WOLF VS. 'BEAUTY MYTH' Feminist sees conspiracy in stress on appearance

NEW YORK — New York

It's the anger in Naomi Wolf's book that strikes you first; that and the almost fanatical belief in the rightness of the message she is preaching in "The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women."


The anger is there as Ms. Wolf lashes out against a male-dominated society that she says uses female beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement.

And it's there when she rails against what she calls the Professional Beauty Qualification (PBQ), a man-made beauty measurement which she believes is "extremely widely institutionalized as a condition for women's hiring and promotion."


And it's there, anger that nearly boils over the top, when she writes of the male culture that has created the "cult of thinness" and the kind of self-hatred of their bodies that causes women to starve themselves and to "multilate" their flesh under the knives of plastic surgeons.

You could call it Beautygate -- this theory of Naomi Wolf's that men in positions of power are at the bottom of a beauty conspiracy designed to undercut the advances of feminism.

Or you could call it, as Ms. Wolf's publisher does, "a cultural hand grenade for the 1990s," a book that is "a direct descendant of 'The Feminine Mystique' and 'The Female Eunuch.' "

But whatever you call it, the book is stirring up strong feelings in both men and women and, in the process, making a media starout of the woman who threw the grenade. In fact, Naomi Wolf may be the most visible feminist in America right now. In the last month or so, the 28-year-old Yale graduate (class of '84) and Rhodes Scholar has been on a book promotion tour that has taken her from coast to coast doing interviews with newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

By now, with so many cities and so many interviews under her belt, Ms. Wolf is used to the idea that her ideas and the images she uses to convey those ideas -- such as comparing cosmetic surgeons to Nazi doctors at Auschwitz and associating the experience of an anorexic woman with that of a Bergen-Belsen victim -- are guaranteed to evoke both cheers and jeers.

"I don't know if I like the term 'conspiracy,' but I do think this idea of having the 'right look' is another way to keep women out of good-paying jobs," says Barbara Otto, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland-based organization called 9 to 5, National Association Working Women. "We're finding through our job problem hot line that appearance is a currency for women in the workplace."

But Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, says the so-called beauty myth is rubbish. "This idea that we've made wonderful gains in the workplace, but now you can't get ahead unless you look great is the most trumped-up thing I ever heard. What really matters is your brains and your work."

Of course, none of this surprises Ms. Wolf, who last year was a lightning rod for controversy on the other side of the Atlantic when her book appeared in England.


"No one seems to have a neutral response to the book," says Ms. Wolf, in a voice that is soft but intense. "The response is completely conditional on a given woman's life experience. It's either intense, intense resistance -- what I would call denial -- in which people say, 'What's wrong with people discriminating against women on the basis of their appearance?' Or it's a recognition that my argument is so persuasive that it changes the way you think."

And while she understands the hostility shown by "people whose livelihoods I threaten -- I've been screamed at by cosmetic

surgeons, called horrible names by people who sell cosmetics, called really evil things by people who run modeling agencies or charm schools or are involved in what I call beauty pornography -- I still don't understand the more personal resistance."

Interestingly enough, some of the resistance to Ms. Wolf's argument that the beauty myth is the major hurdle facing women today comes from other feminists. Betty Friedan, the woman who in 1963 wrote "The Feminine Mystique," is one such dissenter.

"I welcome the book as a new voice attacking some of the backlash against women's rights," says Ms. Friedan, "but I think the message is a bit distorted and it gives me some concern. I don't think the great enemies of women today are beauty pornography or beauty preoccupation . . . I think the real danger lies in the new feminine mystique that tells women to go back home again, and that preoccupation with sidebars on beauty is a digression from the real need to address the terrible social problems women need to face."

Another well-known feminist author, Susan Brownmiller, has a different caveat about "The Beauty Myth." She says it's a book that reinvents the wheel: "I wrote that book and published it in 1984 -- it was called 'Femininity.' And while I think her points are valid I felt I covered all that material and did it very well. Although I would add that if you want to call this a male conspiracy, you have to agree that women are co-conspirators in it."


Naomi Wolf, curled up on a sofa in her boyfriend's tiny apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, listens with interest to such criticism. Although the cover of her book carries blurbs of praise from such respected feminists as Germaine Greer (who called it "the most important feminist publication since 'The Female Eunuch,' " the book Ms. Greer wrote in 1973), Louise Bernikow and Fay Weldon, the reactions of Ms. Friedan and Ms. Brownmiller clearly bother Ms. Wolf.

"First, I want to say I honor and revere Betty Friedan and I owe my life to her," Ms. Wolf says, a slight edge in her voice. "But there are a lot of misreadings of this book going around right now. It happened with her book too. When 'Feminine Mystique' came out, women were very defensive and saying, 'Are you saying my baby isn't good? Are you saying I shouldn't care about my home?' And, of course, she wasn't saying anything like that."

As for Ms. Brownmiller's assertion that there's nothing new in "The Beauty Myth," well, that really makes Naomi Wolf bristle: "I ,, think she's mistaken. No one has gone as far as I've gone. What I'm doing is taking the politics of beauty from the personal to the political sphere. I say the phase we're in is specifically designed to undo the specific gains of the women's movement. And I think that's why more people are yelling at me than yelled at Brownmiller when her book, 'Femininity,' came out. Because as long as you keep these ideas in this intimate psychological sphere, as she did, you're not really rocking the boat."

Although Ms. Wolf is consistently cordial in her responses to a reporter, there is about her a steely resistance to any attempt at probing her "intimate psychological sphere." But people -- including detractors, admirers and reporters -- always try, she says. "They always do this with a book that's this angry," she says. "It's like they're wondering, 'How do we explain this anger as being this woman's biography instead of about a social ill?' "

But is there no point, she is asked, at which the political becomes the personal, at which the public life and private life intersect?

"Oh, absolutely. No question. That's why I included autobiographical illness in the book."


The "autobiographical illness" Ms. Wolf speaks of is her history of anorexia. Eating disorders -- anorexia, bulimia, crash dieting -- figure prominently in her book and even now when she speaks of her own "starvation," it is with visible pain.

"I was sick for a year when I was 12. And I remember it vividly. It was hell. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. Denying myself food for a year. It was harder than graduate school. It was harder than writing the book," she says, relating the onset of her anorexia back to an incident in which "a fat boy in Beth Shalom Hebrew School poked me in the stomach and said, 'You'd better watch it, Wolf.' "

The remark prompted her to go home and "do something that all women are supposed to do in this culture. I went on a woman's magazine diet. This is part of the rite of passage for girls," says Ms. Wolf, who was born in San Francisco and left the Bay area as a teen-ager to attend Yale University.

"It was a hard time for all of us," says her mother, Deborah Wolf, a former anthropologist who is just now beginning a career as a psychotherapist in New York. "But Naomi is a very courageous person and I thought she was very good on the subjects of anorexia and eating disorders in the book."

Not all the experts on eating disorders, however, agree with statistics cited by Ms. Wolf, such as the one that states "60 [percent] to 80 percent of college women can't eat." The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association places the number of anorexic women nationwide at 1 percent to 2 percent. Among college-age women, 5 percent to 6 percent are bulimic, says association spokeswoman Amy Meyers. And while they have no specific figures on anorexia, Ms. Meyers points out that on campuses, bulimia is more prevalent than anorexia.

Ms. Wolf sticks by her figures. "We all want to deny thosnumbers -- the extent of the problem -- but I did an exhaustive amount of research," she says. Then she laughs. "I don't have a friend who hasn't had an eating disorder -- and I don't hang around with weird women. We're what I call the anorexic-pornographic generation.


She gets angry at studies which suggest eating disorders are linked to family conflict, especially between mothers and daughters. "This is all crap," she says. "Mothers are blamed for their daughters' problems, families are blamed, individuals are blamed. I got sick because I did something that all women are supposed to do: I went on a diet." She pauses, nibbles on a piece of rye bread. "I think 10 or 15 years from now it will be really clear that this whole cult of thinness came about as a way to preoccupy women and tire women out so they would not follow through on the gains made by the women's movement."

And Naomi Wolf isn't buying the idea that women are working out and eating less because it's healthier and makes them feel stronger. "We've been sold a bill of goods about the healthiness of being thin," she says.

If so, she is told, Gloria Steinem could be counted among those who took the tumble. A few years back Ms. Steinem countered rumors she might be anorexic by saying: "Anorexia is young, well-to-do women who starve themselves out of all the secondary sex characteristics. That's not me. I feel better when I'm thin."

"My research shows that leaner bodies for women aren't by any means healthier," Ms. Wolf says. "But the core of my argument is that if you hold power you've got to stop feminists. If you are the CEO at a Fortune 500 company or an administrator at an Ivy League college, it is troublesome and costly and disruptive to the way things work to have all the women around you infected with feminist ideals. It's something to be contained."

Not surprisingly, many men have problems accepting Ms. Wolf's thesis. Her father, writer Leonard Wolf, applauds the overall content of his daughter's book but probably reflects the response of many men to "The Beauty Myth" when he says: "As a man I can't quite accept that I have that much conscious responsibility for the tension between the sexes."

But Naomi Wolf wants to make it clear that she's not indicting "individual men" in this theory.


"I don't think most women experience the pressure to conform in an extreme way to what I call the beauty myth from the individual men with whom they share their lives," she says. "What I hear all the time from men is 'I love this woman. I'm not doing this to her. I don't want her to starve herself or get surgery.' "

But she gives no such slack to the industries that she says thrive on the beauty myth. "There's no question that the industries I target in the book are conspiring quite cynically to keep women down. But, you know, it doesn't even take a conspiracy. It takes a collective unconscious. It takes a million moments of one decision being made to support the status quo rather than one to challenge the status quo."


Born: San Francisco, Calif.; November 1962.

Education: B.A. Yale University, 1984; named a Rhodes Scholar in 1985.

On working: "I worked as a secretary in real estate for six months; I worked as a secretary at the American Jewish Congress for eight months; I worked as a filing clerk in an insurance office in Manhattan for a summer -- and that is one big reason I'm a feminist. No one should have to be treated that way."


On how women's appearance affects their success at work: "It's a Catch 22. Because there's no right way to look. You can lose your job for looking too 'feminine' or not feminine enough."