I’ve told this story before, how when I was little my mom and dad bought a baby doll for each of my siblings and me to announce the coming of a new baby brother. My sister and I both received Water Baby Dolls. Hers was white with blue eyes, a pink mouth, and yellow hair painted on its tiny latex head. My doll, though made of the same hollow-water-awaiting materials was brown. Her skin was brown. Her hair was brown, nearly black. Her eyes were brown. Just like mine. So I cried. I cried because I wanted the white, blonde, blue-eyed Water Baby that I passed in the aisle at KB Toys. It was a deep down, desperate want. I refused to keep the brown doll and my parents exchanged her within a few days. Now, lest you think I was usually a whiney, spoilt child, you will just have take my word for it when I tell you that by that age I was interested in establishing my own dominion of mud pies, sour candies, and My Little Ponies as much as the next kid, but this doll–this brown doll–was a special case.
Last night in my American Lit. course I taught Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Now, if you haven’t read this novel, here are a few of the major themes: self-hatred, racism, social isolation and conformity, ugliness, beauty, and the process of breaking the human spirit. It’s all very light really. The story, told mostly from the perspective of young Claudia McTeer, centers on the undoing of the Breedlove family, who, from the get-go are described as ugly and they know it. Their understandings of love are pieced together by abandonment, humiliation, and abuse, and the daughter, Pecola never experiences someone nurturing another person beyond the kindness shown by her neighbor girls. Pecola, as a child and a girl (characteristics Morrison chose because of the combined implications of social vulnerability and impressionableness), gradually falls apart at the hands of neighbors, parents, and townspeople as she and they are all caught in the pursuit of some ideal beauty. This ideal is a particular conception of whiteness, which, as black families, the Breedloves and their peers cannot attain without completely reconstructing themselves and hating their own histories and appearances. This ideal beauty is epitomized by the blue eyes of white baby dolls every little girl–black or white–receives as a child, and Pecola wants to have the bluest. Claudia McTeer, on the other hand, hates these dolls, and Shirley Temple their living embodiment of cute and adorable. It is perhaps the most painfully beautiful book I have ever read (and “painfully beautiful” is my MO) and Morrison’s linguistic precision is startling and delicious.
Before prepping last week, I hadn’t read The Bluest Eye since the summer after my junior year in college when I thought, “Well, I liked Beloved. This should be a good summer read.” It wasn’t. Not unless by “good summer read” you mean “completely devours your soul and gives it back to you mangled before inducing two weeks of emotional breakdowns in the shower.” I think this time reading it, I was better prepared and have quickly gotten on the path to recovery. But this is not a book I can read, put down, and walk away from. Because we all have a bluest eye that eludes us. An ideal that we simultaneously despise and aspire to.
When I was a child, my bluest eye wasn’t blue at all. In fact, it was green. You see, I wanted to be Irish, with deep green eyes and luscious auburn hair. I convinced myself that my hair was “dark brown with an auburn cast” when in reality it’s just warm toned very dark brown, auburn not included. I hoped that each visit to the optometrist would bring the news that I needed not only reading glasses but everyday glasses, or even better, contact lenses. And why not get green contacts or at least hazel while I’m at it? I dyed my hair all sorts of colors with my sister as a partner in crime. We had a blast seeing how colors would affect her fine, medium-brown hair differently than it did mine. When her hair turned red, mine stayed almost black. When hers turned a gorgeous chocolate brown, mine stayed almost black. And when highlights offered her hair a subtle contrast, mine stayed, you guessed it, almost black. The closest I got to my desired auburn locks was when I went to the local salon and a friend of the family spent three hours lifting the color of my hair before reddening it and giving me rose-gold highlights. I got loads of compliments for this new do, but returning to pictures taken during that time, I’m convinced my natural color (or even my tryst with the fuchsia highlights) was a better fit.
My red hair days were also a time period when I wasn’t quite comfortable in my own body (not that anyone ever is 100%). I was going through a growth spurt and went from a tiny, curveless little person to a normal, slightly less curveless person. My clothes didn’t fit me right, I was hungry all the time no matter how much I ate, and while I added pounds I stayed shorter than the average bear. Now, I was never overweight, but I was finally not underweight and that was new and foreign territory. It didn’t help that a few of my friends were younger than me and liked to compare waist measurements, or that my body didn’t know exactly how to appropriate its added mass, or that I was and am constantly reminded that Asians are naturally waif-like and slender. But I wasn’t Twiggy’s Asian protoge and it was only natural that I never would be.
While I’ve grown into my body, I’m not over those eyes yet, or over Irish or Anglo-ness. I do love my hair and I’m of above-average height, but sometimes I’m taken off guard by my own Asianess. 80% of the time I feel beautiful, perfectly me or whatever jr. high health class motivational speeches tell me I’m supposed to feel. But, like my surprise and dismay at receiving a brown Water Baby, I sometimes wish, subconsciously, that I had finer hair and sparkling green eyes.
Through the tragic narrative of The Bluest Eye, we see that our beauty is something we learn. We don’t think we are beautiful or valuable if we are never told that we are. We will hold ourselves to impossible standards if beauty is defined as something we are not or cannot be. And along the same logic, we will foster a sense of ugliness if who we are is considered ugly by those around us. Because of this I think women of color, though not alone in the ongoing struggle of self-acceptance, have an extra barrier to cross in our journey towards self-love. As an Asian, it’s still hard for me to find women who look like me normalized in mainstream American media. We’re anime-like action fetishes (Nikita), call girls who love you long time, the token minority bff, or our Asianess is somehow a type-cast-plot-theme (like in the poorly written rom-com Falling for Grace). Rarely are we protagonists and leading ladies. Media portrayals of humaness are generally selective and overly modified, yes, but the fact that white women, and now Latina and black women in growing numbers, are still the most common “faces of beauty” in our culture makes it hard for others to love ourselves. Not because we’re portrayed as ugly or we actually want to be whatever “beautiful” is, but because we hardly exist.
If you’ve read my other thoughts on beauty and society you know I’m not of the mindset that says we just need to tell girls how beautiful they are and that they are each special snowflakes and perfect just they way they are. Trust me when I say from experience, that can make things worse. It perpetuates the same system that tells us there is something called beautiful that you are or you aren’t. A lot of the ideals and language surrounding beauty are flawed and it’s probably best not to play the game, not to feign the language. But we can’t pretend the conversation doesn’t matter. Morrison closes her novel with the image of Pecola Breedlove, still obsessed with having the blue eyes a magician has supposedly given her. But these blue eyes are not enough unless they are the bluest. Her token of The Beautiful is not sufficient unless it surpasses others. So she wanders by the garbage bins, arguing with her inner demons, throwing her hands in the air. It’s heartbreaking. It’s supposed to be heartbreaking. Pecola doesn’t get over hating her “blackness” and neither does anyone else. Because it’s never simply okay to be who she is, “beauty” or “ugliness” aside, Pecola Breedlove breaks.
And when it comes to real life, which The Bluest Eye mirrors with unabashed honesty, there is no magic paste or coating that we can put on once and be breakage proof. It’s not that simple. It’s a process. We’re all in the process of breaking and unbreaking. And the only thing that can keep us together isn’t magic. It’s not a phrase: “You’re beautiful.” It’s messy, tangled, and sometimes lets you down. It’s those daily, hourly examples of love that remind you that you exist and there is space for you. But as Pecola asks Claudia, “How do you make someone love you?” Neither Claudia nor I have the slightest clue.