Analysis of The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

May 5, 2020
folder_opencategory: Literature

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women is one of the most prominent feminist books in the US. Even though it was published almost thirty years ago, the ideas expressed by the author have kept their relevance by now. The main assumption of Naomi Wolf is that despite women have gained political and social rights and managed to advance their position within society, “the beauty myth” remains a strategic advantage of patriarchy. She argues that contemporary beauty myth places women under more pressure than any social and moral norms existed before. The author discusses its complex nature and the way how it works in different realms. Throughout the book, the most frequent writing techniques used by Wolf to persuade a reader are logos and pathos because she often supports her theories with statistics and references to the experts. At the same time, she uses powerful images to create an emotional effect. In fact, these techniques are effective. However, doubts surround the author`s arguments questioning the credibility of sources and bias.

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To influence the readers, Wolf appeals to their logic and tries to provide relevant evidence to support her arguments. She aims at making her book a detailed research of the issue. She uses three main tools to accomplish this goal: supporting her claims with statistics and figures, providing historical examples, and referring to experts in the field. For example, discussing the nature of beauty and trying to prove that women`s worries about their physical shape constitute a real problem, she states: “…thirty-three thousand American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to fifteen pounds than achieve any other goal” (p. 10). Moreover, she proves that the modern beauty myth is very beneficial for the economy. In fact, it boosts consumerism in society. The author explains how much people spend under the influence of beauty images: “ $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetics industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry, and the $7-billion pornography industry” (p. 17) . It means that incomes are huge and increase permanently since women are obsessed with the desire to be “beautiful.”

Furthermore, Wolf emphasizes the historical while addressing the issues. For instance, she claims:

From the beginning of their history until just before the 1960s, women’s gender caused them pain. Because of puerperal fever and childbed complications, giving birth was cruelly painful until the invention of chloroform in 1860, and mortally dangerous until the advent of antisepsis in the 1880s (p. 218).

In fact, the references to history appear throughout the whole book. Wolf uses them often in order to show the comprehensive picture of gender relations and changes that had influenced the attitude towards women.

Another expression of logos corresponds to the expert opinion used to show the credibility of Wolf`s conclusions. For instance, talking about anorexia and bulimia as a serious problem of modern women population, the author provides a variety of thoughts:

Dr. Charles A. Murkovsky of Gracie Square Hospital in New York City, an eating diseases specialist, says that 20 percent of American college women binge and purge on a regular basis. Kim Chernin in The Hungry Self suggests that at least half the women on campuses in the United States suffer at some time from bulimia or anorexia. Roberta Pollack Seid in Never Too Thin agrees with the 5- to 10-percent figure for anorexia among young American women, adding that up to six times that figure on campuses are bulimic (Wolf, p.182).

The second important written technique implemented by the author is pathos as she aims to evoke powerful emotions of readers. Firstly, Wolf uses the citations, which refer to the daily experience of average people and create an emotional effect on the audience. For example, she introduces the words of a young woman: “Lately, I look in the mirror, and I’m so afraid I’m going to look like my mother” ( p. 12). This phrase demonstrates how absurd and irrational the worries of young women about their bodies are. Moreover, it appeals to the emotions of readers because almost every girl can recognize herself in this situation. Except for quotes, very powerful and appealing is the image of Iron Maiden developed by the author. This concept embodies an unattainable standard of beauty used to punish women. Firstly, Wolf gives a horrifying description of Iron Maiden in medieval Germany:

…instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman. The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation or, less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior (p. 17).

When a reader envisions this terrifying image, he understands that the modern beauty myth plays the same game with its followers. Thus, this representation of information evokes an emotional reaction of the audience and makes it more perceptive to the opinions of the author.

Generally speaking, the techniques are very effective, even though there are some shortcomings. Frequent appeals to logic increase the credibility of the book for a reader. The author tries to support every argument with quotes, statistics, or historical facts. Thus, it proves that she is perfectly aware of the subject and shows that she conducted a comprehensive research to discover the topic from different angles, gather the necessary materials, and organize them in a systematic manner. It demonstrates that both the book and the author are reliable sources. However, Wolf’s logical arguments have a significant issue. Even though she provides an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, she does not provide immediate references to the sources while citing them. Thus, a reader cannot immediately check if the evidence is real or not. Nonetheless, emotional appeals are also useful. Obviously, the author provides relevant examples from life, which allow recognizing certain situation from readers` daily experience. That makes them believe that the point of view presented in the book is true and depicts the current reality. Finally, the best prove that the writing techniques of Naomi Wolf are effective is that the book remains popular during the decades. Nowadays, the readers regard the author`s thoughts right.

While being extremely popular and even iconic, The Beauty Myth contains some bias. Wolf depicts the story of intergender relations and oppression of women in various communities denying its complexity. On the one side, there are discriminated women who fought bitterly for liberation. On the other side, there are oppressive men, who, despite granting the social and political right to women, keep protecting their last realm of discrimination against women – the beauty myth. She says:

“Beauty” is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact (p.12).

However, she ignores that this statement is relevant to women and men since the contemporary consumerism makes both sexes treat their bodies as commodities. Appearance must fit into the modern standards of beauty to be sold for the best price. This bias is present in the citation about incomes of various beauty industries. Wolf gives only figures without any subsequent analysis. Consequently, she fails to prove that the increase happened only due to female customers. She does not take into consideration that plastic surgery is also popular among men. They also tend to use extensively various types of cosmetics. Therefore, the author analysis focuses on women`s problem and does not present a comprehensive social picture denying that the beauty myth also affects men.

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The most evident and frequent writing techniques used by Naomi Wolf in the book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women, are logos and pathos, respectively the appeal to logic and the appeal to emotions. They create the necessary effect of persuading the audience. Logos appears in widespread references to statistics, expert opinions, and historical facts provided by Wolf. Pathos relates to the live situations and powerful image of Iron Maiden, an unattainable ideal which makes women suffer. Even though these tools are very effective and persuasive, the book has a biased attitude towards men because it focuses on women`s problems only.

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