In her concluding chapter of The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf offers some ideas for a way forward. First, she says, "we must now ask the questions about our place in our bodies that women a generation ago asked about their place in society" (270). I am in awe of the list of questions she suggests, among them: "Is 'beauty' really sex?" and "Does a woman's identity count?" She goes on to encourage us to "separate from the myth what it has surrounded and held hostage" and tells us what some of those things are (271).
I'm relieve to hear Wolf say that she is "not attacking anything that makes women feel good; only what makes us feel bad in the first place. We all like to be desirable and feel beautiful," she says (271). On the next page, she develops this idea: "we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful" (272). Wolf isn't tell us to give up everything that makes us feel beautiful; in fact, she wants us to reclaim a range of ways to be beautiful, to make it possible for more women and girls to love ourselves and our bodies, and doesn't that, in turn, mean that we'll have more love to give, which is better for everyone on earth?
After all these pages of research, theory, and detailed experience, Wolf distills her message into a punchy, truth-talking conclusion with lines like: "The real problem is our lack of choice" and "The actual struggle is between pain and pleasure, freedom and compulsion" (272, 273). We should not have to choose between being "sexual" and being "serious."
I've noticed more recently while watching the BBC London News and Channel 4 News that I tend to note the women's appearances in much more detail than the men's. Although I love his flashy ties and socks, I don't really care what Jon Snow looks like, just about what he has to say. I'm much more distracted, I'm sorry to admit, however, by Cathy Newman's tiny arms, facial features, or stilettos. Maybe noticing that I do this is the first step towards breaking it apart. As Wolf notes, "the choices we make about our appearance [are] no big deal," but I have clearly been trained to see them as though they matter a lot (273). What if I could learn not only to diminish the significance of Cathy's appearance in my own mind but also to celebrate what she has to say to others (men and women)? Wouldn't that be a small kind of progress?
Re-reading Wolf's book has reminded me all over how strongly I don't want anyone in this culture (or on this earth, truly) to be hungry, to be violated, to be judged unreasonably, or to be imprisoned inside his or her own body. If we really want a world in which everyone can be free to live, to love, and to be "fully human," we have to first deconstruct the pernicious and pervasive beauty myth that keeps us all down. King said, "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The same goes for freedom.