The basic premise of THE BEAUTY MYTH is that forced adherence to standards of physical beauty has grown stronger for women as they gained power in other societal arenas. Wolf argues that this standard of beauty has taken over the work of social coercion formerly left to myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity, all of which have been used to keep women powerless. In the author’s view, “the gaunt, youthful model [has] supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood.” The myth of beauty spreads the belief that an objective measurement of beauty exists, and that woman must want to embody it, and that men must want such women.
However, Wolf contends that the beauty myth is really not about women, it is about men’s institutions and power. Beauty is about behavior, not appearance. The qualities labelled “beautiful” in women in any given time period are no more than symbols of female behavior considered desirable at that time. Besides weakening women psychologically, the beauty myth feeds a multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry, and keeps women from rising too high in the workplace by offering a way around antidiscrimination laws.
THE BEAUTY MYTH is an impassioned book. While occasionally didactic, it is carefully thought out and backed by exhaustive research. Wolf offers chapters on how the beauty myth functions at work, in the media and culture, in the religious sphere, and in sex and sexual relations; she also discusses relationship to violence against women by men and by women themselves in the form of eating disorders and cosmetic surgery. In a final chapter Wolf calls for a third wave of feminism that will dismantle the societal machinery that enforces adherence to the beauty myth.