The beauty myth is the idea that beauty is the key to success in a career.
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The poets tell us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But have you ever given this expression any thought? What is considered beautiful has evolved over time and is different in different cultures, meaning that beauty is measured according to standards and values.
Not so easy, my friend. The myth of beauty enforces normativity, especially for women: it is a myth that perpetuates women’s subjugation to men in our culture. It motivates women to buy cosmetics and clothing, get plastic surgery, and even starve themselves. Let’s look at the past of the beauty myth and see how powerful it is in today’s culture.
Take a look at women who are at the top of their fields. Despite their successes and popularity, the need to look good continues. Women with more influence and prestige are scrutinized even more, and the need to look good only increases.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, women’s social worth was primarily determined by their domestic labor. Their lives were shaped by qualities such as work aptitude, physical strength, and fertility, rather than beauty.
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One of the things that has often fascinated me about those cultural “truths” is how sometimes they aren’t valid at all. In the 1990s, I recall interviewing a wide variety of people—young and old, male and female, gay and straight—about their views of beauty, using the model of 1970s beauty ideals and iconography from the American television show Charlie’s Angels. I was shocked to find that the majority of my subjects thought Kate Jackson was the most beautiful “angel,” rather than Jaclyn Smith or Farrah Fawcett, as most mainstream magazines said at the time. Despite the underbelly of grassroots truths, this paradigm made me consider the capacity of media to educate political and cultural messages.
Why does the media have such a strong influence on our perceptions of beauty that a generation spent so much money on Farrah Fawcett posters that it became the best-selling poster of all time? And how do media, like today’s digital media, affect a generation to commodify the self?
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Naomi Wolf’s nonfiction book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women was first published in 1990 by Chatto & Windus in the United Kingdom and William Morrow & Co in the United States. HarperPerennial republished it in 2002 with a new introduction.
The Beauty Myth’s basic concept is that as women’s social power and prestige have increased, so has the pressure they feel to adhere to unrealistic social expectations of physical beauty, thanks to advertising pressures in the media. This strain causes women to engage in unhealthy habits and a preoccupation with beauty in both sexes, jeopardizing their ability to be successful in and accepted by society.
Wolf’s book soon became a best-seller, eliciting highly divided reactions from the public and mass media while still earning support from many feminists. The Beauty Myth was written by Germaine Greer, a second-wave feminist “”The Beauty Myth is a smart, furious, informative novel, and a clarion call to liberation,” Gloria Steinem wrote, calling it “the most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch.” It is a book that every woman can read.” [three] Betty Friedan wrote in Allure magazine that “The Beauty Myth and the uproar it is eliciting may be a promising indication of a new wave in feminist consciousness,” and British author Fay Weldon called the book “important reading for the New Woman.”
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Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth was a common polemic sixteen years ago, prompting people to take off their makeup and think more objectively about how women’s beauty had repressed them. Autumn Whitefield-new Madrano’s novel, Face Value, takes a fresh look at the subject. Autumn’s interest in the pros and cons of makeup and the “beauty myth” was piqued after working as a writer for women’s magazines ranging from Ms. and Jezebel to more beauty-industry focused publications like Glamour. She shows the scientific, linguistic, psychological, and everyday effects of appearance on all people’s lives in Face Value. Angelica Florio sat down with Autumn to talk about her book and reflect on how beauty expectations could change in the future.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano: It’s an answer to The Appearance Myth in many respects. Face Value would not have been published if Naomi Wolf’s seminal and still important book had not motivated me. That was the last major book on beauty to look at a generation of American women and wonder, “Well, where are we with beauty and what’s going on?”