Susan Sontag’s Essay on the Subject of Beauty

Susan Sontag Essay Introduction

Susan Sontag’s essay on the subject of beauty, particularly in relation to women, is a strong and moving piece that also greases the old gearbox and gets the brain going. It takes a strong hard look at how the concept of beauty has been shaped through the ages, from the time of the great Greek civilization to the modern era. The analysis that is put forth that women can never preen just for pleasure is exemplified in so many innumerable ways in modern culture that it is indeed something to despair greatly for.

A woman is expected to keep up with appearances, to put on make-up to make them as attractive and pleasing to the eye as possible. No matter how intelligent a woman can be, no matter how strong an individual a woman can be, she will consistently be judged on appearances to a far greater degree than men will. A man has to spend hardly any time grooming his self to be acceptable in appearance for the general public.

About the only place that you will hear people complaining about the appearance of a man, in general, is the E! etwork or publications or television shows which make it a point to be obsessed with fashion and appearance and taste. You would be hard pressed to find an instance where you spoke to a friend about how unkempt a man was after he passed by your vision. This is because for men it is generally accepted that outward beauty is not something to be endlessly striving for, nor is it that for men certain physiques are reinforced as ideal to anywhere near the same degree as women.

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I have long thought it maddening that cultural ideas of beauty are so difficult to overcome.

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Women are constantly bombarded with what they are to strive for in the name of beauty. Our culture never ceases to reinforce that the ideal figure is that of the hourglass figure, that make-up is essential. Tabloids and news sources nearly burst at the seams whenever a celebrity woman is caught in public without the proper amount of make-up. How could she look this horrible at this very moment?! What is she on, drugs?! Has she developed an eating disorder and is in the process of letting herself go in the weight department? Look at that cellulose! The worse of it all is that this constant negative reinforcement which degrades the true sense of beauty makes it nearly impossible to convince a woman so convinced that she is ugly, that she is fat. After all, everywhere she looks she is told this more or less. Those who embrace themselves are often ridiculed or mocked by the people who expect nothing short of the best that a woman can do to cover up her natural beauty by plastering on the make-up, by grooming her hair into an aesthetically pleasing style. Men have no such obligations and the average person is under no impression that they are. A messy and unkempt appearance for a man is often not a cause for concern; it is not something that the average person notices. Sontag’s analysis of the real ‘power’ that is gained by women over men when they successfully strive for beauty in our culture is so disheartening because it is so true. There is no power to be had in subjecting yourself to being attractive to others in order to get things you want via proxy (men with true power or wealth in the society).

Striving for the ideals of beauty for women that has been pervading our cultures, as Sontag says “encourages narcissism” and “reinforces dependence and immaturity. ” Long has there circulated one of the best examples of this indoctrination – a letter to the editor of a school newspaper by a female student who insists that the role of women is to preen themselves to the point of being attractive enough to a rich and powerful man who will provide for them. It is not the responsibility of the woman to educate herself and take care of herself, to further herself as a human being. No, she is to anticipate being a trophy with no real substance. Her thoughts are not what makes her what she is but her status in the community, the wealth she accumulates merely by being latched onto a powerful and wealthy male. Education is unnecessary for a woman in this role and is indeed discouraged because it may give rise to dangerous concepts of individual power and influence. Goodness gracious, we can’t have our women burdening themselves with the manly tasks of industrial labor or deep analytical thinking. No, they are either objects to adorn and show off or factories for offspring. How we as a culture have allowed this unconscionable mentality to take hold is just perplexing to no degree until one remembers how the power structure has been and will continue to be for a time yet. The time that that power structure is toppled cannot come fast enough, but at least it assuredly will fall. Now this analysis and Sontag’s analysis of course do nothing to address the fact that some men are indeed mocked to a certain degree for some appearances. There are some “undesirable” choices in appearance for men but they are certainly not weighed against the person as heavily as for women. Al Franken famously said Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot but of course nobody is making the argument that Limbaugh needs to slim down if he wants to be taken seriously.

Similarly, some will poke fun at the father of the GNU project, Richard Stallman, because he is the typical heavy-set computer geek programmer of the old guard who proudly maintains a full long beard and unmanaged long hair. These problems that some might have with appearance are ultimately superficial as they do not convince any rational observer that the person bearing the message is to be disregarded because of appearance. Then there’s the Futurama movie where Hermes Conrad accidentally gets his head chopped off while performing a limbo stunt and is thus taken to the Hospital where a very stereotypically beautiful blonde woman doctor is to re-attach his head to his body. This exchange perfectly exemplifies how women who meet the modern era’s idea of beauty are expected to be deficient in inner beauty, one component of which is generally agreed upon to be intelligence and deeper thought. Even parents at times lament (often times jokingly of course but still sometimes seriously) that their child, when doing something pretty dumb or silly, will hopefully at least have looks when grown up! Sontag was right on the money and people would do well to take into serious consideration her thoughts in this subject, not only to further themselves but to also further society as a whole. When we stop denigrating women in the manner we have for centuries we will indeed experience such an enlightening in our overall culture when we throw off these shackles that have been placed on the females of our society.

This systemic putting down of half of the human race should stop sooner rather than later and the end cannot come fast enough. Susan Sontag makes many valid points in her essay “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source” but I feel it would be far more effective if she found more ways to back them up. For example, she writes “For it is ‘everybody,’ a whole society, that has identified being feminine with caring about how one looks” but she doesn’t elaborate on how this is so. I agree with her entirely but I think she should have continued by giving examples of things in our society that ressure women to focus on their looks. We are constantly bombarded with it in television shows, movies, commercials, magazines and romance novels. Sontag would have a better argument if she backed up her claims with relevant examples. She later explains that “it is not, of course, the desire to be beautiful that is wrong but the obligation to be – or to try. ” This is a very interesting idea and I would have liked her to talk more on the topic because I can really see where she is coming from. Everyone enjoys looking nice because it makes them feel good about themselves, but when we are required to look good it takes some of the fun out of it. I like to dress up for no reason more then I like getting ready for a date or some other event where I am expected to look good. One point that Sontag brought up, that “women are taught to see their bodies in parts and to evaluate each part separately” while a man’s good looks is a whole, was something that I was aware of but never really thought about. How true this is! Women are always nit picking at little details of their appearance because each aspect of them has to look good. I’ve also heard men talking about how women look and they discuss them in parts as well. “She’s really hot but her boobs are too small” or “Her body is perfect but her face needs work”. How twisted is it that men can be taken in at a glance but women have to be examined from head to foot! Sontag was right in including this in her essay because it really makes you think.

While I enjoyed the essay I was slightly confused by how she chose to end it: “There should be a way of saving beauty from women – and for them. At the beginning she discussed how it was wrong to use the term beautiful to only describe the gentler sex so why does she bring up saving it specifically for women at the end of her essay? I feel that keeping beauty exclusive to the female appearance will only keep women in the constant cycle that Sontag is writing against. I also feel that after all the strong points that she brings up it would have been more effective to end with one that really drove the theme home and tied them all together. The current ending is kind of anti-climatic after all of the important and valid things that she brings up prior to it. Overall I agreed with most of the things that Sontag had to say but I don’t think it’s as big of a problem as she is making it out to be. Yes, women are pressured to be obsessed with their appearance but that doesn’t mean that they have to be. Vanity is a personal choice, just like any other media influenced behavior, and even if we took the pressure to look good away, women would still check their reflection any chance they get. It’s human nature. However, I do think that more people should read what Sontag has to say so they can make a more conscious decision about how they feel about the whole situation.

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Susan Sontag’s Essay on the Subject of Beauty. (2019, Nov 01). Retrieved from

Susan Sontag’s Essay on the Subject of Beauty
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