The Beauty Myth: an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society's impossible definition of "the flawless beauty."Naomi Wolf
The beauty myth lures women with the promise of power—to be seen and heard, make a living, land a man, gain social status, and the like. Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used against Women, argues that the beauty myth is a form of social control just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife.
2021 update: Naomi Wolf is more known for her controversies in recent years. While her book is very hyperbolic in spots, I still recommend reading The Beauty Myth because it contains many good points about the economy of beauty.
The book was written in 1990, and, sadly, the contents are more relevant now than ever. Wolf has so much to say on the subject that I won't be able to cover all of them here. In this post, I'm focusing on 7 steps we can take to overcome society's unrealistic beauty standards and love ourselves as we are now.
Step 1: Pursue Pleasure in Beauty, Avoid the Pain
There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful and desirable. Continue to enjoy playing with makeup, wearing nice clothes, getting your hair done, keeping your body fit, etc. Beauty only becomes a problem when women feel invisible not dolled up 24/7 or hate themselves when they don't look like a supermodel.
As Wolf says in the last chapter of her book: "The beauty myth did not really care what women looked like as long as the women felt ugly, we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful...The real issue has nothing to do with whether women wear makeup or don't, gain weight or lose it, have surgery or shun it, dress up or down, make our clothing and faces and bodies into works of art or ignore adornment together. The real problem is our lack of choice."
Beauty can bring us pleasure, but we must be careful not to let it enslave us. Even basic acts of self-care such as eating healthy food and exercising regularly can turn self-destructive if vanity is what motivates us. For example, obsessing with eating clean can lead to orthorexia, and working out too much but never feeling fit enough is basically body dysmorphia.
If you ever start feeling off balance with something in your beauty routine, ask yourself: Are you in control or is this controlling you? Is this something you want to do or need to do? Would you still feel beautiful without this?
It's helpful to sit down and write out what you like doing to look and feel your best, but also what you won't do for beauty.
For me, I draw the line on getting plastic surgery and injectables, wearing revealing clothes I don't feel comfortable in, going hungry, and worrying about my weight fluctuating when I'm perfectly healthy.
You might have a different list. The point is to separate the pleasure of beauty from what makes us feel bad.
Step 2: Nourish Your Soul
I know accomplished adult women who worry about thigh gaps, toned fitness instructors who feel flabby, and beautiful young girls who want plastic surgery to look like their Snapchat filters.
Why are we so obsessed with physical perfection?
In a Kabbalah class, I learned that beauty is a byproduct of our connection to the creator.
We elevate beautiful people to God status. We look up to them, but we want that light too, the power, the glow. Our desire for beauty is really our desire to connect to the creator. Beauty is a shortcut, but that connection is short lived.
Whenever we feel down, we might, for example, apply lipstick or go shopping to boost our spirits. These are quick Band-Aid fixes when we really should be looking under the hood for the source of the unhappiness.
Focusing on the body distracts us from our self-development and spiritual growth. When the soul shines, our looks reflect it, but right now, most of us are approaching beauty from the wrong end. Think of all the time and energy we'll have when we shift our focus from hating the body.
What can you offer other than your physical beauty? How can you grow your non-physical traits and talents? What kind of hobbies do you want to make time for? How can you deepen your spiritual growth?
Step 3: Focus on Individuality
The beauty myth wants us to believe there is one timeless, universal standard of beauty. The truth is, beauty is subjective and malleable. It's constantly changing throughout time, and standards differ around the world.
Who says we have to conform and compete in a beauty hierarchy? A healthier way to feel beautiful is to recognize yourself as an individual. All your talents, interests, traits (the list from step 2); your unique physical composition and characteristics, from the way you smile to the way you move, make up who you are. If you feel like and allow others to see you as a multi-faceted individual, you won't have to compete with anyone.
Chances are, you know someone who is not traditionally beautiful or won't grace the cover of a fashion magazine anytime soon, but they emit light like sunshine and we are attracted to their warmth. That is the kind of beauty we can't bottle and sell in our visual world, which is why those qualities are not praised more in the media. Which brings me to...
Step 4: Avoid Mass Media
The beauty industry knows the best way to stay profitable is to keep women sexually insecure, hungry, and self-hating. I've written about how to improve media literacy, and I particularly recommend watching the first two documentaries of m list of documentaries for improving media literacy, both of which dissects advertising's image of women.
Women's magazines operate under the guise of a helpful girlfriend, but they do more damage than good. Flipping through pages of digitally-altered models are hundreds of visual reminders that you are not good enough. The models don't even look that way in real life. Why do that to yourself?
De-train your brain from viewing beauty as one stagnant form. With social media, it's easier than ever to find and follow intelligent women of all different shapes, cultures, and backgrounds. Read books from female authors featuring complex female heroines, seek out art and films produced by women, support female-owned businesses, learn about strong women in history.
Fill your feeds with intelligent women who have interesting things to say, and avoid any accounts that make you feel bad. Even though fitness is a beneficial part of my life, I do not follow #fitspo accounts on social media to avoid the body comparison trap, especially when I already know how to work out.
On that note, avoid real-life spaces where only one type of body dominates. A friend told me she avoids yoga classes full of young, thin, and white bodies (even though she possesses one herself), and prefers going to classes inclusive of women from all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.
Step 5: Change Negative Beliefs About Self-Image
I've written about doing Louise Hay's Mirror Work and using positive affirmations to increase self-love. This is an easy way to start reprogramming the subconscious mind with positive beliefs.
Sometimes the new positive belief won't stick because the negative one is so deeply rooted, especially if it is passed down through the genetic line or from a past life. A major game-changer for me was discovering ThetaHealing. This energy healing technique digs deeper to uncover the source of your negative belief, and with the help of divine energy, replaces it with a positive one, instantly. This healing modality has helped me break away from group consciousness in terms of how a woman should look and act.
A belief I discovered I held was "smart girls can't be sexy." Silly, right? But my subconscious associated "sexy" with scantily-clad Playboy or Victoria's Secret-type models, who are only known for their bodies.
I removed that belief, along with beliefs about my body's "problem areas," and many more negative, self-limiting ones that blocked my self-esteem. After several private sessions with a professional ThetaHealer, I am much more confident and comfortable in my own skin than I'd ever thought possible, considering the image-obsessed society we live in.
Affirmations and ThetaHealing are not the only ways to change subconscious negative beliefs and emotions into positive ones. Check out these 7 healing modalities I recommend. Some you can do yourself at home, although I recommend working with a trained professional to get the most out of any technique.
Step 6: Be Allies with Other Women
As Wolf says, "The terrible truth is that though the marketplace promotes the myth, it would be powerless if women didn't enforce it against each other. For any one woman to outgrow the myth, she needs the support of many women. The toughest but most necessary change will come not from men or from the media, but from women, in the way we see and behave toward other women."
Beauty is a raw and painful topic for many women. Be gentle with anyone going through body-image struggles. If you ever hear a woman put herself down, be quick to her she is beautiful. Women usually gauge our levels of attractiveness from men's reactions to our appearances, the male gaze, but why can't women platonically charm and be flirtatious with one another? Instead of sizing each other up with cold, suspicious once-overs, we can shower each other with authentic praise and admiration, and build each other up.
The beauty myth also pits younger women against older women, which is a shame. I've always received so much guidance and support from older women, and I feel pride in relating my life experiences to younger girls and women.
Train yourself to see the beauty in women of all ages and backgrounds. When you can do that instead of picking out the flaws of everyone you meet, it would be much easier to see the beauty in yourself. I found that as I grew spiritually, I was able to more easily look more past physical appearances and into the qualities of souls.
Together, we can lift ourselves out of the myth and dismantle entire industries; without self-hatred, the plastic surgery and extreme dieting industries will collapse.
I have found solace in women's retreats, workout classes, and other spaces where women can support and learn from each other. Sure, you might meet competitive women who are working through their own pain and insecurities, but you'll also find women who are quick to be allies and hungry for sisterly support. Find your inner circle.
A secret to feeling beautiful: as long as you are helping others, your self-esteem grows in the right way and isn’t influenced by what others think of you.
Step 7: Invest in Yourself
As Wolf says, "The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her."
Keep investing in yourself, your education, your growth, your passions. If no one wants to hire you, promote you, or give you the opportunities you're seeking, start your own business, create your own opportunities, find your own support group. Keep developing your gifts, producing your art, sharing your stories.
Learn to be in touch with your inner self by sitting in silent meditation. Listen to your inner voice and develop such a strong sense of intuition that you can trust to let it guide you.
Know which activities make you happy and surrender yourself to them. Know who makes your life richer and let them love you. See yourself as complete, unique, and beautiful so you can reclaim the confidence that is your birthright.
Do you have any more recommendations on how to overcome society's unrealistic beauty standards? Let us know in the comments below.