Friday, 23 March 2012

My Annual Beauty Myth Crisis

At Klingenstein a few years ago, one of my teachers said, "I was having my annual Huck Finn crisis..."

I experience a version of this myself (and it isn't even to do with The Vagina Monologues), and it's happening now. You could call it my annual Beauty Myth crisis.

Will my students hate the sassy, feisty voice of Wolf for the next three hundred pages? Will this push us simply too far into feeling that the voice of feminism is "femi-Nazi" (a term I still find chillingly offensive)? Will they reject Wolf outright for being tedious, or too full of angst, or--worst of all--boring or irrelevant?

I care so much, perhaps, because I feel that so much is at stake, whether or not my students like Wolf.

Grappling with these gender issues--beauty, work, culture, religion, sex, hunger, and violence--is essential, I believe, to an educated, mindful personhood, male or female, in today's world. If we are to be global citizens, citizens of humanity, we have to look (and look hard) at this list, especially in terms of its social and economical implications.

Wolf asks (in 1990), "Do women feel free?" and through her own research suggests that the answer is no. In a passage about psychologist Daniel Goleman's work, Wolf says, "The costs of these social blind spots [...] are destructive communal illusions" (17). Communal in this case means all of us--men and women. What role, I wonder, in 2012, do the media and advertising play in our collective sense of freedom (or lack thereof)?

If, as Jean Kilbourne suggests, the media and advertising teach us to hate ourselves and hurt our bodies, then what Wolf calls "the beauty myth" is a danger to everyone. In fact, even if the myth still hurts only or mostly women, our whole society is both responsible for and affected by its perpetuation.

Quoting Betty Friedan from 1960, Wolf says, "That caricature [of the Ugly Feminist], which sought to punish women for their public acts by going after their private sense of self, became the paradigm for new limits placed on aspiring women everywhere" (19). If images serve to "destroy women physically and deplete us psychologically," we need to pay serious, collective attention to these concerns, to transform our culture for all our sakes.

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