At last, we get to those final two books from the Long Reading List:
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
It was easier for me to agonize over my weight because I was a girl. Too much of my worth was caught up in being able to attract boys, and it was made very clear that I could not do that. It took decades to get over. There is more pressure on women to conform to beauty standards, and lots of obstacles to feeling like you have succeeded in meeting those standards. This fits into both patriarchy and kyriarchy, though I am not going into that now.
Instead I want to cover a some main points from both books, and then in the next two posts focus on how the system is harmful to women and how it is harmful to men.
Before reading The Feminine Mystique I had not realized that what happened after WWII was new. It's not that there hadn't been any type of sexism or chauvinism before, but great steps backward were forced as a reaction to the greater independence and leadership roles that women had gained during the war. Then there was a great effort to pretend that it had always been that way, and it was the natural, right, good way.
That is worth remembering now. People who feel that their spot on the top is threatened - no matter how illusory their supremacy is, and no matter how destructive their fight is - will fight. They will also pretend it is right and deserved. Hidden Figures as a movie focuses on three women, but that phrase can apply to many people who have been contributing all along and to whom credit is denied.
The Beauty Myth spent a lot of time on the advertising industry and how it contributes to that pressure to be attractive; we should constantly be looking at the effects of advertising.
I was recently reading about ways that advertisers appeal to children to nag their parents more effectively. Parents should be aware of those tricks and making conscious decisions about how to deal with it. Many, many products have ads trying to show you that your life is not good enough without them. Considerable thinking should go into what creates or disturbs the satisfaction in your life.
There was something else that I found in the criticisms of The Feminine Mystique, and that I kept in mind when I was reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir -- these are middle (or upper) class problems.
That is not that all issues of sexism are class-specific, but that vague feeling of things not being enough - "the problem with no name" - that was a result of empty time and no requirement for meaningful activity. Poor women had too many other things to do and worry about.
I am also not touting drudgery as a cure; that may be worse than the disease. But women are people, and want to be able to contribute. When their sole domain is the home, and labor-saving devices and hired help take all of the work out of that, it leaves a woman nothing to do but be an ornament. That wouldn't be satisfying even without all of the ads and comparisons reminding you that you just aren't beautiful enough as an ornament; even the most beautiful women age.
Friedan gave an example of women attending lectures on things like architecture and art, but those activities feeling empty because they weren't going to use that knowledge in any way. Initially I bristled, because I love learning about all kind of things, many of which I will never use. However, I do things. If your life is meaningful, these things are icing. If your life is empty, the frivolous may seem like a reproach.
A great source of guilt would be that the husband and children should be enough; didn't they love their family? Family is a wonderful thing, but the man was getting a career and family, and no one looked down on him for having both. For a women, it meant there was something wrong with her, and right at the time when a new wave of psychologists had come to the United States with training that blamed everything on the mothers. Sadly, it was not readily understood that their training was deeply grounded in Freud trying to understand why women would imagine having been sexually abused because such abuse couldn't have been real.
That's not even ironic. That's just, "Of course it would go like that!"
I am doing better about this thing that hurt me, and I am grateful for that. I am also aware that the system is still in place, and currently hurting many others. As I go back and forth between the personal and social, I am always looking for ways to make it better. I haven't stopped believing better is possible.
That bright possibility is going to require us to want everyone to have it better. That means not worrying about whether that weakens our own position, not feeling like some people don't deserve it, and choosing love and uplift over their opposites. It is radical, it might even feel violent, but it has wonderful potential.
(Apologies to anyone who thought the title meant the post would be about fashion choices and beauty rituals. Titling isn't really my strong suit.)