On My Soapbox

Twenty Years On: Revisiting Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth

Oh Naomi! When did life pass you by?

Discovering your book, The Beauty Myth, rocked me to the core. So when you first stepped on stage at last night’s Wheeler Centre event, I felt a little star struck. But it all went downhill from there.

There is no doubt that images of beauty are still being used against women. However it’s a very different playing field to when you wrote your bestseller twenty years ago – and there are two glaring big differences you failed to mention.

How can you overlook the rise and rise of digital media? Never before has there been more images of an idealised concept of female beauty being produced and consumed.

Websites like Perez Hilton serve up fresh images of Lindsay, Britney and the rest of young Hollywood 24/7. With a click of a mouse, Style.com delivers snaps of every celebrity to walk the red carpet at the opening of an envelope. And don’t just think it’s the big names that rate a mention. The plethora of street style blogs, like The Sartorialist, are proof that so long as you are model pretty you’re worthy of online attention.

Not only has the number of images increased, digital media has forever changed our access to them. Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are proof that in a post of just 140-words Twitter cuts out the middleman (the media) and brings the cult of celebrity closer to the average punter than ever before.

And what about this week’s Rosemount Fashion Week? Where once the FROW (aka front row) of a runway show was reserved for A-listers and a who’s who of glossy mags, you can now be front and centre from the comfort of your own couch. Everyone from Sportsgirl to Harper’s Bazaar has a ‘guest blogger’ reporting on these events. Vogue and any other respected fashion or beauty website is running daily – almost hourly – analysis of designers, models, goodie bags…oh and yeah…the fashion. And if that wasn’t enough, labels such as ksubi are live streaming their shows.

The other big difference between now and when you wrote The Beauty Myth is the democratisation of cosmetic surgery. Twenty years ago, it was only the ladies-who-lunch who had little nip and tuck. Now Botox is de rigueur, and cosmetic surgery tourism is a booming industry. It seems our quest for beauty, at any cost, has reached stratospheric new heights. Just ask Heidi Montag. The already-genetically-blessed starlet recently underwent a staggering 10 plastic surgery procedures at the ripe old age of 23. “We all want to feel attractive,” says Heidi.

It saddens me to say, but twenty years on the beauty myth is still alive and well. Our obsession with physical perfection is still trapping many women in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as they try to fulfill society’s impossible definition of ‘the flawless beauty’. Today, we need a whole new set of tools in our kit if we are to break this nexus.

While digital media can be our undoing, this medium also presents the most thrilling of opportunities. We now have the chance for alternative voices and ideas to reach a large, immediate and global audience. We can hijack the modus operandi and set a new agenda. In another twenty years, I hope we are saying, “What beauty myth?”

All night I waited for you to utter these words, but they never came. Naomi, it’s time to pass on your mantle. It’s time for a new generation of critical thinkers.

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