Five books that explore the concept of ‘beauty’ and the intricate dynamics at play

From Naomi Wolf's 1990 bestseller, 'The Beauty Myth' to the recently released 'Pixel Flesh: How Toxic Beauty Culture Harms Women' by Ellen Atlanta, these books explore the relationship between women and beauty culture.

Harper's Bazaar India

In a world inundated with Photoshopped images and filtered beauty, the notion of what it means to be beautiful has become a pervasive force shaping societal standards and individual expectations. However, lurking beneath the surface is a complex interplay between commercialisation of beauty and its impact on women’s self-esteem and identity.


Starting off the list is this groundbreaking classic, The Beauty Myth, written by the feminist scholar Naomi Wolf in 1990. It captures the oppressive beauty standards of the day. The bestseller juxtaposed patriarchy, contemporary advertising, and pornography against the escalating demand for women to undergo cosmetic surgeries that coincided with a surge in diagnoses of eating disorders. Has Wolf’s discourses changed the world? Maybe...but not enough! This read remains relevant even after two decades post its publication.


Pixel Flesh: How Toxic Beauty Culture Harms Women written by Ellen Atlanta brings into attention the beauty ideal of the current era that we are in. Released on May 9 this year, this book talks about the mass circulation of images and the increasing commodification of the self as we live in an age of influencers. 

Ellen reconfigures our understanding of women’s relationship with beauty culture to account for the digital age. Providing an account of the realities young women face under a dominant industry—this book unmasks the absurdities of the dystopia we find ourselves living in.


Taking a more satirical-horror look at beauty, Ling Ling Huang, the author of Natural Beauty, explores the intricate relationship between beauty and wellness norms, shedding light on how they intersect with broader societal issues like classism, racism, and gender bias. Published on April 4, 2023, the story revolves around an unnamed protagonist who is a piano prodigy of Chinese immigrant parents.

She shifts from pursuing music to working at a high-end beauty store in New York after a devastating event that leaves her parents incapacitated. It is here that she grapples with the pressure to conform to Western beauty ideals and the temptation of cosmetic enhancements.


Revealing the cultural obsession with women’s appearance and calling it an ‘epidemic’, Renee Engeln’s Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women provides a poignant examination of the detrimental effects of society’s obsession with girl’s appearance and the consequence on their emotional and physical health.

Published on April 18, 2017, the book highlights the harmful influence of toxic beauty standards on self-worth, relationship, and overall happiness. 


Finally, this last book is a helpful guide to managing life. Written by beauty journalist Samantha Silver and fashion stylist Gemma Rose Breger, This is Beauty. This is Fashion. This is Life. This is Mothership provides you with relatable down-to-earth advice on how to look stylish and feel great, and find yourself again. Released on May 16, this book gives you a step-by-step beauty routine, hero products, capsule wardrobe planning, and so much more!

Lead Image Credit: Unsplashed

Image Courtesy:; Google Books; and Hachette India

This story originally appeared in the April-May 2024 print issue of Harper's Bazaar India. 

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