Marginalia: The Beauty Myth

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An annotated page from The Beauty Myth, featuring two large question marks around a central passage.

“??” (Click to enlarge)

Published in 1991, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf discusses the societal pressures women face and the drastically negative effects those pressures create. These copies, originally housed in Barnard’s library, have found a temporary home on the fourth floor of Butler. Although we can only surmise that their weathered appearance comes from years of loving use by Barnard women, we’re interested in what Columbia and Barnard students alike have been writing in them. Staff Writers Maggie Moran and Abby Rubel schlepped over to Butler on a Saturday to take a look.

The vast majority of the annotations we found were in the opening two chapters of the book. Maybe this is because teachers only tend to assign the beginning (which, based on the skimming we did, contains most of the book’s main ideas), or maybe because students only bothered to read the first little bit.

It was clear from the annotation styles, however, that some readers pushed all the way through, and it’s always refreshing to be able to follow a reader’s journey from confusion to understanding. In the book’s first chapter, the very definition of “the beauty myth” is marked with a simple “??”. But as the concept becomes clearer in the following pages, the underlining becomes more prolific, hopefully indicating that this reader found their answer.

Another reader deemed an entire paragraph to be of note; it describes the way women often size each other up, with “a quick up-and-down, curt and wary…the shoes, the muscle tone, the makeup, are noted accurately, but the eyes glance off one another.” The passage must have struck a chord by conjuring up memories of rush weeks’ past.

Yet another reader asks an astute question, prompted by the phrase “welfare mother in Detroit.” In handwriting clearer than most who have cracked this book’s spine, they wonder, “Is she black? Why isn’t she in Connecticut?” Although there is little context for this question (“Jennifer, what are you doing out so late? Go back to Connecticut right now!”), it likely refers to Wolf’s mapping of a black stereotype onto a black city. It’s clear that this reader has a newfound understanding of issues of privilege, and it’s inspiring to see that they weren’t afraid to call the author’s use of language into question.

While a few readers were bold enough to make their notes in pen, most of the annotations and all of the written notes were in pencil, many too light or small to be deciphered. This preference seems odd given that most people prefer to take notes in pen. Perhaps it’s because pencil is more erasable and thus seems less permanent, but it doesn’t seem like any of them bothered to erase their marks anyway. The really small handwriting also confused us. Granted, we probably aren’t as good at reading handwriting as the people who wrote the notes, but some comments were so small that we’d need a microscope to decipher them.

One of the difficulties in discussing marginalia is that it can be extremely difficult to tell which annotations are from the same reader. Do the changing styles, which become increasingly emphatic, come from different annotators, or from one reader who became more and more frustrated–either with the pressures Wolf describes or with the book itself? Because of this challenge, an analysis of different annotation styles might be worthwhile. The analysis could also reveal further details: are underliners more detail-oriented? Are those who use brackets more likely to prefer sesame bagels to poppyseed?

Lastly, shoutout to the person who wrote “good metaphor” next to the “Howl” quote that opened a chapter. Whoever you are, you have good taste.

All pictures via Bwog Staff

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