Overall, though, audiences (more publicly than privately) seemed to feel that questioning beauty ideals was not only unfeminine but almost un-American. For a reader in the twenty-first century this may be hard to believe, but way back in 1991, it was considered quite heretical to challenge or call into question the ideal of beauty that was, at that time, very rigid. We were just coming out of what I have called “The Evil Eighties,” a time when intense conservatism had become allied with strong antifeminism in our culture, making arguments about feminine ideals seem ill-mannered, even freakish.
Reagan had just had his long run of power, the Equal Rights Amendment had run out of steam, wo men’s activists were in retreat, women were being told they couldn’t “have it all.” As Susan Faludi so aptly showed in her book Backlash, which was published at about the same time as The Beauty Myth, News week was telling women that they had a greater chance of being killed by terrorists than of marrying in mid-career.
Feminism had become “the f-word.” Women who complained about the beauty myth were assumed to have a personal shortcoming themselves: they must be fat, ugly, incapable of satisfying a man, “feminazis,” or—horrors—lesbians. The ideal of the time—a gaunt, yet full-breasted Caucasian, not often found in nature—was assumed by the mass media, and often by magazine readers and movie watchers as well, to be eternal, transcendent.