Both Naomi Wolf (2002) in her book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women and Paul Theroux (1985) in his essay Being a Man touch upon the themes of gender roles imposed on men and women in the society. While Wolf examines the stereotyped concept of female beauty in the modern society as a means of control and oppression of women for the sake of men’s institutions of power, Theroux reflects on what it is to be a man in a men’s world like. Though both authors present different gender experiences, they argue the same viewpoint, that is neither men nor women are comfortable with the modern concepts of masculinity and femininity, imposed on the society. The style of both The Beauty Myth and Being a Man evokes a lot of trust in readers, because the authors use the combination of polemics with historical analysis to support their arguments. Moreover, the very nature of the raised issues has much to do with the personal knowledge of every reader. Therefore, it is hard to stay aloof.
As Naomi Wolf puts is, “The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it” (12). That quality comprises a set of self-contradictory but obligatory behaviours for woman, if they want to be loved, happy, and professionally successful. Throughout the book, Wolf explores these behaviours, as well as the mechanisms of their propagation in different spheres of life. She begins with the examining the way the beauty myth is applied in the labour market by arguing that with women’s accession to the labour market, the female beauty became a professional qualification. This qualification is so arbitrary and vague that it constantly undermines women in the labour market (20-57). For the professional beauty qualification to be adopted, the whole ideology of women’s magazines, appealing to the endless remaking of the woman’s body, was formed (62). This ideology has become a religion. Wolf even uses the metaphors “the Rites of Beauty” and “the Church of Beauty” to characterize the way the ideology of beauty captures the mind (86).
As a part of the beauty myth, women’s sexuality is substituted for beauty and introduced to the mass culture in the form of glamorous pornography. Not only does it set rigid limits for the female body and sexuality, but it also eroticizes sexual violence (138). Finally, leanness is considered to be an obligatory element of beauty, and Wolf analyzes the physical and psychological consequences of this toughest restriction of women’s physicality, from anorexia to psychological distress, obedience, and sensitivity, inherent in hungry people (179-217). Given all this, it is no wonder that Wolf compares the beauty myth to the Iron Maiden, a medieval instrument of torture (17). She uses this symbol to convey her negative attitude towards the restrictions that the beauty myth imposes on women.
Paul Theroux, in his turn, refers to the women’s role of social decoration as well, when he explains why he dislikes being a man. Just as little girls learn to be coquettish, boys are taught “to behave like monkeys towards each other” (133). Since the concept of manliness denies the natural friendship with women and belittles them (134), conforming to prescribed roles really sets sexes socially apart. Separation begins with urging boys to take up sports and camping at the age when they seek communication with girls, as Theroux describes his personal experience (134). It continues through life by dictating what is masculine and what is not. Being a writer, for instance, is not masculine, unless you kill lions and shoot elephants like Hemingway (135), which is definitely a sarcasm that Theroux uses to show his attitude to the need for constant proof of manliness. And if being a man in today’s feminist-influenced America is still considered to be a privilege, it does not mean that it is not just as bad for men as it is for women (135).
In conclusion, Naomi Wolf explores what it is like to be a woman in the men’s society, while Paul Theroux examines what it is like to be a man in the men’s society. It appears that the way femininity and masculinity are prescribed to sexes nowadays does not meet people’s natural inclinations. Who are we? Who prescribes what we should be like? These are questions that The Beauty Myth and Being a Man raise in order to encourage us to approach them critically.