Naomi Wolf's ''Beauty Myth'' -- The author looks at the messages of Madonna, Sinead O'Connor, and ''Thelma & Louise''

By Meredith Berkman
Updated July 19, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the world according to Naomi Wolf, women are shackled to a strict standard of beauty — the ageless, unlined face, the reed-thin, well-muscled body, both nipped and tucked to perfection. The Beauty Myth, Wolf’s explosive new book, argues that the idea and image of the Perfect Woman, despite feminism’s advances during the last decade, are stronger than ever, convincing women that their looks determine their worth. The reign of beauty prevents women from fully realizing their newfound political and social power. ”In the ’80s we were told, ‘All right, girls, put down those equal rights banners,”’ says the intense but amiable Wolf, 28, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar. ”When you work out four hours a day, you can’t cause any trouble.”

Wolf’s book has created a fierce debate among feminists. Some, like Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique), believe her theory says nothing new. Others hail Wolf as one of the first important feminists of the ’90s.

In her view, Madonna’s superstardom provides the most outstanding example of the beauty myth’s power. The ambitious blond’s transformation from fleshy sexpot to iron mannequin parallels what Wolf sees as the dangerous rise of the anorexic ideal — which has in turn created a virtual epidemic of eating disorders among young women. Wolf herself is a former anorexic.

”The backlash against feminism has swept Madonna into the public eye,” observes Wolf in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the end, it’s not clear whether Madonna is the ultimate victim or master of the beauty myth; she might just be ”very good at reading the zeitgeist,” Wolf allows. ”Women in entertainment try to find a statement that says, ‘I’m not a bimbo.’ Or they turn it around and say, ‘I’m a super bimbo,’ like Madonna, who is the führer of bimbos. To see someone make money out of manipulating images is some kind of victory, though a sad one.”

Sinéad O’Connor’s shaved head, on the other hand, is symbolic of ”cutting off her overt sexuality so she can’t be accused of ‘asking for it,”’ Wolf says. ”If an artist really cares about her work, it’s not surprising she’d want to make a statement that says, ‘Pay attention to my work.”’

Female TV anchors may have the most difficult time getting — and keeping — that attention. While male anchors are allowed to age on the air, says Wolf, their female counterparts are routinely replaced by younger, more attractive women. Off camera after Wolf’s talk show appearances, ”these women tell me there’s nothing more painful than working like hell for 15 years and suddenly losing your job because of your looks.”

Still, Wolf sees some progress in how women are represented in film. Last year’s modest White Palace, in which an older waitress, Susan Sarandon, seduces yuppie James Spader, is one example: ”To see her aging hand on his thigh was a real turning point in film history,” Wolf says. ”Desire doesn’t end when you get your first crow’s-feet.”

French director Luc Besson’s surprise U.S. hit, La Femme Nikita; Ridley Scott’s female buddy film, Thelma & Louise; and even the Julia Roberts thriller, Sleeping With the Enemy, are part of a new trend of feminist-minded movies that portray powerful women taking control of their lives. ”In the ’80s, with films like Blue Velvet and 9 1/2 Weeks, the ideal woman was bruised and passive,” says Wolf, who plans to tour colleges later this year touting her theories. ”When Nikita blew away her assailants and Roberts shot her abusive husband to death, some part of me that had watched women cowering for all those years stood up and cheered.”