What women look like is often more important than what they do. That this is still sadly the case, 20 years on from the publication of Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, is exemplified by Liverpool, the city in which I live, which is driven by WAG culture and hyper-feminine drag.
I first read Wolf's book for pleasure as an undergraduate. I was hooked, from its opening lines, by a thesis that was spellbindingly simple. If women can be encouraged by the multibillion-pound beauty industry to focus their minds only on policing their bodies, causing themselves considerable pain in the process, they will fail to seize the opportunities feminism has given them.
Wolf defined the beauty myth as "a violent backlash...that uses images of female beauty as a...weapon against women's advancement". She mapped the damage done by that myth (to women and men) on to women's experiences of work, culture, religion, sex, hunger and violence.
The book's final chapter, "Beyond the Beauty Myth", is the best. Acknowledging its debt to earlier feminists, notably to second-wavers, it moved into what was then new, third-wave feminist territory. It asks far more questions than it answers, and challenges every reader to answer them personally (with deeds, not just words). It calls for female solidarity. It calls for change.
Tragically, Wolf's detractors failed to heed that call. The book's best-seller status alone sparked such envy in "proper" intellectual circles that Linda M. Scott's book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism (2005), written partly as a response to Wolf's ideas, notes one academic's denunciation of "the insufficiencies of...Wolf's politics...(and her) big hair". Reductive readings of feminism in general would brand a thinking woman a traitor for owning a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes, and Wolf herself predicted that the complexities of her argument would be reduced to one question: "Does this mean we can't wear lipstick without feeling guilty?"
The Beauty Myth generated genuine controversy, but it never contested a woman's right to feel beautiful. Wolf explained that the problem with cosmetics exists only when a woman feels invisible without them; when she "is forced to adorn herself to buy a hearing" and must focus on grooming to keep her job or attract a lover to help care for her children. All this is what makes "beauty" hurt.
Sadly the book has stood the test of time because little has changed, apart from a marked increase in the amount of money generated by the beauty industries and the number of women who punish themselves (through eating disorders and the like) because they "fail" to conform. Yet Wolf's solution to the problem has also stood the test of time. The book remains important precisely because it solves the problems it reveals: "A woman wins by giving herself...permission - to eat; to be sexual; to age; to wear overalls, a paste tiara...A woman wins when she feels that what each woman does with her own body - unforced, uncoerced - is her own business", and not big business.