New book uncovers the ugliness of 'The Beauty Myth'

June 26, 1991|By Alice Kahn | Alice Kahn,San Francisco Chronicle

Naomi Wolf seems determined to light a firecracker under the incredibly shrinking behind of modern American woman with her new book, "The Beauty Myth."

She has stirred up the wrath of everyone from fundamentalists, who say she is attacking good Christian beauty queens, to Betty Friedan, who thinks Wolf's emphasis on the cult of beauty is not politically correct.

But when an Oakland policewoman loses her job for not looking feminine enough and an airline clerk is fired for not wearing makeup, Wolf says, we are talking about something more substantial than just looks.

She says something she calls "the beauty myth" was created to put those uppity bra burners of the '60s in their place by creating a third shift for the woman already working overtime to keep up the career and the family.

That third job is staying thin and beautiful, even if it means starving yourself and surrendering your body to the surgeon's knife.

"I'm here from the twenty-something generation to tell you images hurt," she said.

Asked to explain the source of the rage that comes through this book, Wolf explains, "I almost lost my life to anorexia. I feel like a witness."

At her Yale University graduation, alumnus Dick Cavett made jokes about how female scholars couldn't sell their nude photos. She went on the road as a Rhodes scholar to Oxford and it was while writing her Ph.D. thesis in literature there that she became convinced of the pervasive effect of the beauty myth.

Wolf, 29, insists that rather than luxuriating in the victories of some "postfeminist" era, women of her generation are dying as a result of growing up in what she characterizes as the anorexic/pornographic era, a time when pornography and beauty got hitched in Obsession perfume ads and David Lynch movies.

And, yes, she is beautiful. But, no, she isn't cute when she's mad. She's methodical.

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