“The Beauty Myth”

Mama says it is to men’s advantage to recognize the reservoir of strength that is a woman (regardless of a man’s sexual preference). But in order to achieve this, she says, it demands a lot of deconstruction which begins by looking beyond a woman’s physical appearance and a man’s attachments to conscious and unconscious roles she is supposed to play. But that deconstruction can begin only when a woman is able to see herself beyond her physical appearance. She also says that unfortunately the stereotypes that exist about women exist because majority of the women are not strong enough to break them. If you look a certain way, you must be flirtatious. If you have ambition, you must be needy and willing to do anything. If you are vulnerable and expressive, then you are weak. If you are this, you must be that. If you are not, who are you?

The world doesn’t know what to do with an intelligent woman who doesn’t need but wants (a man or a woman, depending on her sexual preference, or preference for anything for that matter).To this mama replied, “The world doesn’t know what to do with anyone who can think for him or herself and isn’t desperate to be liked.”

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It was lovely to meet this homeless man last night, Anders, who ran away from the riots taking place in North London. I found him near where I was staying and we chatted for some time last night. At one point during the conversation he said, “I am poor no doubt, but I am neither crazy nor desperate and I have my set of values I live by no matter what.” I will be writing more about him later with his photo but that part of the conversation comes to mind because here was a man, just fleeing for his physical, not material, safety from the other looters, without a home to go sleep in, and he was NOT desperate. Not desperate for a woman, friendship, “re-tweet”, or anything. He was craving a cigarette but he was not willing to do anything different than be himself and maybe ask a stranger, once or twice, in order to get one.

I am grateful to have a mother who showed me that showing my cleavage wasn’t the equivalent of being sexually liberated and neither was flirting with men without an intention to carry that flirting further necessary, in order  to be a sensual being. I am grateful to my father who taught me that the way I carry myself should speak enough to command respect, that I didn’t have to dress any particular way. I am grateful to my brothers who were and are great friends to me and my sister. They made us feel that anything they could do we could too, and sometimes even better. I am grateful to the male friends in my life who respect me and value my friendship enough to respect the boundaries necessary to cultivate an authentic friendship. I am grateful to the women I call my friends, I recognize the high standard to be considered one but I have my reasons.

I have lost enough people in my life due to my values that I lavishly celebrate the few who are in my closest circle.

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I came across this book at my cousin’s in Cambridge and typed some excerpts from the final chapter.

From The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf:

 

The fact is, women are not actually dangerous to one another. Outside the myth [the myth of “beauty”], other women look a lot like natural allies. In order for women to learn to fear one another, we had to be convinced that our sisters possess some kind of mysterious, potent secret weapon to be used against us—the imaginary weapon being “beauty.”

The core of the myth—and the reason it was so useful as a counter to feminism—is its divisiveness. You can see and hear it everywhere: “Don’t hate me because I am beautiful” (L’Oreal). “I really hate my aerobics instructor—-I guess hatred is good motivation.” “You’d hate her. She has everything.” “Women who get out of bed looking beautiful really annoy me.” “Don’t you hate women who can eat like that?” “No pores—makes you sick.” “Tall, blonde—couldn’t you just kill her?” Rivalry, resentment, and hostility provoked by the beauty myth run deep. Sisters commonly remember the grief of one being designated “the pretty one.” Mothers often have difficulty with their daughters’ blooming. Jealousy among the best of friends is a cruel fact of female love. Even women who are lovers describe beauty competition. It is painful for women to talk about beauty because under the myth, one woman’s body is used to hurt another. Our faces and bodies become instruments for punishing other women, often used out of our control and against our will. At present, “beauty” is an economy in which women find the “value” of their faces and bodies impinging, in spite of themselves, on that of other women’s. This constant comparison, in which one woman’s worth fluctuates through the presence of another, divides and conquers. […]

To get past this divisiveness, women will have to break a lot of taboos against talking about it, including the one that prohibits women from narrating the dark side of being treated as beautiful object. […] The myth asks women to be at once blindly hostile to and blindly envious of “beauty” in other women. Both the hostility and the envy serve the myth and hurt all women.

While the “beautiful” woman is briefly at the apex of the system, this is, of course, far from the divine state of grace that the myth propagates. The pleasure to be had from turning oneself into a living art object, the roaring in the ears and the fine jetspray of regard on the surface of the skin, is some kind of power, when power is in short supply. […]

Only then will women be able to talk about what “beauty” really involves: the attention of people we do not know, rewards for things we did not earn, sex from men who reach for us as for a brass ring on a carousel, hostility and skepticism from other women, adolescence extended longer than it out to be, cruel aging, and a long hard struggle for identity. And we will learn that what is good about “beauty”—the promise of confidence, sexuality, and the self-regard of a healthy individuality—are actually qualities that have nothing to do with “beauty” specifically, but are deserved by and, as the myth is dismantled, available to all women. The best that “beauty” offers belongs to us all by right of femaleness. When we separate “beauty” from sexuality, when we celebrate the individuality of our features and characteristics, women will have access to a pleasure in our bodies that unites us rather than divides us. The beauty myth will be history.

But as long as women censor in one another truths about our experiences, “beauty” will remain mystified and still most useful to those who wish to control women. The unacceptable reality is that we live under a caste system. It is not innate and permanent; it is not based on sex or God or the Rock of Ages. It can and must be changed. […]

Thin women may feel fat; young women will grow old. When one woman looks at another, she cannot possibly know* the self-image within that woman: Thought she appears enviable in control, she may be starving; though she overflows her clothing, she may be enviably satisfied sexually. A woman may be fleshy from high self-esteem or from low; she may cover her face in makeup out of the desire to lay around outrageously or the desire to hide. […]

Women blame men for looking but not listening. But we do it too; perhaps even more so. We have to stop reading each others’ appearances as if appearances were language, political allegiance, worthiness, or aggression. […]

Let us start with a reinterpretation of “beauty” that is noncompetitive, nonhierarchical, and nonviolent. Why must one woman’s pleasure and pride have to mean another woman’s pain? Men are only in sexual competition when they are competing sexually, but the myth puts women in “sexual” competition in every situation. Competition for a specific sexual partner is rare; since it is not usually a competition “for men,” it is not biologically inevitable. […]

If women redefine sexuality to affirm our attraction among ourselves, the myth will no longer hurt. […]

And when we let ourselves experience this physical attraction, the marketplace will no longer be able to make a profit out of its representation of men’s desires: We, knowing firsthand that attraction to other women comes in many forms, will no longer believe that the qualities that make us desirable are a lucrative mystery.

Since women’s everyday experiences of flirtatious attention derive most often from men reacting to our “beauty,” it is no wonder that silent, watching women can be represented to us antagonists.

We can melt this suspicion and distance: Why should we not be gallant and chivalrous and flirtatious with one another. Let us charm one another rwith some of that sparkling attention too often held in reserve only for men: compliment one another, show our admiration. We can engage** with the Other Woman—catch her eye, give her a lift when she hitchhiking, open the door when she is struggling. When we approach one another in the secret and give, or receive, that wary, defensive shoes-to-haircut glance, what if we meet one another’s eyes woman to woman; what if we smile. […]

We withhold easy criticism. We shower authentic praise. We bow out of social situations in which our beauty is being used to put other women in the shadows. We refuse to jostle for random male attention. […]

This new perspective changes not how we look but how we see.

But helping women to take the myth apart is in men’s own interest on an even deeper level: Their turn is next. Advertisers have recently figured out that undermining sexual self-confidence works whatever the targeted gender. […]

But it is also in men’s interest to undo the myth because the survival of the planet depends on it. The earth can no longer afford a consumer ideology based on the insatiable wastefulness of sexual and material discontent. We need to begin to get lasting satisfaction out of the things we consume. We conceived of the planet as female, an all-giving Mother Nature, just as we conceived of the female body, infinitely alterable by and for man; we serve both ourselves and our hopes for the planet by insisting on a new female reality on which to base a new metaphor for the earth: the female body with its own organic integrity that must be respected. […]

The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her. […]

A pro-woman redefinition of beauty reflects our redefinitions of what power is. Who says we need a hierarchy? Where I see beauty may not be where you do. Some people look more desirable to me than they do to you. So what? My perception has no authority over yours. Why should beauty be exclusive? Admiration can include so much. Why is rareness impressive? The high value of rareness is a masculine concept, having more to do with capitalism than with lust.

A woman-loving definition of beauty supplants desperation with play, narcissism with self-love, dismemberment with wholeness, absence with presence, stillness with animation. It admits radiance: light coming out of the face and the body, rather than a spotlight on the body, dimming the self. It is sexual, various, and surprising. We will be able to see it in others and not be frightened, and able at last to see it in ourselves.

 

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*Some of us do know.

**Although I engage with a lot of women from many different walks of life, and do so without judgment, I do not whatsoever include them in my closest circle of female friends. The women I call my friends, I trust, respect, and can talk about their behaviors and choices. If I can’t, they may or may not be a good person or woman, but they are certainly not my close friend.

8 thoughts on ““The Beauty Myth”

  1. Wow, lady! Beautiful post!

    “The high value of rareness is a masculine concept, having more to do with capitalism than with lust.”

    Great breakdown. I love how you deconstruct an idea to its raw form and then build it back up again the right way.

    An architect of words…my authentic praise for you. ♥

    • Dear Tish, kind thanks but just to be clear and certain everything below: “From The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf:” is by Naomi Wolf and not my words.

  2. Hi Annie,

    Long time no see! :)

    Loved reading yours and your mama’s thoughts and what Naomi Wolf wrote.

    Also, couldn’t agree more about the weed-like persistence of “The Beauty Myth” so stubbornly entrenched in our society. I would add: a similar “myth” applies to men as well, the myth of “virility”.

    All of us humans are constantly embattled in a power play, no matter what “role” we play in each others’ lives. Perhaps it all goes back to our “Survival of the fittest” mentality. Except that in place of using our excellent intellects and forming nurturing, inclusive societies, we form cliques and castes of every imaginable human quality and exclude others.

    Slightly off topic:
    This reminds me of the book I recently read, “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro and the movie, “District 9″. Both very different stories and yet very effectively portray the human habit of excluding “others”.

    • hello.
      Actually, Naomi Wolf addresses that myth of “virility” as well and how it is spreading and transforming ( ad campaigns for Viagra etc.). I just didn’t take the time to type out that entire paragraph as this was already much!
      I have heard of the book you mention by Ishiguro but have not read it or bought it. And friends in South Africa absolutely hated District 9 and I never got a chance to see it when I was there and forgot all about it when I returned to the States although it has had good reviews.
      I know I should have not posted the entire excerpt here and part at my Vault because now it is like two great conversations in two separate rooms. But at the time I thought it was a good idea given those most who stop by the Vault are interested in different things I share then my own space here.

      Jamie Berry left the following comment there: “Confidence leads to beauty far more frequently than the opposite, the soul of a thing cannot be measured in pounds of formed flesh.”

      I do believe he means it an aesthetic level. Meaning what makes someone beautiful—literally, not figuratively— is confidence and you can’t fake that. This does not mean one doesn’t feel insecure from time to time (hopefully one is lucky enough to have a partner or friends with whom one can open up about one’s insecurities).

      Survival of the fittest IS going backwards, in my opinion. We can’t sustain that way any longer.
      My brilliant sister, an artist as well as a scientist-aspiring-physician, shared the following via email on a different article I had emailed to some.
      “Evolution is merely survival of the fittest. This used to be thought at a species level. It is now thought at an individual level. Fittest means that their genes are passed on, that an individual will do whatever it takes to pass on their genes. This can be done in a variety of ways including cooperation. Organisms think: What is the best way for me to pass on my genes… Oh, I’ll cooperate with this other organism and form a symbiotic relationship. Or, I’ll be helpful to my potential mate in order to woo her. etc.”

      I don’t think cliques, castes, and excluding others is all one and same thing at all. Cliques are formed due to insecurity. Castes are a rejection of a group based on criterion set by a few (color, money, religion, locality etc.). Excluding others can very well be due to cultivating an environment that is nurturing to one’s potential and VALUES.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and stopping by.

      ~a.

  3. This is a wonderful and important post, Annie. Wonderful, because your words and those of Wolf can only spark thought and discussion that will effect women’s internal sense of themselves in healing and positive ways. Important, because it is another reminder, and both women and men cannot be reminded enough, that there are powers in this world that wish for nothing more than to destroy our true and transcending sense of beauty within ourselves. Thank you for sharing.

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