Naomi Wolf on the 'Aging Myth'

May 31, 2011

Twenty years ago, Naomi Wolf wrote the best-selling book, "The Beauty Myth." Two decades later, she finds growing older can mean getting better. She wrote about embracing her age in The Washington Post Magazine's "Women and Aging" issue.

Ms. Wolf: Thank you for your comment regarding pornography chipping away (I'll say) at women's self esteem. With the sexual images on T.V. and in rap and hip-hop music, and images in movies, it is really hard to keep one's sexual self esteem up. I mean, really. Maintaining our sexual self esteem at any age is a challenge more now than ever. Note: the overly sexual images of Beyonce or Britney, for example. How can we ever win this war? It seems to be escalating.

That is a really great question. I think it is important to try to create space for oneself that is separate from those images -- to take breaks from them. I also think that reminding oneself that there are rich images and traditions about sexuality in other cultures -- Indian sculpture, tantra, etc -- help to keep one's mind from becoming too entangled in that vision of sexuality. We can't win the war through repressing these images -- they are in the air now. But I am very interested in the increasingly compelling research that indicates that pornography has a negative neurobiological effect on men (and women) over time -- I think when people realize that those images are not so good for their own pleasure over time, people will start to protect their sexuality with one another and keep their intimate space really private. 


Greetings Ms. Wolf. The dominant issue for women is the IMAGE of women; a constant bombardment of young women to sell cars, perfume and more is the marketed myth of our times. These external images do nothing to help women reflect on the reality of their lives. My question is what medium can prominently contest these powerful images of advertisements? Is it merely a collective ignoring of these images? Capitalism thrives on the new and the youthful and it seems to be entrenched in new recruits, unless capitalism itself collapses, which doesn't seem too far off considering the debt crises in Europe and the U.S. I have contemplated billboards that simply show middle-aged women and say, "Teach," "Inspire," "Create" or "Be." How to create a new mythic image of women to really serve them and to replace the marketed myth that does not?

I would refer you to the answer above -- it would be great to intervene in that way, but advanced capitalism just has too much of a market incentive to generate images that make people feel dissatisfied. Again I would say that change and a certain detachment from those images comes from a change in consciousness -- for instance for me, knowing how the images are computer-generated really helps me not see them as a valid "measure" of human beings; they are constructs. But you can put pressure on pop culture: whenever you see images you don't like, send a letter to the magazxine and cc the advertiser -- same with images yo do like. Editors tell me that they count each letter as representing ten thousand readers.


Let me start by saying I am a long standing reader of your work, I have bought, read and loved all of your books and generally feel that you have a lot to offer my/our generation of women (I am 41). But, I was really uncomfortable with how you derisively talked about younger women in more than one paragraph in this Post piece. You opened with your peers pitying a man with a 'trophy' date and later referred to young 'conventionally beautiful' women as being overlooked and treated as wallpaper or 'like the catering staff' at the same or similar social events. Closing the piece you mused at how much more pleasant it is to be lightly flirted with rather than brutally harassed, then went on to say that you want to mentor young women and tell them to relax. How can they relax when they are reduced like this by their would-be mentor? Your acquaintance may have been parading around his young date, but you were parading around a young woman type in your piece to bolster your notion that mid-life is better than youth. Please address this. Thank you

Thanks for this. You are right to notice this mistake in tone and it is my fault. Originally when I was writing about how younger women are more commodidied and in a way less socially valued than in the past, I added "not that that is great for them". The clause was cut for space and I overlooked reinserting it. I don't mean at all to sound unempathic to young women. I don't love that young women's status as "beauties" is in a way less culturally valued - I do think young women are valued for other better reasons all the time -- but even with the more empathic clause, I do have to report what I see to be happening because as a cultural critic I have to tell the truth as I perceive it. And I do see that devaluation in the status of "youthful beauty" for its own sake. I also believe in mentoring younger women -- as I have for a decade at the leadership institute I cofounded -- and do think that easing these tensions about aging helps older women have the right relationship to younger women, which is to be empathic mentors. 

I found myself applauding throughout your piece! The only thing that fell flat: your use of Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah as supposed examples of some sort of wider trend of acceptance of different body sizes. Jennifer Hudson has lost an extreme amount of weight and now looks much more typical of a Hollywood star (read: unnaturally thin.) Additionally, there's a race issue underlying this: our culture tends to devalue the beauty of African-American women altogether, and hence we don't tend to apply quite the same size standards to them: it's no wonder that there wasn't a White woman that you could come up with! (Methinks there's a great essay somewhere in there as well.)

Good point. There are not a lot of examples! Interestingly in the past African-American women had lower levels of eating disorders than Caucasian women and more positice feelings about their bodies but sadly that is changing now and the numbers are about the same....

I'm glad to see women have more money and a career, which did not exist in my childhood. However, I'm concerned there is a good old powerful girl, nurturing authoritative young women who have skipped any essence of oppression. How do you feel about the obligation of women to particularly nurture the poor, rural population, oppressed populations and boys?

I don't see that obligation as women's. I see it as everyone's.

I'm a graduate student at Penn State University. When I share feminist articles with my undergraduates, no more than one or two of them are willing to self-identify as feminists, and yet they readily embrace all of its major goals. Do you find it troubling that the word remains toxic?

Thanks for this observation -- I hear that concern a great deal. It is too bad -- in the sense that it is a LOT easier to fight a social injustice if you have a sense of history and are willing to identify yourself as part of a group that can take action. But I have stopped caring that much about the labels we use...every thirty years or so "feminist" becomes a dirty word and that is unfortunate but the arguments and the fight keep returning. That said what I do like is that many - most - young women I listen to even if they don't identify themselves as feminists, DO identify strongly with feminist causes. Ihave to say I feel a bit of sorrow about the destruction of the term too because I think we could have done a lot more to keep it from being defined by its detractors. A few points of view that were quite hostile to men became very prominent in the 1980s and 1990s in popular culture, and women with other or more inclusive views did not publicly identify themselves enough with the F-word because they were I think scared of the career and other repercussions. This parallels what I have been warning readers in a much different context about vis a vis other scare-tactic terms such as "terrorist" (as in "eco-terrorist") or "subversive" or "belligerent" -- if you don't push back early at the use of these terms to intimidate people who are just speaking up, you end up fleeing from them.

Hi Naomi! I've noticed you've moderated the tone of your writing over the years. In the early 90s, for example, you called Camille Paglia "the nipple-pierced person's Phyllis Schlafly" and said her writing is "full of howling intellectual dishonesty." But in recent years you've turned away from invective. Why is that?

Very goo d question. I actually had a bit of a dark night of the soul after I wrote that counterblast. I went on a Buddhist-ish retreat and heard the wonderful teacher Sharon Salzman lecture on the Buddhist ethic of "right speech" (meaning 'ethical speech'). It was the beginning of a real moral/spiritual journey for me (words are quite inadequate for this sort of thing) in which I realized I did not want to use whatever skill I had with words to hurt anyone. The Buddhist view of how you use language is that you use to to help -- to advance truth -- to ease suffering. I was very drawn to that idea. You are not supposed to use language to demean, to harm, to lie etc. Of course every religion has a version of this. But I do feel that first crisis of "is this what I want to be?" led me to think a lot more about compassion and kindness.


Do you believe feminists in the United States should commit resources to eliminating female genital cutting, or is this an unwarranted interference in an indigenous cultural practice?

Great questions! I think with this -- as with every issue involving women in the developing world/Western women -- that Western women should support the grassroots leadership from the MANY organizations in the developing world that are dealing with this and with other issues. That is not "intervening", it is respecting the agenda of women who live in the countries in which this takes place. And I also (call me old-fashioned) believe there are universal moral requirements and that ending torture is one of them -- anywhere. In the Sudan or RIGHT HERE AT HOME.

Are you excited about the prospect of having plausible female candidates for the Republic nomination like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann?

I don't love their platforms -- especially Sarah Palin on civil liberties, Lord help us -- but it is always good when half of the candidates for anything are female.

Hello from down under! Germaine Greer discusses the "crisis of aging" in The Whole Woman, but her diagnosis is far bleaker. She argues that women are punished by an ideology that stigmatizes women who deviate from the script of female infantilization. And she says that "more men hate more women more viscerally" than they did in the 1970s. Why are you more optimistic?

Hmmm.... I just don't see this. The generation of feminists just before mine were often very pessimistic about men, and I just can't relate to this perspective. In my own life some of my most stalwart support in my fight for women's issues comes from the men in my life -- my dad, my partner, all my male friends, etc. Mentors, colleagues, editors....I can't even name how many men have supported this struggle because they care about justice for everyone and because they respect and love women. I do think -- for complicated reasons having to do with the ways our social roles got changed without any larger  rapprochement and without a cultural support for empathy between the genders -- that there is a bigger issue of a kind of general breakdown of mutual respect between genders in Western society -- I hear women talking about men in awful ways these days sometimes, sometimes in public, essays belittling them etc -- but that is another kind of problem. I don't hear everyday misogyny the way we used to twenty years ago. Maybe it has gone underground but I also see a new generation of young men who would think it completely deranged to value men over women.

Your previous publishers have included HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, owned respectively by News Corporation and CBS, which receive millions in advertising from "beauty product" companies. News Corp also puts out Vogue, a fashion magazine which reinforces female stereotypes that you criticize. How do you reconcile the fact that you receive money from the same cultural forces which you claim is harming women?

I think it is not good for our democracy that most newspapers and magazines are now owned by three or four megacorporations. But I do believe that women -- and writers -- should be paid for their work -- especially single moms like me :) and I believe in publishing in as mainstream a set of venues as possible because that is where real change lies. I am very happy to take Rupert Murdoch's money -- I also take George Soros' -- to subsidize my radical message of social equality. I don't think marginaliing myself to the two outlets that have no corporate ownership would be much of a victory. 

Are you still sticking by your erroneous claim that anorexia kills 150,000 women annually?

You know, right wing talking points are really something. This quite misleading claim resurfaces again and again even though I corrected that error the first moment I knew about it, in 1993 as soon as the first edition of the book came out.

Do you now regret referring to Paglia as "the nipple-pierced person's Phyllis Schlafly"?

yes i do regret it! see above. There were nicer ways I could have disagreed with her just as vehemently.

Your piece mentioned midlife women of achievement, with career status and (presumably) some decent incomes of their own. That's great. The majority of middle-aged and mature women in this country work in support positions, nursing assistant, clerical, service and the like. Everyone is not a professor, executive or attorney. The low- and middle-income women over 40 are invisible in your smug description of an elite party scene.

Part of what is challenging in writing about social change is that everyone is part of a demographic. I was describing the scene before me, and the way I have dealt with the issue of class in my writing is to identify when something I am seeing is part of a specific class or ethnicity and try not to make the mistake of overgeneralizing. I did specify that the benefits I described come much more easily if you are not in a low-income position. But being transparent about describing a privileged group when that is what I am writing about -- and noting that this is far from universal -- seems much more intellectual honest to me than pretending that is not what I am seeing. I have always held that no one writer can or shoiuld speak for everyone. The Washington Post should certainly address this issue form the point of view of low-income women; women of color; immigrant women; women in rural areas; etc. But no one writer should be asked to represent everyone's perspective -- i think that is ultimately deadening to the writer's voice and patronicing to the diversity of women. 

In the late 80s and early 90s, Catharine MacKinnon became an icon of the feminist movement, and yet her fierce condemnation of pornography also alienated many women and produced a backlash within feminism itself. Do you think MacKinnon played a productive role in the movement toward equality?

I think she is kind of a genius and did really important work around sexual harassment law, which would not exist without her. But I do think that the way she and Andrea Dworkin wrote about sexuality -- in a way that kind of conflating the worst aspects of porn with heterosexuality (and maleness) in general led to what one of the posters above noted -- young women not wanting to identify as feminist. We really, really need a discourse around heterosexuality that is empowering to women and respectful of men. 

Sharon Salzberg is the teacher.

Thanks you are so right!

Hi Naomi. I'm 43 and I'm terrified of getting old. It's not because of the image issue, but more of a feeling that time is running out for fulfilling my dreams, in a few years I'll be at higher risk for heart attacks, cancer, etc, basically closer to death. This is very depressing to me.

Hi -- oh dear. I am sorry you are suffering so much. It seems to me -- not knowing much about you of course -- that the isseu is not so much aging as that you are in a life that is not in harmony with who you really are...maybe rethink your goals? Make some changes? Those dreams are super important.

Is there any relationship to successful aging and the roles women have adopted in marriage and parenting? Many women seem to flourish post-divorce in a way that does not seem acceptable in our current marriage relationships that still require successful women to be caregivers and household managers.

Wow. That is a very interesting question. I hope not -- I would like to believe women can flourish married or unmarried, though love is so important wherever you are --  but this sounds like something that it would be good to hear from other  women about. 

What dating tips and tricks have you used in your older age? Most women I know find it harder to compete with younger women for men who still want to have children.

I have no tricks! :) I found the right guy for me which is just a stroke of stupid luck. What you say is true of course for people who want to start families, and it is worth acknowledging. But maybe what I should stress is that I do think women tend to have a 'checklist" -- it can be as restrictive as the 'checklists' that they believe men have -- you know: make more money, right religion, tall, etc etc etc -- and I do generally think everyone is happier when they let go of checklists -- the pool of people you can find to love expands...I also (now I may get in real trouble) think that being a biological parent is overvalued in our culture,which is a slightly different issue, but if people who wanted families were generally supported in being more open to adopting, then age is not such a hurdle...

Thank you for writing about this! In my early 40s, what you're saying really resonates with my own experiences and how I'm feeling about myself as I grow older. But I have a small group of very close friends my same age who are constantly bemoaning how old they feel or how much younger everyone around us seems when we go out. Nothing I've said (jokes, non-jokes) seems to curb this. Anything I could respond to help them figure out maybe it's not all bad, maybe it's in fact quite good to be growing older? I don't want to have to find new friends!But I only seem to feel old when I'm around them.

OHHHH this is a great thing to bring up! Because these habits of 'what we say" are so profound and seem so unimportant but they MAKE A GIANT DIFFERENCE and recent neurocience shows that what you say all the time becomes part of your brain wiring! I think women are honestly encouraged socially to just put themselves down all the time. It is seen as a way to bond with girlfriends. Women are not encouraged in shining their own light around other women and being supported in that by their friends. We need to CHANGE THIS DYNAMIC!! Do you think you coud talk to them about this directly, or even encourage an experiment in which you all go for a week or whatever trying not to complain about this sort of thing? I guarantee they will feel might stick....good luck!

Do you one day envision younger women caring less about maintaining their appearance in the hope of looking older and more mature, with the goal of being more respected by men?

I think young women will always be concerned about appearance (and young men) because they have the imperative to reproduce. But I definitely see many young women feeling much more confident in being whoever they are than they did twenty years ago...

Your article reveals a lot of positive benefits to aging, like becoming more magnetic and dynamic. What are some of the negative effects that single women are to encounter as they enter menopause, specifically when it comes to finding a long-term mate?

I don't know the answer to this. I just think that the notion that older "women are desperate" is a cultural myth -- certainly at the very end of the age curve there are fewer men, but I have never seen data that actually confirms that women in their fifties are more unhappy about being alone or are more alone than men their fact the terrible data on illness, depression etc tends to skew around single older men. (not that that is good!)

Susan Faludi, bell hooks, Gloria Steinem and many other feminist activists have criticized the obscurantism and jargon-laden prose prevalent in academic writing. Queer theorists like Judith Butler have insisted that the shock of alienation experienced by a reader in sifting through difficult writing is necessary to deconstruct the hierarchies that are sedimented in our everyday parlance. Where do you stand in this debate?

I think there are two kinds of writing. i do believe in writing for a popular audience because I believe everyone deserves to be part of important debates. But in the academy, you are writing for a small group of peers. I don't agree that sifting through difficult writing is a virtue in itself though, that feels elitist to me. Respectfully.

Dear All, thank you for a very interesting discussion! I really appreciate your thought-provoking questions. Thanks for contributing your voices! I will sign off now -- till next time -- best Naomi

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Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf is the author of "The Beauty Myth."
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