Naomi Wolf quotes Virginia Woolf in one of the epigraphs for The Beauty Myth: "It is far more difficult to murder a phantom than a reality"--one of the notions that haunts me about this book from year to year.
The whole idea she coins in her introductory chapter follows from this idea of Virginia Woolf's, actually. "Men's institutions and institutional power" have constructed and disseminated pervasive myths, falsehoods about "motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity," confining women to an "Iron Maiden"--a "rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted" torture device, "censoring real women's faces and bodies" (13, 11, 17). And it is harder to identify, understand, and challenge this phenomenon, as it is less tangible and concrete and more elusive (like Friedan's Feminine Mystique) than forces we have named, studied, and deconstructed.
A singular physical ideal dominates our collective consciousness, and it entraps women and girls, pressuring them (subconsciously) into doing hours and hours of "beauty work" on themselves--and perhaps worst of all, convincing us that it's both natural/biological and our fault.
Naomi Wolf sets out to name, define, and explore the myth--its basis, its pressures, its perpetuators, its impact, and what we can do to see and challenge it. By the end of the first chapter, she calls for "a new way to see" (19).
Wolf acknowledges that the group she primarily considers is comprised of Western middle-class women, which is a way of noting that she does not in fact research, address, or speak to all women around the world, including all classes, races, and experiences. Yet the myth she defines arguably touches all women and girls--and indeed all people (including, of course, men and boys)--around the world in that it dictates what is economically the dominant global culture, which has implications for everyone on earth. Ideas about beauty, success, worth, and power are far-reaching.
In fact, Wolf uses strong language to deliver an impacting, high-stakes, urgent message. She likens female oppression to slavery, saying, "An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that 'justify' the institution of slavery" (18).
Some of the other exciting, provocative language in these early pages include the words: "shame" (9), "control" (11), "doll" (12), "Goddess" (13), "masquarade" (15), "taboos" (16), "lies" (17), "anxieties" (18), and "destroying" (19). Although the language is also dense and fairly academic, Wolf speaks with intensity, intrigue, and passion, which contributes to the lasting significance and impact of this book from 1990. I've probably read it half a dozen times now and uncover new layers, insights, concerns, and ideas about change with every reading.