NAOMI WOLF WILL NEVER FORGET A certain fat boy named Bobby. He was her classmate at a Hebrew school in San Francisco in 1974, and one day, as 12-year-old Naomi bent to drink from a water fountain, he poked her tummy and uttered these chilling words: "You want to watch it, Wolf."

"That night, I just decided, 'All right, I will not be poked again—I will win at this,' " says Wolf, 28. "I went on a diet for like two weeks, and I couldn't stop."

In fact, the gibe triggered a yearlong bout with anorexia that would drop her weight from 105 lbs. to 84. (The 5'4" Wolf resolved to overcome the disorder, she says, only when her doctor told her he could feel her spine through her stomach.) She regards her experience with anorexia as an early, personal intimation of the power of what she now calls the "beauty myth."

That myth "ranks women according to how they compare with an artificially, rather than biologically, established appearance standard," says Wolf, a Yale grad and Rhodes scholar now working toward her doctorate in literature at Oxford. "I contend that this obsession with beauty in the Western world—which has intensified in my lifetime—is, in fact. the last way men can defend themselves against women claiming power."

Wolf explores that thesis in her book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, just published in the U.S. It is a manifesto of sorts, an indictment of the cosmetics, diet, pornography and plastic-surgery industries, and a call for a new wave of feminism to free women from enslavement to beauty's dictates. Wolf says that many young readers (the book spent several weeks at the top of Britain's nonfiction best-seller lists) have taken her message to heart. She says she daily receives letters from teenage girls and young women who tell her the book is "the most true thing about their generation they've read."

Wolf's fellow feminists, however, are divided. Germaine Greer pronounced the book "the most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch," which she wrote, and novelist Fay Weldon deems the book "essential reading for the New Woman." Betty Friedan is less enthusiastic. "Naomi's message is distorted," she says. "There is a political and economic backlash against women—laws on sex discrimination arc being eroded: the U.S. is one of the only industrial nations without national policies of child care and parental leave. But I think women are much less apt to be passive slaves of beauty than they used to be."

Reviewers, too, are split on Wolf's contribution. She has been accused of sloppy research and of assaulting readers with a barrage of random statistics. Many critics, however, have found her principal argument convincing and well buttressed. Her claim that 87 percent of plastic-surgery patients are women, for example, is supported by the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons. And no one argues with Wolf's data on what Americans spend to look good: some $20 billion a year on cosmetics, $33 billion on diet products and exercise. "When the majority of American women [in a 1984 Glamour magazine survey] say they'd rather lose 10 to 15 lbs. than succeed in love or work, you're up against a social phenomenon," Wolf says.

None of this, she argues, is happenstance. Women weakened and distracted by dieting, cowed by images of flawless fashion models and exhausted by what Wolf calls "the third shift"—beauty-maintenance work squeezed in between career and housework—will have trouble fighting for full equality with men, she maintains. "Over and over in the course of women's history, the female ideals that form just happen to be ones that serve what the economy needs at the moment," Wolf says. "There's no conscious male conspiracy. There doesn't need to be. When a whole economy depends on people being perceived in a certain way, it doesn't take a smoke-filled room to propagate it." As she states in her book, "An ideology that makes women feel worth less was urgently needed to counteract the way feminism had begun to make us feel worth more."

The burgeoning of what Wolf terms "image culture"—films, TV, pictures in magazines and on billboards—made visions of impossibly thin, ever-young females easier to foster. "Men were scared, and women felt guilty about the changes in gender roles," says Wolf, so both sexes responded to those images, and they proliferated. "Men have a world of representation in which they see, you know, ugly old guys running the world on the cover of everything," she says. "What that means is that men have many more ways to imagine themselves and their future than just, 'Do I look like an Armani model?' That's not the case for women."

Wolfs interest in women's issues started early. Her mother, now a psychotherapist, was an anthropologist who specialized in women's studies; her father, now retired, taught English at San Francisco State University. Naomi grew up reading "all the feminist classics," she says. "I've called myself a feminist all my life."

At Yale, where she majored in English literature, Wolf was "always yelling about women's issues in my classes," she says. But the idea of writing a book about beauty didn't occur to her until she was studying at Oxford. "I discovered that four or five of the women Rhodes scholars I knew, women who had presumably attained some power in a masculine world, had suffered from eating disorders, and we'd all been told by classmates that we got our scholarships because we were cute," Wolf says. The book took shape during a three-year stay in Edinburgh, where Wolf went to live with a Scottish boyfriend. "I'm antipatriarchy, not antimale," she says, smiling.

Nor is she even antibeauty. "Women make very individual accommodations with the beauty myth, and it's important that we don't judge each other for the choices we make," says Wolf, who wears makeup occasionally, favors "comfortable clothes that I think are pretty" and feels sure she'd be more preoccupied with her looks if she worked in an office. "I'm a woman in this body, in this culture," she says, "so I'm still beset by the same demons that all women are beset by. Still, we have to stop that look we give one another—that face-to-shoes, what-are-you-wearing-you-slut look."

These days, Wolf makes her home in a one-bedroom Manhattan sublet, where she is gearing up to write the Oxford thesis she put aside in 1988 (its subject: female beauty in 19th-and early 20th-century literature). For fun, she roller-blades in Central Park, cooks dinner with her new boyfriend, a newspaper editor—and eagerly awaits more mixed reviews. "I'm trying to seize this culture by its collar and say, 'Stop! Look what you're doing!' " she says. "To the extent that people get angry, I know I've done a good job."