.

I was thinking this and then I realized…I did! I don’t think of it that way, because I was told by doctors that my jaw misalignment would eventually destroy the joint and therefore I needed the operation…but the fact remains that it was the same surgery many women have to look better. I’m always way too eager to explain I didn’t do it for cosmetic reasons, but the fuller story is a bit more complex. When I first began preparing for the operation, nearly 2 years out, they didn’t tell me I’d look different, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that moving my jaw around would change my appearance. I found out when I was already well into the process and the surgeon, who was proud of his aesthetic successes, was disgusted that I didn’t want to be “improved.”

“Well, you don’t look normal now, you know,” he snapped. Now I think about what a weird statement that is–the ideal is not the median, and people with perfect faces are definitely not “normal.” Then I was just horrified. Anyway, he was extremely aggressive about persuading me that there was no non-stupid way to correct my medical problem without correcting my cosmetic “problem” to. I cried, but my jaw really hurt and I’d been preparing for the operation for a year. I didn’t research what I was told or try to dissect how much of the surgeon’s medical reasons were actually just a patholization of imperfection. I agreed to the operation, whatever it took.

I think that’s what Wolf was afraid of. Not that women walking down the street feeling good about ourselves will see a Botox poster and feel our self-esteem shatter, but that how self-perpetuating the beauty industry is, how proselytizing. It was strange for me, reading the book, not to get it and then to get it exactly.

*The Beauty Myth* is not a fun read, although unlike many academics Wolf writes with clarity, concision, and occasionally real beauty. It took me nearly 3 months to read it, and I stopped in the middle to read Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bossypants among other things, because it was just too sad for Christmastime. But it was instructive reading nonetheless and I feel good to have read it. Because far as we’ve all come in reading media for the commercial, coercive enterprise that it is, apparently we (or at least I) can still be stunned by an attack in the name of beauty. And it’s worth thinking about why.

For the record, I don’t look that different now, unless you’re one of the people who think I look very different. It depends on how you look at faces, I guess. I think I look fine and my new face is now entirely my face–I relate to it. However, although I know have a “perfect” ratio of space between my nose and upper lip, and lower lip and chin (seriously–I was told there’s a number), I still miss my old face, which was longer and seemed narrower. I believe Kathrine Mansfield would’ve called it “horsey” but it was mine and I always rather liked it.



2 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf”

  • AMT says:

    i never thought it changed much about your face. but doctors snapping at their patients thqt they don’t look normal sure makes me sad and angry. the myth that humans who are specialists st something are thereby exempt from being kind to nonspecialists should also get… realigned.

    i like your face both ways.

  • Rebecca says:

    Aw, thanks, AMT. I’m certainly not a fan of that guy–he’s a giant a-hole and I feel sorry for his staff–but the thing is, he is a nationally recognized surgeon. I healed in record time and had no complications, and I knew his reputation going in, so I tried to suck it up as much as I could. If you needed maxio-facial surgery (I hope not) I would honestly recommend him–and that you bring earplugs to your consultations.

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