Naomi Wolf borrows a symbol from the middle ages, a torture device, in order to introduce an important metaphor in her book, The Beauty Myth. She writes,
"The original Iron Maiden was a medieval German instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman. The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation or, less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior. The modern hallucination in which women are trapped or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted. Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women's faces and bodies" (17).This seems like both a wild claim and simultaneously an eerily apt one. The standard to which women and girls are held is unreal, oppressive, and exhausting. The photo of the woman above (heavily manipulated so that it is no longer a real woman at all, not even a real supermodel) becomes the Iron Maiden of today. And some women and girls are trapped inside the thin, beautifully painted container, starving, invisible, and enslaved.
Am I going too far? Maybe. Throughout high school and college, however, I watched many of the young women in my life hurt themselves with impossible beauty standards, eating disorders, exercise, obsessions with their bodies. (And in many ways, this continues into our adulthood.) Did they (or we) choose this? Personally, I don't believe they (or we) did. Our dance teacher in high school encouraged the dancers to consume zero fat (which became dangerous for my sister one summer), girls were praised by adults for being thin and pretty, and everywhere we all looked there were vivid messages about what we were supposed to look like. Above all, the critics and ultimate determiners of our fate were young men who decided how we measured up in the competitive beauty economy. Did the boys choose it, then? I don't think they did either. We inherited a culture and everyone became complicit in it.
My sister and I were talking recently about how going to the mall makes us feel anxious, like we don't have any of the right stuff (the right clothes, shoes, makeup, purses, etc.). It sounds ridiculous, and I like to think that I have inoculated myself against these kinds of trivial concerns. Yet I am both a victim and a perpetrator of the beauty myth. All around us, I see "a secret 'underlife' poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control" (10).
Naomi Wolf is a provocative writer, and even now, her book from 1990 gets under the skin. She wants us to consider the "new cultural censors of women's intellectual space" and "the relationship between female liberation and female beauty" (11, 9). It's uncomfortable and difficult, and we would much rather leave it be. (I would, too. As a female teaching this class, I do not want to be scrutinized for my own relationship to the beauty myth. I am not a conqueror.)
Wolf calls our attention to how "An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that 'justify' the institution of slavery" (18). Using the word slavery and invoking the institution of slavery (in the American South and otherwise) is bold, antagonistic, and understandably controversial. I don't know if I would make that comparison, or if I would make the one Atwood makes in The Handmaid's Tale, alluding to the Holocaust...
Yet I do know that in 2014, Wolf still gets my attention. She has me thinking all over again about things that would be much easier to ignore. It's painful, for example, to remember my friend in college whose bulimia got so bad that she kept her vomit in gallon-sized Ziploc baggies in her sweater drawer. Was she trapped inside an Iron Maiden? Did she ever get out? We don't keep in touch, but I'm left wondering, visiting and revisiting, being haunted by those old ghosts.
(Iron Maiden images from a google search in 2011)