Naomi Wolf is mad as hell and she doesn’t want you to take it anymore. On a crusade to promote a new wave of feminism and to educate students on the thesis of her controversial book The Beauty Myth, Wolf was busy stirring things up at U of T last week.

The Beauty Myth examines the cultural obsession with female beauty as a means of undermining the achievements of feminism and keeping women from seizing the power and energy that is rightfully theirs. She explains how the pursuit of a beauty ideal is obsessing an entire generation of women to a paralyzed state of preoccupation which eating disorders and cosmetic surgery are literally starving and killing the daughters of feminism.

“We are in the midst of a violent backlash to feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth … There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women,” Wolf writes.

Other devastating effects of the beauty myth are the ways it pits women against other women and also against themselves in frantic comparison to the “ideal.”

“The beauty myth insists on returning our gaze at our own body, all the while enforcing heterosexuality,” Wolf said. “Culture places us looking at ourselves through a male gaze, leaving us with a vicarious feeling about our sexuality.”

In a gathering of about thirty students in a U of T residence common room, Wolf calmly explained to young women that their own personal obsessions with beauty, their eating disorders, their sexual alienation, and their negative body images were in fact not personal at all but rather a highly effective political and economic means of silencing them into submissive roles in a male-dominated culture. Wolf explained how the beauty myth makes women powerless precisely where feminism made them powerful.

“I want to say to them ‘You’re not crazy, they are out to get you,’” Wolf said later in an interview. She explained that university women are the most profoundly victimized by the beauty myth precisely because they have the potential to be most powerful. “It starts at the top because it is at the top that women pose the most threat to the male power structure.”

As an example of how the beauty myth manipulates women and counters their attempts at advancement, Wolf cited the glamourization of the working women in the 1940s in the U.S. and in Britain when the war economy required it. When the war was over and the men returned to work, these same working women threatened to upset the same economy they saved.

“Almost overnight the ideal woman became tied to full-time domesticity. War work, which had become glamourized and sexualized in the ’40s, was immediately considered ugly, awkward, and unattractive,” Wolf explained.

The more recent manifestation of the beauty myth, according to Wolf, is a reaction to the real threat posed by the second wave of feminism. Its obsession with weight loss keeps those newly liberated “women” starving and preoccupied. This in conjunction with the proliferation of the caricature of the “ugly” feminist (a title to be avoided at all costs in the desperate quest for beauty) conspires to silence a generation, alienating them not only from potential power but from their own bodies and their own sexuality.

“We are a quiet generation compared to what we could be and what we should be,” charged Wolf. “If being a woman makes you vomit, makes you starve, makes you ugly, makes you fat, it’s impossible to have the pride needed to say, “Yes, I am a feminist.’ You can’t be a feminist unless you love femaleness, and the beauty myth is about making you hate femaleness.”

While acknowledging that the myth of an ideal female beauty is not a new phenomenon, Wolf maintains that its role has taken on a much more important role in the last 20-25 years. She explains that the more feminine mystiques feminism deconstructs, the harder the beauty myth must work to fill this void in holding women back. Where chastity and full-time domesticity once kept women home, the beauty obsession is keeping women “in line” in the work place.

“They needed a replacement ideology, a briefcase-seized neurosis that they could take with them to the jobs that they now held,” said Wolf. “If your body has turned into the prison that your home no longer is, you have nowhere to go.”

But Wolf does think there is somewhere to go, and that is to the streets. She sees a vital need for a third wave of feminism fueled by our generation — one which will have on its agenda the politicization of the beauty myth.

“We have to politicize anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia turns women into the perfect woman in a male-dominated society. It has shut us up. It has kept us quiet.” Wolf explains that as with any feminist issue, young women have to resist the societal pressures telling them that they don’t have a problem or that, if there is one, it is “personal” or “isolated.”

“Let’s take heart from our feminist history; every one of the issues that are now standard political issues like rape, domestic violence, and childcare were all once intensely personal — no one’s problem but her own.”

She may not be far off either. As wolf unfolded her theories to these young women, who are most at risk to the lethal dangers of the beauty myth, she met with only a “so where do we go from here” resolve.

Part of what is motivating Wolf’s crusade through campus common rooms is something she discovered through the letters sent to her after The Beauty Myth was published. “A lot of young women are feeling cut off from the feminist movement,” Wolf explained.

Perhaps less so now for some. When Naomi Wolf left the small group of U of T students, the room was abuzz with meeting times and newly formed connections.

The Beauty Myth

Naomi Wolf

Random House