silhouette of a woman in profile

The Beauty Myth

Introduction

Naomi Wolf’s concept of the beauty myth refers to the unrealistic beauty standards imposed on women and the relentless pressure to conform to those narrow representations. She argued advertisers and women’s magazines were reinforcing gender inequalities by deliberately undermining women’s self-esteem and potential.

Instead of being objectified and marginalised by the media, Wolf urged women to challenge the beauty myth, reclaim their bodies and embrace their individuality.

Magazines and the Beauty Myth

Wolf noted magazines in the 1950s glamorised the image of a woman being the “good wife, a good mother, and an efficient homemaker”. The articles and advertisements encouraged women to purchase consumer goods to make their homes perfect with the narratives making sure the readers felt guilty for not having the latest coffee machine or ironmaster. According to one famous slogan, “she’ll be happier with a Hoover”.

The following advertisement promises women “can really enjoy the thrill of workless washdays” with the reassurance the automatic washer “guards family health”:

1950s advertisement of a woman smiling about her washer
Inglis (1952)

Women were also being made to feel inadequate for not keeping up with fashion trends. You were considered a failure if you didn’t have “a complete wardrobe arranged by season and occasion, color coordinated and accessorized on shoe trees and in hatboxes”.

When magazines realised the beauty myth offered yet another hook in the 1960s, the image of “the gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood”. Mass media began teaching women to hate their bodies with tips to lose (or gain) weight, advice about skin care routines, and stories about cosmetic surgery. Wolf commented that “the number of diet-related articles rose 70 percent from 1968 to 1972” and “articles on dieting in the popular press soared from 60 in the year 1979 to 66 in the month of January 1980 alone”.

Having an automatic washer with “sanitizing rays” was no longer enough to feel a sense of value and self-worth. Women now needed to spend their time, money, and effort on goods and services aimed at improving their appearance.

Naomi Wolf believed women’s magazines were so successful in manipulating their target demographic because they were “women’s mass culture”. While other mainstream publications would splash pictures of the Super Bowl on the front page and relegate an important change in childcare legislation to a few columns on page nine, women’s magazines provided an “invisible female authority figure to admire and obey”.

Although the magazine writers positioned themselves as the specialists who could help their readers stay beautiful and young looking, they also “trained” women “to see themselves as cheap limitations of fashion photographs”. Advertisements weaponised female beauty to sell more products, making women feel self-conscious and guilty for their lack of success.

Mode of Address

Perhaps the most manipulative aspect of the advertisements and stories was the mode of address. We have already seen how the automatic washer promised women a sense of confidence and achievement with its “wonder-working” technology, including the “agiflow action” and “germicidal lamp”.

Companies articulate their brand identities and unique selling points through language. Memorable slogans and catchy taglines can leave a lasting impression on the audience, but Wolf criticised the beauty industry and advertising agencies for creating a culture of insecurity which left women full of self-hatred and desperate to buy the latest cosmetic solution to their problems.

The use of “mock-authoritative language” and scientific “gibberish” intimated the target audience into believing the skin creams and moisturisers were technological breakthroughs that would help them look ageless. For example, one crème contained “hygrascopic elements and natural ceramides” (Chanel) and another lotion benefitted from “reticulin and mucopolysaccharides” (Alogen).

Although the technical language is mostly incomprehensible to most readers, the beauty industry continues to highlight unique and amazing ingredients because it suggests their products are backed by rigorous research and testing. This reassurance also helps justify the higher price points.

Wolf claimed the formal tone “shifted to emotional coercion” when the advertising agencies came under closer scrutiny from the regulators in America and the UK. Each word was soon designed to strike fear into the consumer who were being “assaulted by age and ultra-violet exposure” (Clientèle) and needed “shielded from environmental irritants” (Elizabeth Arden). To avoid being “attacked by external elements” and “external aggressions” (Orchidea), you just had to buy the latest defense cream.

The beauty industry portrayed itself as the saviour of women by developing rescue fantasies for “the busy, bustling life of modern women” (G. M. Collin) who were balancing careers and children. One repair gel offered “vital supporting structures” for “weakened and vulnerable” skin (Elizabeth Arden). Another product posed the question “Is success taking a toll on your face” (Orlane).

Women are still being taught to hate their own bodies and view aging as an enemy to be defeated. Consider this advertisement for Elizabeth Arden’s Prevage:

Modern example of the beauty myth in advertising
Elizabeth Arden (2017)

If you want to increase your confidence and “own your future”, you need to “erase the appearance of past damage” from the “sun and pollution”. Their magical mixture will soften your “fine lines and wrinkles” so you can achieve a “glow-y and fresh” skin tone. Technical language reassures the consumer this “serum” contains an “amazing antioxidant” called “idebenone”. which is “clinically proven” to counteract the visible signs of aging.

The advertisers hope these market-researched words will resonate with the audience who have fallen for the beauty myth and want to look as impossibly flawless as Reese Witherspoon.

Magazines and Money

Magazines have always relied on advertising revenue more than single-copy sales and subscriptions to remain profitable, so it is no surprise editors might place articles about how to wash your hair beside advertisements for shampoo products and even list stockists to direct readers where to shop. Writers could frame their stories to create a buying mood, make recommendations about the different products, and ensure their readers will react favourably to the lotions and potions being promoted on the glossy pages.

Winship (1987) referred to an early example of this sort of collusion. When British Nylon Spinners booked a double-page colour spread in “Woman” in 1956 for £7,000 (roughly £150,000 today), the editor of the magazine, Mary Grieve, agreed to “refrain from publishing any article which prominently featured natural fibres in the same issue” to satisfy the advertisers.

Winship described these editorial decisions as “silences”. Taking a harder line, Baker (1992) believed advertisers were the “most pernicious censors of media content” and “a threat to a free and democratic press”.

In terms of the beauty myth, Naomi Wolf argued women’s magazines had to “project the attitude that looking one’s age is bad” because so much of their advertising revenue comes from “people who would go out of business if visible age looked good”. The narrow representation of women had to evoke self-loathing in the reader because the magazines depended on the beauty industry who were providing a solution.

Feminism and the Beauty Myth

Wolf believed the beauty myth was a backlash against feminism because women were being reduced to objects of desire whose value was linked to physical attractiveness rather than the significant achievements in other areas of their lives. By limiting women’s perceptions of their own experiences and the world around them, the beauty myth undermines female empowerment and keeps male dominance intact.

Conclusion

When the New York Times first reviewed “The Beauty Myth”, they described Wolf as a “feminist muckraker and media critic” who relied too much on “glittery, special-effect metaphors”. For instance, she compared the beauty myth to a belief system with magazines preaching the gospel and its readers engaging in beauty rituals while praying for eternal youth.

The language might be hyperbolic, but we should not ignore her call to resist the beauty myth and continue to critically assess the representations we see in the media. A good place to start is our summary of Majorie Ferguson’s four looks of women on the cover of magazines.

Baker, E.C. (1994): “Advertising and a Democratic Press”.
Winship, J. (1987): “Inside Women’s Magazines”.
Wolf, N. (1991): “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women”.

Further Reading

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