WASHINGTON — WHEN a radio talk-show host here felt it necessary to note that Naomi Wolf is a beautiful woman, the author of the "Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women" turned the tables by describing him for the audience as tall, dark, and cute. While the host's comment didn't immediately seem out of line, it did as soon as Ms. Wolf demonstrated the double standard implied by how out of place it seemed in that same context for a woman to comment on a man's looks.
It's the kind of hyper-awareness that her book and a conversation with Wolf can provoke.
Wolf contends that for all women's gains in workplace rights, equality under legislation, access to education and reproductive control, the ideal of physical perfection robs women of self-esteem and even endangers their lives - through hunger caused by eating disorders and the knife (of cosmetic surgery).
Whether you agree with every point of the "Beauty Myth" or not [see review below], Wolf's ideas make you suddenly see images of beauty like an undesirable goo coating almost every aspect of American life.
When a woman chooses salad over a sundae, is it really her preference or the ideal of a skin-and-bones fashion model cracking the whip? When she chooses the $40 skin "nourisher" over plain old lotion, what's her motive - the unnatural expectation that wrinkles will go away or just salving today's dry skin?
In an interview here, Wolf strenuously protests this kind of interpretation of her work as a way of piling more guilt and self-hatred on women. She frequently punctuates her conversation with an exasperated rake of her fingers through her hair.
"I think a lot of women I talk to are tormented by things like that when they don't have an understanding [of it]," Wolf says.
"My book really isn't about beauty and fashion and makeup. It's about choice, money, power, freedom.... Masks and disguises [such as fashion and makeup] are fun as long as you can take them off. It's delightful to play around with fashion and adornment if you have a choice, otherwise it's coercion."
A case in point, she says, is the firing last month and subsequent reinstatement of a Continental Airlines ticket agent who refused to wear makeup. Wolf encourages women to develop alternative images of beauty: She says that over her work desk she keeps her own "little shrine of alternative images," including photos of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, French writer Colette, and an elderly Ghanaian market woman.
But Wolf strenuously notes that her book does not suggest what beauty should or shouldn't be. Rather, she says, women should understand where images of beauty and female sexuality are coming from.
"Just understanding how these things work has made me feel much calmer and more relaxed," explains Wolf.
m still a woman in a woman's body in this culture that I wrote about. The same demons that haunt everyone else haunt me. The only difference is I have my own little gun of theory in which to blast them away," she explains with self-effacing humor.
"They start to creep up and I say, 'I recognize you, I know where you come from... You're not about anything that's really beautiful about being a woman. Pow! You come from Slimfast, I know you! she says blasting away the imaginary demons with a finger cocked like a gun.
But isn't this just a twist on the critique of beauty made by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and '70s? Remember bra burning and hairy armpits?
The second wave criticized beauty images as a product of male sexual desire, she says, "and that was a dead end." The "beauty myth" is a backlash against feminism by men reacting to women's new power and women feeling guilty over wielding new power.
Pointing to a new generation of women plagued by eating disorders and ignorant of recent feminist history, Wolf suggests that a "third wave of feminism is out there ready and waiting."