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The Beauty Myth is still relevant

Posted by anakkawi on December 31, 2007

January 15, 2006

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Virago £12.99 pp310

Thinking females in their forties will be aware of Naomi Wolf. Back in 1986, when shoulders were padded and lipstick was bright red, she produced a very good book called The Beauty Myth, which identified the many ways in which women were crimping, cutting, dyeing and starving themselves to fit a tyrannical notion of beauty. Feminism was in eclipse, according to Wolf, because women were too busy agonising about their big bums to worry about empowerment. Society, as a whole, was using the myth of Beauty to keep the sisters under control.

Twenty years on, The Beauty Myth is still relevant (if you doubt it, look at the depressing numbers of girls who think happiness lies in new breasts). Wolf, however, seems to have run out of meaningful things to say to anyone who is not a monied, middle-class American liberal. Her latest outpouring is a good example of what happens to someone who believes she has a message for the planet, and hasn’t yet twigged that nobody gives a hoot.

When you or I see a picturesque country house, we might think something along the lines of, “Damn, I can’t afford a place like that; I wish my life were nicer.” When Wolf found a tumbledown cottage in upstate New York, she realised her life as a political pundit and sound-bite artist was shallow and superficial. She needed a retreat, where she could get in touch with blah-blah-blah, away from her high-profile existence in Manhattan, so she bought the cottage. Fair enough — I’d do the same, given a few quid. But I like to think I would have the sense not to write a book about it, unless I was prepared to invite comparison with Marie Antoinette. Wolf’s daughter, Rosa, fancied a Petit Trianon — sorry, treehouse — and Wolf enlisted her father, who is good at carpentry. In doing so, she saw she had lost touch with his wonderful, unworldly brand of wisdom. So she asked him to dig out his teaching notes (he is a teacher of poetry and creative writing), and has boiled down his aperçus into 12 “lessons” for the benefit of Wolf in particular, and mankind in general. Each lesson has a snappy heading — Be Still and Listen, Destroy the Box, Your Only Wage Will be Joy.

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Leonard Wolf (not to be confused with the solemn praying mantis who married Virginia Woolf) is pictured with Naomi on the book’s cover. She describes him as “a wild old visionary poet. He believes that the heart’s creative wisdom has a more important message than anything else”. While learning the creative joy of building something with her own hands, Naomi ponders the distance she has travelled since first she drank at Leonard’s fountain. “I had turned my face away from the grace of the imagination,” she declares, in the hollow, portentous tone that prevails throughout.

Leonard believes “no amount of money or recognition can compensate you if you are not doing your life’s passionate, creative work”. This is perfectly true. We all need to stay in touch with our dreams. We all need the nourishment of silent contemplation, simply to look at clouds or listen to the birds. But this is about as far as it goes, and it is incredibly tedious to read. A writer has to be very brilliant and very important to get away with such Fotherington-Thomas waffle. The Wolfs are not geniuses, and their musings are most unlikely to change any lives. Just like those old French peasants, I get a little tetchy when advised to eat cake.

Available at the Sunday Times Books First price of £11.69 on 0870 165 8585

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