Friday Feminist – Susan Sontag

Cross posted

Beauty, women’s business in this society, is the theater of their enslavement. Only one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl. The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks-heavier, rougher, more thickly built. A man does not grieve when he loses the smooth, unlined, hairless skin of a boy. For he has only exchanged one form of attractiveness for another: the darker skin of a man’s face, roughened by daily shaving, showing the marks of emotion and the normal lines of age. There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go heaving clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat. no wonder that no boy minds becoming a man, while even the passage from girlhood to early womanhood is experienced by many women as their downfall, for all women are trained to continue wanting to look like girls.

Susan Sontag, “The Double Standard of Aging”, Saturday Review, September 24, 1972.


8 comments on “Friday Feminist – Susan Sontag

  1. Craig says:

    I agree with the sentiment here, but generalisations are dangerous and I actually wonder if this particular male/female division is an outdated description. Not because the situation for women has improved – rather that the depiction of male beauty has become as youth-obsessed and weight-obsessed as for women.

    As for the comment ‘no boy minds becoming a man’, insofar as that applies to the physicality of the transformation, I minded quite a lot, and I have the physical scars from the cutting and burning I’d apply as a physical manifestation of my hatred upon my body. Nor do I think that is all that abnormal – I’ve had a pretty good life, with wonderful relationships, I was doing wonderfully at uni at the time and was otherwise quite a stable individual. I’ve known other male friends, both gay and straight, who felt the same way. Even now, in a wonderful marriage, I’ll occasionally relapse back to cutting, for the same reasons as before.

    Oddly enough, in my case I had the misfortunate to have that muscular heavier-set ‘man’ appearance when I was only 18-19. I wasn’t overweight, as I dieted and exercised obsessively, but I had a muscular build that would have been attractive 10-15 years earlier. I started waxing my chest and back from 15, as even by the time I was in highschool, excessive body hair was a guaranteed turnoff. I remember the first time I waxed, it had to be done in 3 one hour sessions, and I’d have hundreds of tiny little droplets of blood all over my stomach and back from the hair follicles – fortunately I had a friend show me how to separate the codeine out of OTC painkillers, which allowed me to get it done in one go (these days I just tell the doc I need something for migraines).

    As it was, I’d be someone who people would say was attractive, but wouldn’t actually be attracted to – it was all about having the waify indie-boy look that dominates the sexualised media (seriously, take a look at today’s male sex symbols. Not the ones who are ‘supposed’ to be attractive – the ones who actually ARE attractive – nary a ‘man’-shaped one among them). As a guy who swung both ways, I’d experience that in both genders.

    I know it’s a bit rich that a guy comments on something like this – I’m well aware that these kind of comments always come across as some oaf whining ‘oh noes, males only have MOST of the power rather than ALL’. And I’m not saying that it compares to what women put up with, I’m under no illusions, I realise full well that my experience is trivial compared to that which most women face. But it’s worth paying attention to the way that for much of society, the ‘answer’ to commodification of the female body is to say ‘hey, if we do the same thing with men, then it’s all right then…maybe we can even get away with exploiting women even FURTHER’. I don’t think that putting the lanky waify boy look as the epitome of male perfection helps the female cause – it just normalises the oppression of women by expanding it.

    • Deborah says:

      Thanks for your comment, Craig. You raise some important points. Susan Sontag wrote this nearly 40 years ago now, and while the points she raises are still valid, I think our understanding appearance and beauty standards has become much more detailed. As you would hope, over forty years of thinking and scholarship. I think men are subject to the same sorts of appearance pressures, ‘though I think that in general, the standard of beauty for women is still much more tightly constrained, and still much more aligned to youthfulness.

      There’s a couple of old sayings that work here – ‘Patriarchy harms men too’ and ‘The personal is political.’ Your experience of the beauty standard speaks to both those ideas.

      I’ll see if I can dig out some contemporary stuff on beauty standards for next week.

  2. Craig says:

    I should emphasise that I don’t think that it’s as bad for men as women, even now. The standards of beauty might be similarly one-dimensional, but I’m probably never going to have it affect my career, or have doltish PMs furthering it by giving their ‘top ten’ list of attractiveness. There’s a certain universality in the way that women are judged for their appearance that makes it spread to other areas of life.

  3. Craig says:

    I’m an idiot Deborah – somehow I typed out my full name (i.e. surname ) included instead of a screen handle. I don’t suppose you could edit my previous post and remove the surname attached?

    • Deborah says:

      Done. Sorry it took me a while: I haven’t looked at my blog all day because I’ve been at work. My lovely mum rang just now to let me know that I needed to sort it out. Thanks, Mum.

  4. Deborah says:

    Couldn’t find anything suitable, Craig, though no doubt it’s around somewhere. I shall keep an eye out for something.

  5. Dena says:

    Hi, I am in my final year at school and am writing a paper on feminist views on physical standards of beauty, and am finding incredibly difficult to come across anything published. Do you know of any sources out there worth looking at? Thanks

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