Recommended Reading

The initial inspiration for The Beheld was, unsurprisingly, The Beauty Myth. But when Rebekkah Dilts of Radar Productions interviewed me recently, I found myself articulating for the first time why I’m eager to look beyond The Beauty Myth. Wolf’s work is incredibly powerful and necessary—we’re hardly free of the “Iron Maiden” of beauty standards, but if it weren’t for The Beauty Myth giving a name and common language to those standards, we’d feel a lot more isolated in our internal struggle regarding our bodies/our selves (and possibly more passively accepting of the rules of beauty too).

But as I said, I’m eager to look beyond this polemic from 20 years ago. I bring up its age not to say it’s no longer relevant but rather to point out that it is relevant, perhaps more than ever—and that we’re still stuck in a lot of the same old ways of thinking. I bring plenty of thought here that sprang from The Beauty Myth, but I’d also like to offer a sort of parallel track alongside Wolf’s sharp cultural critiques: Without merely being dupes of the patriarchy, plenty of women still want to be beautiful (Wolf never says we shouldn’t want that, by the way). Let’s look at what we’re actually doing within the confines of the beauty myth; let’s look at the reasoning we offer ourselves and one another; let’s examine the agency we bring to the vanity table—and, sure, the passive beliefs we’ve absorbed—and go from there.

So, yes, any true primer on beauty for women today must include The Beauty Myth, absolutely. But there are plenty of other books out there that are informing what I’m doing here in trying to work alongside Wolf's book. Here are just five of them.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger
John Berger’s classic text on art and visual culture is a must-read in its entirety. But that goes double for the chapter on representation of women in art, and the ways art mirrors the cultural roles carved out for and inhabited by women. “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” It was instrumental to my mirror project, and indeed instrumental to the way I think about being a woman in public. How much can equality matter when I am constantly under my own surveillance? 

Facing Beauty, Aileen Ribeiro

Facing Beauty takes the morsels that gave birth to the slim Ways of Seeing and expands them into a gorgeous color volume examining historical views of women as revealed through various art forms. Social mores, morality, artifice, and idealization all make their way to the canvas through how women are depicted, whether it’s the role of “common” sex workers and courtesans as muses or the strategic revealing of bared breasts. Even more engaging than the traditional art history is the treatment of cosmetics history as lived art on its wearers. From the always-beloved paintings of women at their vanities to the decorations on the actual bottles and pots of cosmetic creams, the painted self is worth as much examination as the canvas, and Facing Beauty treats it as such.

The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant
I’m forever thankful to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for recommending this book after I wrote about Anne Frank packing curlers. Linda Grant’s book may as well be a manifesto for every woman who has cared about fashion or beauty and felt the sting of dismissal when someone has called those pursuits trivial. They can be treated trivially, of course, but Grant masterfully shows us why we care so much even when we don’t think we should. With Holocaust survivor and fashion buyer Catherine Hill as our default protagonist, the book serves as a sort of psychic history of fashion—why consumerism, specifically fashion consumerism, was tied in with women’s liberation (and not just for women who could afford to buy new clothes), and why even those of us who don’t particularly care about trends wind up buying into them more than we realize. Read this and just try to resist the urge to put on something beautiful. I dare you.

The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
The ten pages that constitute the twenty-second chapter of this classic are some of the most important pages ever written if you’re interested in the relationship between women and vanity. Titled “The Narcissist,” instead of simply damning women who take pleasure in their own visage, the chapter shines a brutal light on why the mirror can provide such refuge: When one of our primary public roles is being gazed upon, is it any wonder we may wish to look at ourselves to see what all the fuss is about? “All love requires the duality of a subject and an object,” de Beauvoir writes. “The reality of man is in the houses he builds, the forests he clears, the maladies he cures; but woman, not being able to fufill herself through project and objectives, is forced to find her reality in the immanence of her person.” Much has changed since 1949; women—ta-da!—can clear forests and cure maladies. But the vestiges of the prefeminist era remain in vanity, and as much as vain is often used as an insult to women, we must examine it in a feminist context (instead of a moral one) before we can understand our relationship to our self-image.

The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild
This sociological study of the emotional labor of flight attendants and bill collectors is a fascinating look into the ways many of us harness our feelings in the course of our jobs. Whether we’re managing our feelings about the chain of hierarchy or channeling our “authentic” personality to help us shine at our work (as with friendly, compliant flight attendants), it’s near-impossible to avoid having our emotions, to some degree, commodified in the workplace. What does this have to do with beauty? It wasn’t until I read Hochschild that I was able to pinpoint my own “emotional beauty labor”: The small and large ways in which I attempt to play the part of a nice-looking woman, in ways that go beyond styling my hair or putting on makeup. It’s these small acts of emotional beauty labor—say, walking the line between the gracious and obsequious in receiving compliments, using femininity to command attention but keep it in the realm of appropriacy--make up a greater drain on our personal resources than just makeup. This book is key to understanding our own emotional labor of all sorts, whether appearance-related or not.