Naomi Wolf: The Beauty Myth
Women’s mags are believed to trivialise, sentimentalise and transmit the worst aspects of the beauty myth.
Readers are ambivalent too, ‘I buy them as a form of self-abuse‘ one woman said.
In late 1802 women’s emancipation was under way. The Queen and Harper’s Bazaar began perfecting the mass production of beauty images aimed at women. Ads were first taken in early 1900s. Victorian mags ‘catered to a female sex virtually in domestic bondage,’ but by WW1 they ‘quickly developed a commensurate degree of social awareness.‘
By the 1920s they had settled into the cosy intimate relaxed style they still have today.
By the 1940s again war production work was glamourised; to enlist huge numbers of women who were first time workers, glamour was a main tool. With these new avenues of employment women developed a new sense of competence and confidence, ‘the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely‘ became a raison d’etre for the war. Women war workers were still encouraged to look their best.
When it was belatedly realised that women would not necessarily give up their jobs when the men returned from war the magazines were used to provoke domesticity. (3m US and 1m UK women were fired or quit their jobs.)
Magazines reflect historical change but they can and have been used to determine change as well.
1950s mags re-enabled hassled mums to get in touch with their ideal self – Ann Oakley stated: “That self that aspires to be a good wife, a good mother and an efficient home-maker…women’s role was to strive after perfection in all three roles.”
In 1950s advertising revenues soared. Betty Friedan in ‘The Feminine Mystique‘ traced how American housewives’ ‘lack of identity and purpose …are manipulated into dollars.‘ The post-war economy needed people to spend or it would crash and so women were targeted; the career woman was unhealthy from the advertisers point of view and so magazines were slanted so as to prevent ‘this group getting any larger….they are not the ideal type of customer. They are too critical.‘
The advertiser was encouraged to imbue his product with a spiritual value so that dull and unremitting housework which could be done by anybody would become a matter of skill and specialised knowledge. The marketer’s reports concluded, for objects with ‘added psychological value the price itself hardly matters.‘ Betty Friedan asked, “Why is it never said that the really crucial function women serve is to buy things for the house?”
However boredom did eventually drive women to the work place, advertisers lost their primary consumer. So a new beauty myth was invented along with its $33 bn thinness and $20 bn youth industry! All to save magazines and advertisers from the economics of the women’s revolution!
In the 1950s there was “no other way for a woman to be a heroine” than to “keep on having babies;” today a woman must “keep on being beautiful.” Friedan.
In the 60s the women’s movement, the lure of the workplace and ‘style for all‘ fashion led to the magazines loss of popularity. All that was left now was the body. In 1969 Vogue offered the Nude Look and began to focus on the body. Women’s mags completely invented a new look. By elevating a hardly existing problem to the existential female dilemma, dieting became the new religion. From 1968-1972 diet related articles rose 70%.
In a backlash against feminism ‘experts’ arose all over to proclaim that a feminist must be ugly and unable to gain a husband to be a feminist. In drawing attention to the physical characteristics of women’s leaders they can be dismissed as either too pretty or too ugly thus preventing women’s identification with the issues. It was a no win situation for women.
In 1965 the revamped Cosmopolitan initiated the new wave. Its formula said in a can-do tone, ‘be your best and nothing should get in your way.‘ A focus on female sexuality was meant to convey sexual liberation. But the formula also includes an element that contradicts and undermines the overall pro-woman stance – in diet, skin care and surgery features it sells women the deadliest version of the beauty myth that money can buy.
Why are women’s magazines so important? Because general culture takes a males view on what is newsworthy, only through their magazines can women get another view. The Super Bowl is on the front page while a change in child care legislation is carried on page 3 in a paragraph. Life Magazine’s covers for 50 years showed many women but only 19 were not actresses or models – Eleanor Roosevelt is always famously referred to as ‘ugly.’
But women’s mags are trapped. Yes they can include uplifting editorial but they pay for their license with ‘beauty backlash trappings’ or advertisers will go elsewhere.
20 years ago when the offices of the Ladies Home Journal, were occupied, a list of alternative articles was offered up, e.g. How to Get an Abortion; a Divorce; What Detergents do to our Rivers etc. This type of article is now mainstream; these mags have popularised women’s issues and have become, “Very important instruments of social change.” Wolf. Indeed criticisms of the beauty myth are now found in them more often than anywhere else: Glamour, “How to make peace with the body you’ve got“; She: “Fat is not a sin.” Etc.
The mass part of their appeal is important. Women can learn how to be financially independent, take charge of their health; women’s fiction gets a higher profile; so do women achievers and women related legislation. Letters can provide a platform for woman to woman debate. Yes, women resent the elements of their format that follow repetitive formulas; women are disturbed when mags seem servile to the economic bottom line of the beauty myth.
The voice of the magazine gives women an invisible female authority figure to admire and obey. The voice encourages them to trust. It is loyal to the reader. It is like a club, an extended family and interest group and therefore it is difficult to read with a sharp eye as to how thoroughly advertising revenue influences the copy. It is easy to misread the whole thing as if it were a coherent message from the editors telling women, ‘You should like this.‘ In fact if we were able to read it in a more informed way we could take the pleasure and leave the pain.
Editors really feel the pressure from advertisers now who will withdraw if articles are not suitable. TV ads have increased but memory of them has reduced! Worldwide pornography is now the biggest media category grossing more than the legitimate film and music industries.