‘Just as the beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful.’Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
I recently finished reading an abridged version of Naomi Wolf’s 1990 feminist classic ‘The Beauty Myth’ and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Reading feminist literature tends to make me either depressed or angry or empowered or some combination of all three, but this has got under my skin more than most.
(Quick thank you shout out to Penguin’s Vintage Feminism series of abridged books for allowing me to read important feminist literature when I have no time!)
The central message of the book was that beauty has replaced domesticity as the stick with which to keep women down. When the patriarchy could no longer control women by denying them rights, it forced them to stay home as the perfect housewife. The second wave of feminism then destroyed this ‘feminine mystique,’ the assumption that women could find satisfaction and fulfilment from housework, marriage, and motherhood, and the patriarchy lost its prison so it had to quickly find a new one. Adverts of smiling 50s housewives in their immaculate homes were replaced with hundreds of thousands of images of impossibly thin, impossibly beautiful, generally white women. Beauty became the new weapon of the patriarchy, and it’s been horrifyingly successful.
While the body positivity and fat positivity movements have moved us forward from the plastic surgery and heroin chic boom of the 90s, so much of it still rang true today – if only because, while the images used to control us have changed, the actual method of control feels the same.
How can women and everyone who suffers under the patriarchy ever have the energy to succeed when they’re constantly hungry or tired or distracted by their efforts to stay thin and beautiful? How can we ever have the confidence to put ourselves forward when we constantly feel like we’re not really pretty enough, not really beautiful enough, not really…enough to be taken seriously?
The Beauty Myth was one of the triggers for the third wave of feminism, and while the focus of intersectionality, social media and #MeToo have moved us on to the fourth or even fifth waves, I can still feel the weight of that beauty myth. I still feel more confident at work when I’m dressed well, wearing more expensive and better fitting clothes. During my self-esteem crisis that the last 2 years have wrought, my daily skin care regime was escalated to literally 10 different cleaners, toners, moisturisers and serums (excluding make up), because I still thought that having better skin would make me somehow feel better. I’m going back to clinical work later this year and will be on-site for more than one day a week so I’m already low-key freaking out about the fact that I don’t fit into any of my previous work clothes and how will anyone take me seriously if I wear the same 3 dresses in rotation? (Do you think cis men worry if they’ve ‘only’ got three suits?)
And this affects our sex lives too. As Franki Cookney recently discussed in her truly excellent BAD SEX series of podcasts, too many of us aren’t able to enjoy sex because we don’t feel at home in our bodies. We don’t feel beautiful enough.
But reading this book has made me realise two things. Firstly, this strange obsession with beauty and it’s impact on our wider lives – not just our self-esteem and body image, but our careers and professional relationships – is real and we’re not vain or self-obsessed to worry about it. And more importantly, it is all a myth. None of it is real, which means that, as the quote at the top states, it’s not how I look that controls me but how I feel. And so I’ve decided to feel great! (Ha, do you think it will be that easy?!)
Seriously, I’ve decided to use all this bullshit to my advantage. To take the free confidence of a good outfit and use it when I really need it. To understand why it is a feminist statement to happy without wearing make up and use that empowerment to feel stronger by telling the patriarchy to go fuck itself. To give up trying to be something else and be happy being who I am and what I look like.
This Sinful Sunday community has given me so much confidence since I first posted in 2015, almost exactly seven years ago, but I’ve lost some of it recently. I haven’t wanted to properly look at myself as I once did. But I’m ready to change that now. I want to learn to love every part of my newer, bigger body and convince myself that I am as beautiful now as I ever was.
This may look like a plea for compliments, but it isn’t. I honestly don’t care what you all think of this photo or if you even notice the differences that I see and feel, as it isn’t about what anyone thinks but me. This is about me finding a photo that I’m happy to share. This is about me, finding myself again.
Click the kiss below to see the other beautiful images shared this week…