In her 2013 song, “Pretty Hurts,” popular performer Beyoncé croons about the challenges of physical beauty. The lyrics include lines like: “Mama said, ‘You’re a pretty girl. What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter. Brush your hair, fix your teeth. What you wear is all that matters.’” And “Blonder hair, flat chest. TV says bigger is better. South Beach, sugar-free, Vogue says thinner is better.”
The words of the song present the problem of beauty acutely: beauty is subjective and paradoxical which makes it unattainable. In beauty’s pursuit, we endure mental, emotional, and even physical anguish. Beauty is something that haunts people regardless of their gender. We (as a society) have created an “ideal man” and an “ideal woman” both of whom have rather different, physical attributes. These standards do not account for any fluidity of gender identity.
As I pointed to in my previous post on beauty, white supremacist beauty standards are the norm in much of the Western world. In this post, I expound on the issue of beauty using as my conversation partner The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I am going to focus on the blue eye aspect of the book today, in future posts, I will talk about the themes of family, fear, and love that arise in it.
I’m using a fiction book to describe a real problem because, during the many years in which the Academy was (and is) exclusionary of black women, they wrote their truth and introduced it to the world through music, dance, poetry, visual art, and prose. In some ways, black women’s fiction tells more truth about our experiences than does our nonfiction. Morrison published The Bluest Eye, her first novel, in 1970. In the foreword to the edition I own, she explains that her lead character (Pecola Breedlove) is one who was rendered invisible. Pecola was most susceptible to the danger of self-loathing because of her youth, gender, and race. Since Pecola’s psychological murder made her invisible, Morrison “invented friends . . . who understood, even sympathized with her plight, but had the benefit of supportive parents and a feistiness all their own. Yet they were helpless as well. They could not save their friend from the world.” Morrison understands the notion the assertion by the world that black is not beautiful as the “grotesque demonization of an entire race.” And, having been raised as a black girl, she understood the particularly gripping impact that demonization could have on the youngest members of society, who were also part of a demonized race, who also because of gender became that race’s most vulnerable members. Pecola’s demise in the book is extraordinary, but her terror and self-loathing do exist in the hearts of so many black and brown youth.
Now, let’s get to these pretty blue eyes Pecola wanted so badly. Within the first quarter of the book, we learn that Pecola has come to believe a logical fallacy “that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she . . . would be different . . . Every night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes.” Pecola had a broken family. Pecola’s father had raped her, and her mother was engaged in a loveless and abusive marriage with him. Her mother did not love their family and allowed them to live in squalor but took tender care of a white family for whom she did domestic labor. Her brother was practically silent, and these people who should have made it their mission to love her lived with her in a storefront where the ugliness of their circumstances was on display for their entire community. She believed that if she had pretty eyes, blue eyes, no one would do anything bad in front of her because no one could be ugly in the sight of pretty eyes. If only, if only. How much pressure have we placed on children of color, and poor children, to bear responsibility for the sins of the adult members of their families?
Pecola’s desire to have pretty eyes makes me consider the power of eyes.
What stories do our eyes witness? What stories do our eyes tell? I have spent much time thinking about the impact skin color has on our experiences, but can the same be said of eyes? At the end of the book, Pecola goes to visit a man who was known around town as Soaphead Church. He was known to be one with physic abilities. She knocked on his door and requested her blue eyes, and he felt compassion for her. He understood that “a little black girl . . . wanted to rise up out the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.” So, he convinced her that they could make an offering by feeding the dog outside. If the dog did nothing, he explained, God had refused her request, and if the dog acted unusually, he said that it meant her prayer was answered. His “offering” was misleading at best because he gave Pecola raw meat flavored with poison to feed his housemate’s beloved dog. In so doing, this man committed two murders, killing an old woman’s only companion and the psychological death of Pecola Breedlove. She saw through new and misleading eyes. What is the point of having pretty eyes that convince one that their degradation is just?
None of us needs to see through blue eyes (unless of course, your eyes are blue). We need to see through eyes filled with compassion for ourselves and for every living thing we encounter. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of The Bluest Eye is that only the children seem concerned about Pecola’s trauma but that ultimately, everyone agrees that the Breedloves were “relentlessly and aggressively ugly.” So, everyone steered clear of them; no one tried to intervene in the lives of Mrs. Breedlove and her children or the help them escape from their abusive relationship with their husband and father because of their perceived ugliness. The family wore this ugliness, and instead of partnering with them on a journey to something greater, the entire community agreed with them. Why? Well, the narrator explains that they had cleaned all their ugliness off on Pecola and they “were so beautiful when they stood astride her ugliness.” They discovered their beauty at Pecola’s expense.
We are not much different from Toni Morrison’s fictional characters. Because people are poor, mentally or physically disabled, or otherwise impaired, we leave them alone. We avoid them and their families. We revel in the feeling that next to them all our imperfections seem to be perfected. Do we need to render someone (or something) else lesser or uglier so we can be redeemed? We all need new eyes to see the beauty in our world, in our neighbors, and even in ourselves. We all must stop allowing the standards for “pretty” to force us to turn against ourselves and others who look and act like us. Thanks for reading and see you next Monday!