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