Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth

  • This summary of The Beauty Myth includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Beauty Myth Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

In her nonfiction feminist work, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1990), Naomi Wolf addresses the profoundly problematic and demeaning pressure for women to conform to societal ideals of aestheticism. The book was re-published in 2002 by HarperPerennial with a new introductory essay.

In the new introduction, Wolf remarks on the public reaction to her work, providing commentary on the shifts in society’s beauty standards over the past decade. The beauty myth has become a plurality—beauty myths. However, Wolf argues that women certainly have more freedom from the beauty myths in the present moment than ever before, challenging readers to make use of that freedom to fight for women’s rights on the feminist front.

Wolf applies a critical, feminist lens to societal expectations for women to be physically beautiful—to be made up, well dressed, and fit. The prevalence of these aesthetic ideals in mass media campaigns, as well as their social reinforcement, creates a significant force of cultural pressure for women to conform to unrealistic standards. It is impossible to escape exposure to advertisements and commercials that attempt to coerce consumers into purchases by preying on their insecurities and encouraging conformity. In day-to-day life, beautiful women receive preferential treatment by both men and women who regard them as more competent and intelligent. Wolf notes that these prejudices apply to men, too, though in a different way and to a lesser degree.

The beauty myth is a tyrannical and problematic system of beliefs that subjugates women to psychologically abusive and demeaning aesthetic ideals. This pressure to conform to unrealistic standards, Wolf argues, has a detrimental effect for many women on a personal level. Many women become preoccupied with these expectations, often leading to an obsession with appearance, causing drastic, toxic behaviors in some cases, including but not limited to buying expensive, ineffective cosmetics and topical creams, developing eating disorders, and dangerous, invasive plastic surgeries.

Such practices point to the severe toll the beauty myth has on women’s mental health and sense of self-worth. For many women, the pressure to appear youthful and attractive is a direct correlation with their sense of self-value, confidence, empowerment, and influence. Oftentimes, women’s battle with insecurities and mental health problems as a result of the beauty myth become lifelong sentences which hinder them in many areas of their lives. In fact, Wolf shares that many women state that improving their appearance, specifically losing weight, is a priority before other personal and professional goals.

Wolf shares startling statistics attempting to quantify the prevalence of these behaviors, though many critics have disputed this evidence as being a false, substantial inflation of the reality. One might account for this discrepancy if one considers the number of undocumented cases of eating disorders.

Wolf examines the historical origins of our cultural mode of thinking, pointing to the Victorian era for the limited and degrading view of women’s role as wives, mothers, and witnesses to society. She insightfully suggests that many of these outdated, limited ideas of women’s roles are still evident in today’s beauty myths. These pressures have increased as women’s rights, roles, and public visibility has increased since the Victorian era. For instance, consider the interdependent correlation between a woman’s beauty and her social standing. Wolf observes that while the ideas of what is considered beautiful evolve over time, these evolving ideas are still, in turn, idealized as the epitome of beauty.

While a lean figure might be the prevailing ideal of one cultural moment, the next might prefer a curvy figure. These fluxes are a variation on a theme. The oppressive expectation for women to dress for their domestic role, in feminine colors and prints and conservative cuts is now accompanied by the objectifying influence of the pornography business, encouraging women to dress in bold prints and colors and provocative patterns. Wolf importantly observes that such influences lead to the restriction of women’s ability to express themselves by attempting to regulate women’s role by determining her appearance. Clinging to ideas of fashion and appearance that embody old ideas prevents expanded notions of identity and the resulting emboldened sense of self-expression from taking root.

Most importantly, though, is the book’s call to action. Wolf posits that only through the feminist movement’s resistance to such aesthetic ideals can we recognize the detrimental effects of beauty myths and root them out of our society, in turn, experiencing newfound freedom from such oppressive beliefs. Though the feminist movement and women’s rights have made significant strides in these areas in the decades following the book’s release and re-release, Wolf’s message remains relevant and vital to our conceptualization of contemporary cultural mechanics and gender theories. Overall well-regarded, feminists accepted the work into their canon, and gender theory scholars considered many of Wolf’s insights as contributions to their field.