JMV It isn’t “cool” for young women to say they are feminist, but I proudly claim the title. However, I am aware of my privilege as a white woman, feminist circles haven’t always been accepting of black women. I benefit from my white skin, and the expectations of culture at large. Cultural expectations can affect everyone exposed to them, both consciously and unconsciously. Members of a society are frequently vulnerable to these cultural expectations, especially those pertaining to physical appearance. Even if one believes they are not influenced by these expectations, they will still encounter them on a daily basis. Open any book or magazine, turn on the television, or watch a movie, and one will see Caucasian women held up as the ideal of feminine beauty. Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye is a powerful narrative that explores the harmful effects of the glorification of white beauty on African American girls.
As the novel opens, the narrator, Claudia, discusses how as a child she was an outlier among her friends and peers because she hated Shirley Temple. Furthermore, she was bewildered by the practice of giving baby dolls as gifts:
Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. “Here,” they said, “this is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy’ you may have it” (21).
Claudia is perplexed by the cultural assumption that beauty is a blonde, blue-eyed white doll. If the doll is considered “beautiful,” surely it follows that a blonde, blue-eyed white person is “beautiful.” This then implies that anyone who does not fall under these characteristics is not “beautiful,” therefore: ugly. To the dismay of the adults around her, Claudia attempts to find the source of the doll’s beauty, destroying it in the process.
Claudia and her sister, Frieda, also resent the beauty of Maureen Peal. Maureen, a new student in their school, is described as being “high yellow,” or light-skinned. Claudia and Frieda subconsciously reject the idea that Maureen is superior to them just because she is closer to the Caucasian “ideal.” They look for reasons to dislike Maureen, and for reasons that Maureen is inferior. Maureen senses her own superiority because of her perceived beauty. She is light-skinned and beautiful; the other girls’ dark skin makes them inferior and ugly. When the girls begin to fight, Maureen screams, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly e mos. I am cute” (58). Claudia feels stifled by this assumption, thinking,
We were lesser […] Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world (58).
As before, Claudia does not agree with the assumption of her own ugliness, or lack of beauty. Nevertheless, she is stymied by those around her who buy into the cultural construct of white beauty. She recognizes that while she can destroy her dolls, and can even think negatively about Maureen, she cannot convince those around her that the cultural assumption of beauty is wrong.
Membership in a society means that the population is inundated with that society’s ideas of what is good, or right. Women in particular are forced to come to terms with society’s ideals in regards to physical beauty. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison rails against the concept of the superiority of white beauty through the thoughts and actions of the narrator, Claudia. Claudia resents the assumption of beauty being measured by whiteness, and attempts to destroy it, while at the same time fighting against the converse: that her blackness should be equated with ugliness.