May 3, 2010

AUSTRALIA: Naomi Wolf on the porn myth

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SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / Life & Style / Life Matters / May 3, 2010

The Beauty Myth 20 years on ... Naomi Wolf explains the evolution of sexism

Beauty, power and pornography:

Emily Maguire interviews one of the world's
most famous feminists, Naomi Wolf.

When I first read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth back in the early '90s, it rocked my body-hating, angst-ridden, feminism-free teenage world. It had never occurred to me that anything other than vanity was behind the beauty-obsessed behaviour of every girl and woman.

I knew. Wolf's theory - that the obligation to be beautiful keeps women too busy, weak and distracted to fight for equality - seemed instantly and inarguably right to me. Her passionately argued, pop-culture-sprinkled, research-dense book completely convinced me that there was a correlation between the increase in women's legal, economic and social power and the increase in pressure on women to conform to an increasingly narrow beauty standard.

I was far from alone. The Beauty Myth, first published in 1990, was an international bestseller; The New York Times called it one of the most important books of the 20th century. Over the next two decades, Wolf's books on female power (Fire with Fire), sex (Promiscuities) and motherhood (Misconceptions) and her widely published articles on all of the above - plus pornography, abortion and sexual harassment - showed her continued knack for distilling the big issues for women. She also worked as a women's issues consultant on two presidential campaigns (Clinton in 1996; Gore in 2000), co-founded The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership and helped establish The American Freedom Campaign.

Still, when I mention her name to friends and colleagues, it's The Beauty Myth they want to talk about. "That book changed my life," I'm told, again and again. Embarrassingly, it's a phrase I can't stop myself from blurting to Wolf moments after we first speak.

"Oh, how lovely," she says. When I gush my apologies for being so unoriginal, she concedes that she does hear this a lot, but adds that, "It never gets old. Never."

It must be odd, though, to have people from around the world wanting to talk about a book you wrote 20 years ago. Did she have any idea while she was writing it that it would resonate the way that it did?
"I had an instinct or intuition that it would," she says. "All the young women I knew were grappling with these issues very profoundly. I think there are some ideas that are part of the collective consciousness. One person or three people might be the first to put it together, but the energy was out there anyway." [rc]

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Naomi Wolf at the Brooklyn Book Festival,  2009

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