This is a misunderstanding indeed, for what I support in this book is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what market forces and a multibillion-dollar advertising industry dictate. 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.