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No Thanks For the Liberation

This year we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Naomi Wolf ’s The Beauty Myth. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I read it, but it had to be close to it’s publication in 1991. My mom had purchased it in hardcover, so I was, let’s say, 16 when I read it. If 12 is the golden age of science fiction, then 16 is the age at which revolutionaries are made, should the right books fall into the right hands.

I already had my junior feminist’s card by the time I picked up The Beauty Myth. Some memories:

Age 8: My synagogue holds an all-ages, all-sexes, pre-High Holidays shofar blowing workshop. It must have been a slow news day, because the local cable news channel came out to cover our tentative tikiahs. And somewhere there exists a VHS tape of me, a super-gawky little me, in white unicorn sweatshirt and corduroy pinstripe pants (my stylingest outfit), giving my thoughts about learning to blow the shofar. Except, instead of talking about the shofar, I decided that it was my moment to tell the world it needed more women rabbis! Which is strange, because I hated going to “temple” with a passion and found it beyond boring, even with a lady rabbi, as I discovered years later. (Sorry, lady rabbis. It’s not you, it’s me)

Age 12: Being most generous with my opinions about various injustices, I was asked to lecture my fellow students in honor of Womens’ History Month; my first foray into consciousness raising. For my material I turned to what I knew best — after school cartoons. I asked my classmates to ponder why the Smurfs were defined by their traits, but Smurfette was defined by her femininity. Smurfette, not Freud, taught me that anatomy was destiny.

Age 16: When The Beauty Myth fell into my hands, I finally had access to a sustained analysis of the construction (and enforcement) of modern femaleness, one that went far beyond the enchanted mushroom colony of the Smurfs. The Beauty Myth wasn’t so much a theoretical framework, as an exposé. Naomi Wolf showed how economic, legal and social advances made by women had been met by a retrenchment of social controls on women. She proposed that womens’ self-image, the way they presented themselves, was perhaps the final battleground in the fight to maintain women as a subservient class.

The “beauty myth,” she argued, was a brilliant way to make women themselves complicit in their own disenfranchisement by making the feminine ideal so unattainable, so expensive, so dangerous and — most importantly — so time consuming, that women as a political category would not be able to move forward as they had in the 70s to promote abortion rights and end legal discrimination.

The book is heavy. One of its central images is the Iron Maiden — a coffin painted with the image of a lovely young woman, where prisoners would be entombed to die a slow death (or painful and quick, if the Maiden had spikes). For Wolf, beauty was a burden, and a dangerous one at that. After reading The Beauty Myth I looked around and saw that every step I took into womanhood was impossibly heavy with the demands that I examine, alter and perhaps even mutilate myself in ways that were never demanded of my male peers. At 16, the mother of one of my best friends suggested I get electrolysis to curb the unladylike dark fuzz that trailed down the sides of my face. Coincidentally, she was also the mother of the only one of my friends who had plastic surgery, a nose job, the summer between 11th and 12th grade. I needed no clearer demonstration that the distance between hair removal and surgical mutilation was dangerously short. At 16, every concession to the beauty myth became, to me, a skirmish in a life or death battle.

What to do with the realization that you live in a culture that won’t be satisfied until self-mutilation is not only normal, but necessary? Being 16 is bad enough, but now I was trying to figure out how to be 16 and also stay out of the clutches of the beauty-industrial complex that surely wanted to rape, mutilate and lobotomize me. As for many revolutionaries, there could be no compromise.

One answer is to take it to the people. One of my very close friends was the editor of the high school newspaper, and I got a column in the paper with a title only a Bolshevik could love: “The Cockroach of Sexism.” Though I thank God that this was way before the days of Google, I’m still proud that I got people thinking about issues of sexism and homophobia. “The Cockroach of Sexism” was a positive channel for my feminist rage, and it was also the first step I took as a journalist.

There was a lot of rage, and a lot of hopelessness. Looking back on that time, I think it was tragic that rather than engage with the beauty myth, as all my friends did, finding some kind of place they felt comfortable, I pretty much rejected all of it. That didn’t mean I liked the way I looked. It didn’t mean I had the male attention I most definitely wanted. It just meant I was miserable and had sideburns and hairy legs and only my ideals to keep me warm at night.

Reflecting on the weakness of The Beauty Myth today, as a more mature feminist and as a much happier, more confident woman, I see that there was no place in Wolf’s world for female agency. In her view, women were helpless before the ravenous maw of the “cultural conspiracies” that continually shifted the war on women’s self-esteem from their skin to their leg hair to their pubic hair to their un-pornified labia. Aside from her rather naive calls for a new female culture of solidarity, Wolf offered no strategies for survival in the hostile world she described. If you still cared about the way you looked, her message seemed to be, then you simply didn’t get it. 

The other thing that Wolf didn’t address in The Beauty Myth was beauty privilege. I can still remember my moment of scandalized shock, and relief, when I asked a friend if she had been revolutionized by the book. She shook her head and said that it was hard to be told by a woman as beautiful as Wolf that beauty shouldn’t matter. With her striking features, big eyes, thick, luxurious hair, Wolf is as gorgeous today as she was at 28, when she published The Beauty Myth.

Her book had another big blind spot when it came to the intersection of race, class and gender. As a white, American-born, middle-class woman, I had the luxury of rejecting beauty ideals without suffering an economic impact (just its disastrous effects on my love life).

The real turning point in my approach to self-presentation came when I was 25, a first-year law student. I met the woman who would become one of my closest friends in the world. Olga was blond, covered in tattoos, wore leopard print and pink without apologies, and was unashamed of her love for Hello Kitty (something I never revealed to anyone before I met Olga).

Olga was also a radical feminist. We organized the women students’ association at our school. We dreamed about ditching law school and starting a Jewish pagan coven. We promised to perform each other’s abortions should the day come when abortion was once again forced into back alleys.

Olga cared immensely about the way she looked. As she put it, when you’re a poor, fat, immigrant and your name is Olga, yeah, people are going to judge you on the way you look, and you better look good. But instead of setting out to fit in, which as she intuited early on was fairly pointless, Olga set out to express herself in the most beautiful and most authentic way possible. Everywhere we went, people were in awe of her.

Our law school being only a few blocks from the enormous Anthropologie on Fifth Avenue, Olga and I spent many afternoons there drooling over expensive frilly sweaters and adorable sailor pants. Olga’s husband was a painter, and their house was always full of his art, the art of their many artist friends and the beautiful things they had acquired over the years.

What I saw in Olga was an integrated kind of beauty and self-expression. Her sense of style was expressed in her tattoos, her precise taste in sneakers (no white soles) and her impeccable home. Rather than letting the Iron Maiden’s lid close on her, Olga kicked the lid right off. No matter what she did, she always had a deeply informed political analysis of her actions. Beauty is not much different than other aspects of our lives — beauty is political, but so is what we eat (can we eat beef if it contributes to deforestation?) what we buy (can we avoid all unethically produced goods?) how we give birth (C-section or vaginal?) and pretty much every facet of being alive today. And each of those choices is inflected by the economic and social privilege held by the chooser. For me, an important part of being a progressive is recognizing my own privilege as well as not judging others against my own. I wouldn’t dare judge a poor family for buying cheap beef. So why should I beat myself up for wanting to have the smooth cheeks prized by our culture and naturally possessed by many, but not all, women?

I learned to stop judging myself against a ridiculous standard of imagined feminist purity. I discovered that I could have fun with makeup in a way that didn’t feel burdensome or fake. I didn’t have to wear it everyday if I didn’t want to (itself an important privilege of the clear skinned). I could wear cute clothes and shave, or not, depending on what I wanted. I got electrolysis in my late twenties and wept, not because I was selling out, but because I’d wasted so much time letting the hair make me miserable, but refusing to do anything about it.

Rokhl Kafrissen is at rokhl.blogspot.com.