Below is a passage from The Beauty Myth which made me furrow my brow with perplexity no matter how many times I read, re-read and re-analysed it.
In it, Wolf suggests that women are made more susceptible to an “outside-in” version of sexuality (in which what one looks like is more important than how one feels) because of, among other things, the “unnatural pressure” on female sexuality that “little girls are not usually intimately cared for by their fathers”. (The general point she is making is that these unnatural pressures make it harder for us to form a sexuality of our own, and easier for a false version of sexuality to be imposed upon us from without.)
The naked Iron Maiden* affects women powerfully because most are tended in infancy by women. The female body and the female breast begin as the focus of desire for the infant girl, with the male breast and body absent. As girls grow, the [beauty] myth keeps the sexual focus on the female body, but, unlike the attraction felt to it by straight men and lesbians, heterosexual women’s ungratified admiration often becomes contaminated with envy, regret for lost bliss, and hostility. This situation creates in women an addiction to men’s eyes, enforcing what the poet Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality,” which forbids women from seeing other women as sources of sexual pleasure at all. Under the myth, the beauty of other women’s bodies gives women pain, leading to what Kim Chernin calls our “cruel obsession with the female body”. This balked relationship – which gives straight women confused, anxious pleasure when looking at another female body – leaves women in a lifelong anguish of competition that is in fact only the poisonous residue of original love.
[*Wolf uses “the Iron Maiden”, a torture device consisting of an excruciating person-shaped prison with a beautiful woman painted onto the outside, as a metaphor for the techniques by which our culture imposes external beauty requirements on woman.]
I would venture to suggest that this is not by a long stretch the best put-together part of Wolf’s argument. (If anyone else understood it first time, let me know and I’ll send you a gold star in the post.) After much brainthinking, I have come to the conclusion that there are parts of this which ring true and other parts which do not, and that the conclusions are misplaced. So, for what it is worth, here is my take.
In infancy we get nutrition, nurture, pleasure, comfort, love and safety from our mothers – we get all that from our mother’s body and breasts (and a lot of it even if we weren’t breastfed). Consequently, the female body – and in particular the specific female body that is our mother’s – becomes the first object of desire in our tiny lives: the female body and the female breast begin as the focus of desire for any infant (girl or boy) thus nurtured by her or his mother. Now, mothers have nursed and nurtured their offspring forever, with the “male body and breast [mostly] absent” forever. If the consequnce is that we learn to love the female body before we learn to love the male body, then this must be, to my mind, a normal and expected incident of infancy. Indeed, my view is that it is a perfectly natural and healthy part of life that we should learn in infancy to view female bodies with pleasure and desire.
Given the huge importance of our mother’s body and breasts to our small minds and hearts, it would be remarkable if we did not internalise the pleasure we took in our mother’s female body to the point where it was a part of our identity, and thus perhaps a part of the sexual identity that will form as we grow and develop. However, I don’t think (unlike Wolf, from what I can make out) that our pleasure in admiring and enjoying the softness and lovingness of female bodies has to be a sexual pleasure in order for it to have the consequences we are talking about. It only has to appear capable of being or becoming a sexual pleasure for the arguments we are making here to hold good.
This is where Wolf’s reference to “compulsory heterosexuality” comes in. What she means by this is the way that patriarchy obsessively enforces heterosexuality, to the point where any pleasure that a person takes in the body of another person of the same sex becomes suspect.
We see this in the way that men engaged in contact sports (especially team sports) have to act extra-masculine in order to prove that the pleasure they take in other men’s bodies is not a homo-erotic pleasure but a normal, healthy one – because under patriarchy homo-eroticism is neither normal nor healthy.
We also see it in the way that women are trained to view other women’s bodies.
We are not permitted to take pleasure in other women’s bodies, but we cannot stop looking at them – so the beauty myth steps in to provide a solution. The beauty myth allows us to look at another woman’s body as long as we do so in order to assess and judge her beauty. We can take a sort of pleasure in putting her down because she is not beautiful enough. We can take a sort of confessional pleasure, a masochistic pleasure, in putting ourselves down because we are not as beautiful as she is.
- “She’s so ugly, it’s disgusting, doesn’t she even make an effort? I hate her.”
- “She’s so beautiful, I’m so jealous, it’s not fair, I hate her.”
- “She’s so beautiful, I want to be her, oh I hate myself.”
- “She pretends to be beautiful, but look at that! Really she’s spotty and fat. I hate her.”
But, ultimately, these “pleasures” are not the real thing. They are not what we really want in our souls, they are merely a sop that patriarchy allows us in order to keep us from realising the truth: that real female bodies are wonderful not because of what they look like but because of the love that they can give. This is of course a second threat to the social order – because if we realised that beauty is in the love and the light, and not in the looks, we might overthrow the beauty myth, proclaim our true, fabulous beauty and demand our freedom.
Thus our innocent pleasure in the female body, posing a double threat (both to compulsory heterosexuality and to the beauty myth itself), is perverted into envy and hostility which are ultimately unsatisfying because, deep down, we know it is not what we want. Forced to repress this knowledge, forced to repress a key part of our (sexual) identity, it probably isn’t surprising that we develop a “cruel obsession with the female body”, desperate to find some acceptable outlet for the innocent need we have – the need just to be able to admire and take comfort or pleasure in thinking about or looking at a female body other than our own.
And if you were living in a place where being looked at by a woman meant either (1) that she was judging your beauty and condemning you because of it or (2) that she was objectifying you in a “disgusting” homo-erotic moment – wouldn’t you hate being looked at by women? Wouldn’t you instead develop an “addiction to men’s eyes”?
From all this, Wolf appears to suggest that it is the existence of a relationship between a grown-up non-lesbian girl-child and the bodies of other women (as representative or reminiscent of the original love of her mother’s body) that is the problem.
That may not be what she meant, but if it is then she is wrong. The problem lies in the way that this relationship is distorted by the “compulsory heterosexuality” mindset which prevents the grown-up girl child from taking her innocent pleasure in the bodies of other women. The problem lies in the way that, unable to satisfy this natural and healthy urge in a socially acceoptable way, women find an outlet in the competitive looking encouraged by the beauty myth – a competitive looking that is both harmful and unsatisfying. The problem lies in the way that, unsatisfied by the only kind of looking allowed under patriarchy, women end up developing their “cruel obsession with the female body”, and their “addiction to men’s eyes”.
Which all brings me to my central objection to what Wolf is saying here.
Her introductory words to this passage state twice that being cared for by a woman/mother instead of by a man/father is what gives rise to all this. Which is kind of true, but also kind of misleading. Because what is she suggesting? That women shouldn’t nurture their girl children? That we should accept the fact that we live in a compulsorily heterosexual society and ensure that boys are tended by women and girls by men, so that they can be properly adjusted at an early age to prevent this problematic homo-eroticism from arising in the first place?
When you put it like that, it becomes obvious that the “unnatural pressure” on female sexuality is not the fact that girl babies are rarely intimately cared for by men, but the fact that our culture is so paranoid about any suspicion of deviation from the heterosexual norm.