Monday, April 5, 2010


I wonder if it’s safe to say that every culture struggles with its own establishment of physical ideals. In The Bluest Eye, the ideal is associated with white culture, thus keeping all minorities outside of what is considered desirable. But I feel that at some point we all feel that alienation, regardless of our race. I think this point comes along most frequently during adolescence and that this, possibly even above racism, is a central conflict of Morrison’s novel. The specific example illustrated so strikingly by Morrison is just an extreme case of the implications of culturally manufactured physical ideals. These implications go deeper than a simple feeling of inadequacy or envy- they reach all the way into self-hatred and even the projection of that hatred onto others. These feelings generally stem from the experiences of adolescence, as that is a vulnerable time for anyone, when extreme pressure is applied both from within a family structure and within a society.

We can all relate at some level to the “fear of being rejected because of our appearance, abandoned by the group, left homeless (Bump, p.334).” These feelings arise in our younger years because our relationships, our ties to the larger world, are tentative and only beginning to emerge. Without the security of an encouraging family or teacher, it is easy to be consumed by self-doubt. Especially when the role models around you are also plagued by insecurities – financial, marital, societal – it is difficult to be hopeful about your future development. Rather, these perceived shortcomings come to define people, as is the case of the Breedloves. Each member of the family has their own story of self-doubt and displacement, culminating in a group identity of inadequacy. Pauline is especially affected by the societal ideal of beauty, engrossing herself in films to escape her own physical reality and feelings of constant longing. She equates her unsatisfied romantic dreams with her unsatisfying appearance thusly: “Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap (Morrison, p.122).” The pervasive culture that affects all of us is almost guaranteed – designed – to create feelings of envy and longing. Perhaps this is a phenomenon unique to our society and others similar to it, as the aim of a capitalist system is to encourage consumers to buy into the culture. Without the commodification of beauty, of social status, perhaps these feelings of inadequacy would not be so universal.

Ads like this create a standard of beauty that consumers want to buy into.

Morrison really captures the full spectrum of emotions and behaviors associated with these insecurities. In the extreme case of the deep-seated racism in the novel, there is nowhere to hide from society’s disapproval. The negative connotation associated with dark skin was so engrained in society that even African Americans, and sometimes them worst of all, associated their skin color and physical appearance with an inescapable inadequacy. Some, like Maureen and Geraldine, try to mask it through dress and obsessive cleanliness. Others, such as the taunting boys who “seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn (Morrison, p.65),” lash out against those with similar traits. For Claudia and Pecola, however, it is just a constant question – why them? Why not me? It is frustration – perhaps the first signs of a break in the cycle. Claudia does not accept or understand the sovereignty of Shirley Temple. Pecola believes her problems would be solved if she only had blue eyes. Two very different attitudes, but both speaking for the shallow and arbitrary nature of the cultural ideal.

Shirley Temple, the source of Claudia's insecurity

As obviously shallow and distorted as these constructs are – in the case of The Bluest Eye being dictated by decades of racism and discrimination against blacks – we are still so affected by them. We have all felt the drop in the pits of our stomachs when faced with the “seeming helplessness in the grip of fears generated by judging ourselves and others by appearance (Bump, p.333).” It is a vicious cycle of unattainable standards and arbitrary preferences. Pecola cannot make herself have blue eyes. Pauline cannot put her foot back to normal. I cannot make myself grow five inches. In a sense this powerlessness to ascribe to a standard that has been imposed upon you is the most destructive feeling of all. A task that seems so effortless in the movies, that seems so natural among the affluent, the task of being desirable, of being attractive, is incredibly hard to attain based on society’s standards. And with this powerlessness comes fear – the fear of rejection, the fear, reaching back to the beginning of the novel, of being “put outside”. And when those people who should form a community of likeness and support – families, cultural groups, neighbors – reject their own, then that fear becomes very real and very damaging.

The blue eyes that Pecola can never have.

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