“Beauty Myth” as a Belief System

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In The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (2002), in Naomi Wolf’s chapter entitled “Religion,” she puts forth the notion that the beauty myth is “the gospel of a new religion.”[1] Essentially, what I find that Wolf is arguing is not only that beauty requires the creation of a belief system, but such a belief system “keeps part of [a woman’s] consciousness locked in a way of thinking.”[2] This is true, as Wolf argues, because the “beauty myth,” as a “myth,” requires a set of beliefs that can be outlined systematically to define beauty as “beauty.” In other words, to say that anything is beautiful means to apply an aesthetic value that can be measured qualitatively and quantitatively.

As true as that may be, unfortunately, the argument Wolf is making about “the beauty myth” seems far too gender-specific. What I mean is that “beauty,” as a Kantian aesthetic value,[3] is not simply relative to woman-ness, femininity, or femaleness. Instead, beauty is relative to what Immanuel Kant calls “a judgment of taste.” Kant argues this in the following way: “[one] proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things.”[4] Beauty, then, is a universal construct, which is a Platonic form[5] or a Hegelian totality-appearance.[6] The term “beauty” itself, as Gottfried Leibniz would suggest, has both a nominal definition and a real definition that is relative to the Platonic form it takes or assumes. This is most notably missing from Wolf’s argument. Beauty’s nominal definition “contains only marks of a thing to be distinguished from other things,”[7] while its real definition “establishes that a thing is possible.”[8] In this respect, to label something as beautiful is to apply a nominal definition that distinguishes the “beautiful thing” from things that are not. Consequently, anything that can be labeled as beautiful denotes a real definition that says, above all, that beauty is a perceivable state of reality for a specific thing being labeled as such. By explaining “beauty” in the aforementioned way, it is possible to not only find a problem in Wolf’s gender-specificity approach to “beauty” but also uncover another much more serious problem that struck me as simplistic and naïve.

According to Wolf, “the caste system based on ‘beauty’ is defended as if it derives from an eternal truth,”[9] which, as she continues to argue, “have been transformed by the understanding that truths are relative and perceptions subjective.”[10] But, what Wolf fails to include in her argument is the role that meaning and memory plays in supposing that anything is “a truth.” If Wolf is thinking of the Kierkegaardian theory of truth being subjective, she does so without regard to what Kierkegaard calls “a memory of [the antithesis to objectivity]…serv[ing] as an indication of the tension of inwardness.”[11] This “tension of inwardness” forces meaning to be made from what is being objectified. In effect, when Wolf argues that “truths are relative and perceptions subjective,” she seems to look at this in too broad and too general a way. In my view, anything that can be perceived subjectively and, then, held as a relative truth is, in fact, constructed from meaning and connected to memory. In this way, according to Kierkegaard, when “subjectivity is truth,”[12] truth and perceptions about beauty are defined in relation to beauty’s antithesis. Any kind of judgment against beauty is an aesthetic one. To that end, Wolf is correct about there being “a man’s right to confer judgment on any woman’s beauty,” but, despite her belief that this only a one-way objectification, women also have the right to confer this same aesthetic judgment towards men.

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[1] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Wolf: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York, NY: Morrow, 1991), 86.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Here, I am thinking particularly of Immanuel Kant’s definition of aesthetics as a “transcendental concept of appearances in space… that space is a form inhering in things in themselves as their intrinsic property that objects in themselves are quite unknown to us, and that what we call outer objects are nothing but mere representations of our sensibility, the form of which is space. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1929), 73-74.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Translated by Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 55-56.

[5] In Plato’s Theory of Forms, what we see is merely a representation of what is there. To that end, what is there that is “seen” is not really seen first-hand, but, rather, only a second-hand “form.” Plato mentions this in various dialogues, and in various articulations. Cf. Plato’s Sophist, Translated by Seth Benardete (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), Section 239, C.

[6] Cf. Georg W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979), 87.

[7] Leibniz defines a nominal definition and a real definition in his Meditations on Knowledge, Truth, and Ideas from 1684. G. W. Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, Edited and Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989), 26.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Wolf: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York, NY: Morrow, 1991), 87.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Crumbs, Translated by Alastair Hannay (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 171.

[12] Ibid.

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