In her essay, “Women’s Beauty: Put Down or Power Source?,” Susan Sontag discusses the various implications of beauty, specifically for women. She argues that women are significantly valued for their looks, rather than on their abilities. At the same time, men are valued for their abilities and other various mental competencies. This essay will explore the use of structure to present the way the author wrote her essay. Sontag structures her essay to provide a wide analysis of the evolution of beauty in society; in doing so, she facilitates the credible integration of her own ideas by alluding to historical and religious facts.
Ancient Greek society placed an enormous amount of credit on the value of appearances, and this is an example from which Sontag provides a clear analogy for her views on the value of women. Structuring the essay so that it starts with the most extreme example of the value put on beauty allows Sontag to clearly communicate the value that beauty held and continues to hold. “For the Greeks, beauty was a virtue: A kind of excellence. Persons then were assumed to be what we now have to call – lamely, enviously – whole persons” (1). She effectively compares the Greek concept with her idea of what people assume today: that it is actually surprising when a beautiful person is also talented, intelligent and good (2). While this is a fairly bold assertion, many people would likely agree that intelligence, talent, goodness and beauty is a rare combination. However, others could argue that intelligence, talent and goodness are also rare in ugly people. Despite this potential logical fallacy, Sontag is effective at communicating to the reader the extreme opinions about beauty, and how there is a significant contrast in the way beauty was once perceived in Greece, and how it is perceived in many areas of the modern world.
Sontag goes on to incorporate religion to explain the transformation that beauty had taken, but she later explains how many of the components of the original Greek definition of beauty have stuck with women. She says Christianity, along with its morals, redefined what it meant to be a valuable person. “By limiting excellence (virtus in Latin) to moral virtue only, Christianity set beauty adrift – as an alienated, arbitrary, superficial enchantment” (3). From the basis of religion, she says beauty has been tightly linked to women, but not to men, and the value that it possesses has created an over-emphasis on the value of beauty. In other words, women are valued too much for their looks and too little on other qualities. Beauty has become something essential to a woman’s character (5). The contrast between the importance of beauty on men and women has given beauty a mixed reputation. There is now an obligation for women to be beautiful (5). Sontag uses this opportunity to describe the challenges faced by women to be beautiful. Beauty, thus, becomes a form of “self-oppression” (6). Women analyze each part of their bodies and this analysis causes fret, angst, and scrutiny, all the while never being satisfied, even if some parts of them pass the test (6). Sontag is able to then effectively communicate her perspective about the role of men. “In men, good looks is a whole, something taken in at a glance. It does not need to be confirmed by giving measurement of different regions of the body, nobody encourages a man to dissect his appearance, feature by feature” (7). From one idea to the next, Sontag provides the type of structure that allows her to effectively transition from the concepts of religion, to the formation of the contemporary ideas about the importance of beauty in men and women.
Sontag uses an evidence-based formula on which she provides her own analysis of the role of men and women. This structure facilitates a credible tone to her own ideas about the role of beauty in the lives of men and women. Taken alone, without the contextualization, Sontag would not be nearly as credible. However, she uses the concepts of Greek society, and its attitude towards beauty, to draw a level-headed comparison with what beauty means in society now. She creates an effective transition between the two periods by providing Christianity as a link. While her views are potentially controversial, she has been so bold in identifying a major feature of contemporary western culture that is relatively taboo, and for that she should be commended. Without the effective structure, which receives a helping hand from credible comparisons in society and doctrine, Sontag facilitates the effective use of rhetoric to tackle an important societal issue.