Feminist sees conspiracy in stress on appearance


June 23, 1991|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK — New York

It's the anger in Naomi Wolf's book that strikes you first; that and the almost fanatical belief in the rightness of the message she is preaching in "The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women."

The anger is there as Ms. Wolf lashes out against a male-dominated society that she says uses female beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement.

And it's there when she rails against what she calls the Professional Beauty Qualification (PBQ), a man-made beauty measurement which she believes is "extremely widely institutionalized as a condition for women's hiring and promotion."

And it's there, anger that nearly boils over the top, when she writes of the male culture that has created the "cult of thinness" and the kind of self-hatred of their bodies that causes women to starve themselves and to "multilate" their flesh under the knives of plastic surgeons.

You could call it Beautygate -- this theory of Naomi Wolf's that men in positions of power are at the bottom of a beauty conspiracy designed to undercut the advances of feminism.

Or you could call it, as Ms. Wolf's publisher does, "a cultural hand grenade for the 1990s," a book that is "a direct descendant of 'The Feminine Mystique' and 'The Female Eunuch.' "

But whatever you call it, the book is stirring up strong feelings in both men and women and, in the process, making a media starout of the woman who threw the grenade. In fact, Naomi Wolf may be the most visible feminist in America right now. In the last month or so, the 28-year-old Yale graduate (class of '84) and Rhodes Scholar has been on a book promotion tour that has taken her from coast to coast doing interviews with newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

By now, with so many cities and so many interviews under her belt, Ms. Wolf is used to the idea that her ideas and the images she uses to convey those ideas -- such as comparing cosmetic surgeons to Nazi doctors at Auschwitz and associating the experience of an anorexic woman with that of a Bergen-Belsen victim -- are guaranteed to evoke both cheers and jeers.

"I don't know if I like the term 'conspiracy,' but I do think this idea of having the 'right look' is another way to keep women out of good-paying jobs," says Barbara Otto, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland-based organization called 9 to 5, National Association Working Women. "We're finding through our job problem hot line that appearance is a currency for women in the workplace."

But Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, says the so-called beauty myth is rubbish. "This idea that we've made wonderful gains in the workplace, but now you can't get ahead unless you look great is the most trumped-up thing I ever heard. What really matters is your brains and your work."

Of course, none of this surprises Ms. Wolf, who last year was a lightning rod for controversy on the other side of the Atlantic when her book appeared in England.

"No one seems to have a neutral response to the book," says Ms. Wolf, in a voice that is soft but intense. "The response is completely conditional on a given woman's life experience. It's either intense, intense resistance -- what I would call denial -- in which people say, 'What's wrong with people discriminating against women on the basis of their appearance?' Or it's a recognition that my argument is so persuasive that it changes the way you think."

And while she understands the hostility shown by "people whose livelihoods I threaten -- I've been screamed at by cosmetic

surgeons, called horrible names by people who sell cosmetics, called really evil things by people who run modeling agencies or charm schools or are involved in what I call beauty pornography -- I still don't understand the more personal resistance."

Interestingly enough, some of the resistance to Ms. Wolf's argument that the beauty myth is the major hurdle facing women today comes from other feminists. Betty Friedan, the woman who in 1963 wrote "The Feminine Mystique," is one such dissenter.

"I welcome the book as a new voice attacking some of the backlash against women's rights," says Ms. Friedan, "but I think the message is a bit distorted and it gives me some concern. I don't think the great enemies of women today are beauty pornography or beauty preoccupation . . . I think the real danger lies in the new feminine mystique that tells women to go back home again, and that preoccupation with sidebars on beauty is a digression from the real need to address the terrible social problems women need to face."

Another well-known feminist author, Susan Brownmiller, has a different caveat about "The Beauty Myth." She says it's a book that reinvents the wheel: "I wrote that book and published it in 1984 -- it was called 'Femininity.' And while I think her points are valid I felt I covered all that material and did it very well. Although I would add that if you want to call this a male conspiracy, you have to agree that women are co-conspirators in it."

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