Beauty | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Beauty 

A Hot Night With Naomi Wolf

A sweltering Monday night and it's standing room only at the Women and Children First bookstore on North Clark. Several hundred Naomi Wolf fans--mostly women, mostly (like Wolfe) in their twenties--are wedged in shoulder to shoulder, sweating good-naturedly while they wait to hear from the beauty who has taken on the beauty industry.

Wolf says she's had some tough days in the year since her book The Beauty Myth was published. She's encountered hostility from people who just don't get it. Especially talk show hosts and their audiences, and critics who haven't read the book. They don't understand that The Beauty Myth is not antibeauty, that it's only opposed to an ideal that is concentration-camp thin, silicone stuffed, computer altered, and permanently adolescent. They keep getting hung up on her own looks, as if there were some sort of conflict between medium and message. She thinks some are afraid for their jobs--some connected to the cosmetic industry.

But this is her audience. She lifts the microphone off its stand and takes them in hand: "We are in the midst of a backlash which is using a newly rigid and unnatural beauty ideology as a politcal weapon against women's advancement," she says. "The images of beauty we are allowed to see are dictated by the $33 billion diet industry, the $20 billion cosmetics industry and the cosmetic surgery industry. What does the ideal woman look like?" (Wolf tosses the question to the audience and the answers she's looking for come bouncing back to her: Large breasts. Small waist. Puffy lips.) "Okay," Wolf says, "She's young, thin, tall, blond, hairless. This is like a personal issue with me. My ancestors were from Eastern Europe, and the winters were cold."

Ah, that hair. In the publicity photo used to promote this evening's event--slick enough to have been shot for any of the fashion magazines she's taking to task--her mane of dark hair cascades seductively over one shoulder. Tonight, in what feels like 95 degree heat, it hangs loose on her neck, down her back, over her shoulders--big, hot hair, abundant, tousled, sexy. And she is handling it all the time, combing her fingers through it, lifting it, tossing it back; there is no way it will not be noticed. (Later, a woman in the audience will comment: "I read 15 or 20 reviews of The Beauty Myth, and invariably, unless they're from a pro-feminist publication, they all mention what you look like," and Wolf will respond: "I think it's a perfect illustration of why the book is necessary. I didn't write it with my hair.")

There is no way to look at her strategically lit publicity photo and not notice that she has high cheekbones, a piquant upper lip, pale eyes under perfectly defined brows. And there is no way to look at her here, in the sweltering bookstore, without noticing a generous edge of lacy underware above the low neckline of her blouse, and a nicely rounded ass in tight, black stirrup pants. When two buttons of the blouse somehow open, there's no way not to notice the camisole itself, with the suggestion of a black bra underneath.

But of course, that's the point: "Define your own sexuality," Wolf says: "Wear whatever you want, call yourselves feminists, and get on with the fight." Just don't starve, puke, smoke, take speed, or have your stomach stapled so you can look like Claudia Schiffer. Fat women are sexier anyway, two to one. Cellulite? If 90 percent of women have it, maybe it's not a deformity.

"In the 1970's the average fashion model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman," Wolf says. "Today she is 23 percent less, and every fashion image you see has been altered by the Scitex machine. Have you seen the Demi Moore cover on Vanity Fair? Do you know what they did to it? Demi Moore insisted they feed that image four times through the Scitex machine each time slimming her hips."

"Fourteen year old girls all over are looking at Sports Illustrated and Vogue and Cosmo and then looking at themselves in the mirror. They're comparing themselves to bodies that are no longer human, and they're thinking, I must be wrong.

"We should be the strongest and most confident women ever to walk the planet. But we're not. Our self esteem depends on what the scale says in the morning. Women are more focused on what is on our plate than what is going on in the world. The ideal got so thin so that young women would run around a track here at the University of Chicago 50 times before dinner, instead of marching on the adminitration building asking where the women professors are or why they can't walk home safely."

It's a congenial atmosphere and she's working the audience like a pro. They're feeding her lines, laughing at her jokes, applauding, volunteering their own stories. One woman is six-foot-four and proud of it; another has a sister who took 120 laxatives a day and nearly died. A third introduces herself: "I am Pauline Bart from the University of Illinois. I was looking forward to using your book this spring in a gender and society class. But I told the truth in my classes and now I am no longer allowed to teach. I want this audience to know this. Even if you're a full professor with tenure, gender is hierarchy. Any male undergraduate can get you; the administration can use his complaint to show that you're male bashing."

A single dissenting voice is heard, a man who disagrees about where she's placed the blame for eating disorders. "When you get down to it," he says, "the women make a choice. If you see a woman with large breasts and a small waist, and you don't look like that, you are the one that decides not to eat." Maybe something is lacking in the female character to cause this, he speculates. Perhaps a lack of self confidence.

Wolf considers it. "In a world where we had a whole range of images, and full disclosure, and our jobs didn't depend on it, we would have choices, she says. "In a world where nine to twelve inch penises were used to sell everything, things might be more equal."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.

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