Justin Li

The Beauty Myth


A while ago I wrote a blog post about young people being sexualized. One of the articles which inspired the essay was written by Naomi Wolf, who I recently looked up in the library. The following is first a summary, then a response to the Sex chapter of Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth. Before I begin, I would like to say that, while the following is all in the book, the chapter also contains sections which talk about the culture of male domination, and how these negative phenomenon are caused by "male anger and female guilt at women's access to power" in the past few decades. I don't necessarily agree, and since I am more interested in what she has to say about psychology than sociology, that topic will not be discussed below.

Wolf starts with an observation about the phenomenon of widespread "beauty porn" and submission with regards to women. In a large number of ads, women are portrayed with arching backs and closed eyes - poised to receive an oncoming orgasm. While the existence of such imagery may not by itself be bad, it is together with the lack of ads which portray tender, intimate sex which, Wolf claims, creates the misconception that only beautiful women are sexually satisfied. On the other hand, there are also ads where women are portrayed in submission to men, which can sometimes be violent or masochistic. The prevalence of these types of portrayals of women create a negative psychology. Finally, Wolf also notes that there is a clear double standard for how much of their body a man and a woman can show in publications. While it is common to see breasts and female body measurements in magazines and movies, it is much less common to see the eternal erogenous zone of men (that is, penises), and even rarer to see male body measurements, especially regarding penis size.

These three things create a whole host of problems for females. I will take the problem of submission first. As portrayals of female submission become widespread, women learn from these images that submission is normal, perhaps even required by society. In particular, Wolf suggests that women may learn to fantasize about sex as rape, and view sex as different without violence. Similarly, the common use of rape scenarios in pornography works to increase people's, both males' and females', sexual arousal in rape. There is also possibly a tendency for women to be more violent towards themselves, by going through abortions and plastic surgery. In contrast, the more ideal, romantic, tender sex is rarely seen, except in romance novels where the first kiss may be the climax of the story.

On the subject of beauty, Wolf very carefully points out the difference between beauty and sexuality, and how the common perception is that they are one and the same. The use of beauty porn has created a belief that women are beautiful and therefore sexual, instead of sexual therefore beautiful. In trying to feel sexual, women instead feel inferior to the beauty of the models portrayed in media, and that they don't have the right to feel sexual. One example of this given was of girls fantasizing about sex, but it is them in third person watching themselves with a different body.

There are also a number of issues created by the combination of beauty porn and unbalance in portrayal of men and women. One of the results is that women may know how to look sexual, but not know how to feel sexual. While men may be familiar to sexual arousal through these images of beauty porn, there is few if any corresponding images for women, leading to a warped sense of sexuality. Their desires are defined by other people's desire for them, other people's reaction to how they look. That women want to lose weight, but that weight loss does not increase stimulation during sex, is a case in point. Lastly, Wolf claims that because sexuality is not shown, women are ambivalent about expressing their sexuality, and not sure how others will react.

One of the last sections of the chapter is on why the beauty myth is damaging to men as well. For one, men who are used to porn are not learning anything about female desire, as the images are all staged. At the same time, men will only be attracted by beauty as defined by these images, which in turn is defined by the media. Not only is this an external, impersonal standard, it also ignores all other non-physical attributes of a women. The lack of understanding psychologically (men from ignoring psychology and desire, women from defining self worth by others and being unable to accept attraction for itself) means there can't be true reciprocal love between a couple.

And that concludes my (awkwardly and horribly written) summary. The first time I read the chapter early this week, I paused several times in the middle to think. I wasn't sure what I was thinking about, but there was an idea in the text which was new to me. On reading the second time (and taking notes on it to write the summary), this feeling disappeared, but I also found a few points that I think Wolf is trying to get across. Personally, I don't think she's that great a writer.

The first point is that self worthy should be defined internally, and physical beauty should only be a part of it. True beauty incorporates other elements of a person, their smell, feel, rhythm in life. In fact, "the body appears to grow beautiful and erotic as they grow to like the person in it." Beauty porn leads females to only consider their appearance, and be overly focused on it in neglect of other aspects of true beauty. This same line of reasoning can be applied to males. Young men learning from beauty porn learns to only focus on the external, and learns to desire for it, which drives this vicious cycle onwards.

This first point forms the basis for the other two. Because the publicly portrayed female bodies form an impossible standard, men become desensitized to normal female bodies with its flaws and defects. With women turned into sexual objects, being compared to the standard through numerical measurements, women who "score" low are seen with disdain - which would be most women in the real world. This is the reasoning behind Wolf's position in her New York Magazine article, that porn turns men off real women. That female culture does not judge men in the same way tells us that "women make the choice, by and large, to take men as human beings first."

The last point: just because women don't judge as openly doesn't mean they can't. Females can just as easily recognize a good looking male, and will similarly desire them. This I think is the most important point, one I have not even considered before: that other people may love you, be aroused by you, and desire you just as you desire them. To be honest, this is a really powerful message, although not new. Everyone has heard the story of the happiest man's secret is knowing that everyone needs him in some way. Because of our culture's focus on male desire, however, sometimes we forget this fact. Again, it is extremely empowering to know that someone might like you the way you like them.

I will end with one last comment. A lot of facts are mentioned in the book, and Wolf tries to string them into theories, which is a little dangerous - it's similar to what Freud did with his theories of how the brain works. One fact which struck me deeply, however, is how accustomed as a culture we have become to measurements of women, with no sight of measurements of men. In this I see a clear inequality, a clear indication that women are being devalued.

And we think women are judgmental.