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The beauty myth is feminism gone awry

In her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (William Morrow, $21.95) Naomi Wolf tells me that as a woman not only do I lack choice, but, even worse, because of something she calls the beauty myth, I am faced with a false choice: I can be serious or I can be sexy. The beauty myth, she says, prevents me from being both. It makes me overly concerned with my appearance and erodes my self-confidence. It forces me to spend a great deal of my discretionary income on beauty products and erodes my financial power. And all this to put me down for being so uppity. To keep me out of the boardrooms of power. To keep me in my place. A violent backlash against feminism, the beauty myth, says Wolf, "uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement."

"There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth," she writes. "What it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today's power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women."

The $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetic industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry and the $7-billion pornography industry, according to Wolf, feed on this concerted attack on women and, in turn, reinforce it. Bombarded with what Wolf calls the pornography of beauty, images of violence against women portrayed in the slick advertisements of consumer magazines and television, women are constantly made to feel inadequate as punishment for their feeling too powerful. As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity and entered the work force in droves, the beauty myth kicked in to carry on its work of social control.

Page after page, Wolf tries to convince me that women's obsessions with dieting, with how we look, with wearing the right clothes are a trap set to make us feel bad about ourselves and act as the strong, liberated women we were trying to be. A trap set by .


. by whom?

Wolf never really names the culprits who spearhead this counteroffensive, but throughout the book lurk the obvious villains: men. It is a male-dominated power structure that doesn't want women to succeed. It is men, fearing that women work harder and therefore might take their jobs, who impose dress codes in the workplace. It is men who judge women by their appearance, prompting women to compete with each other for their attention in the social sphere.

It is only in her final chapter that she concedes that men, too, might be subjected to a "beauty myth." Beautiful male bodies are also showing up in advertising, she points out. Psychiatrists are anticipating arise in male rates of eating diseases such as anorexia and bulimia, now so prevalent among college women, she admits.

Yet Wolf gives no underlying political reason why the advertising industry would pressure men into adopting that smooth GQ look of bland yuppiedom, why men, too, would be bombarded with images designed to make them feel inferior. She provides no elaborate theory of why some men might also be obsessed with trim bodies, wearing the right wristwatch and choosing the right suit. Why men are also constantly judged by their appearance by both women (as sexual partners) and employers. Obviously no one is conspiring to block male advancement, so what gives?

What gives is a misreading of just what all this obsession with how we look has been all about. What happened during the greedy decade of the '80s was not the resurrection of a beauty myth to mount an attack on feminism, but an unleashing of wild consumerism among the elite who were benefiting from Reaganomics. Class, not gender, spurred on the market.

Young yuppies with more discretionary income per week than most of us will see in a lifetime fueled such non-essential enterprises as the beauty industry, whose products became the status symbols of the yuppie culture. While thevast majority of Americans drank water, the elite drank Perrier. While the vast majority of Americans struggled with a weight problem due to an overdependence on cheap fast foods, the elite starved themselves at health spas. Certain ways of dressing, looking, acting, became the hallmarks of the in crowd, the power elite, the haves.

One of the blurbs on the book jacket of The Beauty Myth, by Dale Spender, author of Invisible Woman, says the book "takes up where Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer left off." But while I was exhilarated by the exposure of the myth of the happy homemaker in Friedan's Feminine Mystique, which seemed to touch the lives of women of all classes when it was written nearly 30 years ago, I was disturbed by the narrow concerns of The Beauty Myth, which was clearly directed at an upper middle class elite. Does Wolf think that most working women, struggling to balance their jobs with family responsibilities, really have time for health spas, cosmetic surgery and other beauty obsessions?

Friedan herself, writing in the premiere issue of a new beauty magazine called Allure, said she felt no ideological affinity with The Beauty Myth in an article entitled "Can a Feminist Be Beautiful?" The Beauty Myth is "an absolute syndrome of what is wrong with American feminism," agreed Camille Paglia, whose outspoken views against today's feminists have earned her the title of "anti-feminist feminist."

"I am a feminist who is opposed to thecurrent trend of American feminism," Paglia, a professor at the University of the Arts, told me by telephone from her office in Philadelphia. "American feminism likes to make gestures of solidarity with working-class or Third World women, okay, but, in fact, it is trapped in a princess mentality of snippy entitlement." The Yale-educated Paglia is the author of a 700-page scholarly polemic against conventional readings of feminist history. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, originally published by Yale University Press, will be issued this fall by Vintage. A second volume of the work is scheduled to appear next year.

"Madonna is the true feminist," says the glib, fast-talking Paglia. "She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny _ all at the same time."

Women, says Paglia, don't lack choices; they have more choices than ever before. I agree. In the documentary on Madonna, Truth or Dare, after a series of outrageous scenes that challenge the sexual hang-ups of American society and the traditional images of women, the pop singer says, "Never doubt yourself." If we want to be both sexy and serious, we can. There is no beauty myth to stop us.

Margo Hammond is book editor of the St. Petersburg Times.