Sisterhood Blog

Naomi Wolf: Trapped by Her Own 'Beauty Myth'

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf is really getting on my nerves. It feels terrible to say that because she has made some key contributions to feminist consciousness over the years. Her first major book, “The Beauty Myth,” outlining the litany of damaging effects of the beauty industry on women and girls’ self-image is a classic that has indelibly impacted feminist thinking about body and commercialization of femininity. Her analysis of the female imagery of “The Angel in the House” offers some of the most useful insights in trying to understand women’s battles for self-expression and empowerment — especially religious women.

That said, I think she may really be losing it. I started to think this last year when she wrote a delusional essay glorifying the sexuality of repressed Muslim women who wear Victoria’s Secret under layers of hijab. She had some similar commentary about Orthodox women as well, which made her sound like some kind of cross between a rabbi preaching at a frat house and a repentant stripper. Cover up and you’ll find your spiritual salvation, was more or less her message at the time. She says all this, by the way, while wearing revealing clothes, globs of make-up, and Fran Drescher-worthy hair.

Her latest essay takes the cake. “A wrinkle in time: Twenty years after ‘The Beauty Myth,’ Naomi Wolf addresses The Aging Myth”, published recently the Washington Post, is a retrospective on her writing that comes across less as feminist scholarship and more like a ditsy celebration of the middle-age cocktail party.

She could have written an intriguing comparison of the beauty industry then and now, bolstered by the volumes of research that has been conducted since then about gender in industries such as advertising, Hollywood, fashion, and cosmetic surgery. Instead, she offered two thousand words mostly about her experiences sitting at a dinner party with middle aged men and their twenty-something blonde partners. Her conclusion from these experiences, by the way, is that all is well for the 40-plus woman.

“I personally expected that when I entered the middle of my life, I would start to mourn my youthful physical self,” she writes, “and that, even though I had thought long and hard about the dangers of the beauty myth, I would feel a sense of existential loss of self when my appearance began to change.” Why is that admission helpful? Why is she saying that despite all her work, she completely internalized the messages? This is so disempowering — that the more she studied these issues, the more she felt compelled to try and live up to the artificial standards of beauty.

She follows up with a sigh of relief. “Those pangs of loss have largely not happened,” she writes. “Not for me and not for the women I know and admire.” Her proof of how fabulous she feels as she approaches 50 is that all her friends can easily laugh at the young blond women next to the middle-age men at those parties. “Indeed, at events I have attended recently, cadres of conventionally beautiful young women seem now to be treated almost like wallpaper or like the catering staff,” she casually comments.

This is just astounding to me. She encounters a series of troubling phenomena related to her research —men continuing to abandon their wives in search of younger “models”, young women doing whatever it takes in order to receive the attention of older men, and middle aged women mocking younger women as “wallpaper” or “catering staff” — and her conclusion is that all is well?! Sure, the older women may in fact be “fine” or even “fabulous” in the face of all this. Therapy, diet pills, and large divorce settlements may help maintain that youthful glow that she admires. But all is not well. Women’s lives are at risk at every stage, younger and older, threatened by social mores that still consider blonde hair and thinness to be the be-all and end-all of women’s success.

Wolf admits it herself. Sure, she has one friend who boldly decided to keep her grey hair, but Wolf gets “startled” when she forgets her color rinse. She may have lots of friends who look better than they did in college, as she writes, but that only begs the issue. Despite all her research back then, she has become a caricature, looking at her friends based on how thin and sexy they are despite their age, and how much more charming they can be at dinner parties than 20-year olds.

I was expecting so much more. I was looking for a sharp, complex and intelligent analysis from an accomplished woman. But I guess even smart, accomplished women can be trapped by the beauty myth.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.