The Elusive Beauty Standards for Black Girls: A look at Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
I love Lizzo. She is black and bold and beautiful and confident and loves making people uncomfortable by how comfortable she is with herself. It’s interesting how bothered some people are by Lizzo. And why so bothered, you ask? Because she defies all notions of what we’ve been conditioned to believe as ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’. You see, since the beginning of time, us black girls have been made to believe we are unattractive in our brown skin. And, it’s double trouble for black girls who are nowhere close to the <36 24 36> ideal body type standard.
In an Interview for Glamour, when asked about her confidence, Lizzo says, "When people look at my body and be like, 'Oh my God, she's so brave,' it's like, 'No, I'm not.' I'm just fine. I'm just me. I'm just sexy." “…. I don't like it when people think it's hard for me to see myself as beautiful, I don't like it when people are shocked that I'm doing it."
Almost like in our shock and disbelief at how confident Lizzo is, we are asking who gave her permission to believe she is beautiful. Because historically, beauty has been something that has been bestowed on some and denied for others. It is something you aspire to, you do not own. And so when you claim it for yourself, you are going against the grain and people no longer know what to do with you or where to place you.
I was thinking on these things as I was reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, a tragic and heartbreaking story about a young girl’s perception about what it means to be black and beautiful in a world where everyone is telling you that you are ugly. And whilst this might not always be overtly stated, it is implied in the messaging all around us. When beauty is defined as ‘whiteness’ or light skin with long straight or blonde hair, blue eyes and a small waist, where do the black girls with dark skin, brown eyes, kinky hair, wide noses and a bit of flab go? If you never see yourself as a representation of beauty, are you then ugly?
“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.”
That is the predicament Pecola in The Bluest Eye finds herself in. Believing she is ugly and wanting, praying and hoping for blue eyes because all the pretty little girls in the milk cartons she consumes and the dolls she plays with have big blue eyes. This messaging shapes how she sees herself. Pecola believes that if she had blue eyes, the bluest eyes, she would see things differently. She would be beautiful, loved and accepted. Her quest for blue eyes, set against a backdrop of a dysfunctional and abusive family, drive her to insanity such that when she is raped and becomes pregnant at 11yrs, she believes that everyone is staring at her because her eyes, finally turned blue. And that’s the most tragic ending to a book I have read in a long time.
“It had occurred to Pecola some time ago 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 herself would be different.”
This book, published in 1970 still makes people uncomfortable 49 years post pub. Morrison has been depicted as being too vulgar and explicit. The book has been trashed by some as being too anti-white, preachy and sadistic. And it’s baffling for me that for a book with zero white characters, save for Shirley Temple’s face on a milk cup, some critics have still managed to turn it into a white vs. black (race) issue missing the bigger picture and essentially hijacking the agency from this young black girl’s struggle to define what beauty is for her. And in doing so, redefining, tarnishing and misconstruing it as white girls being ‘shamed’ for being pretty and for having blue eyes and blonde hair.
“All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us--all who knew her--felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness.”
Normally I would shrug my shoulders in annoyance and frustration and say that these critics lack empathy and have missed a great opportunity to open up much needed conversations on body image, self-esteem, and the power of internalized self hate and leave it at that. But then it hits me that it is after all 2019, 49 years after this book was published and almost 80 years from when the story is historically set (in the 1940s) and today, Lizzo still has to explain herself at every turn on why she is so confident. Gabrielle Union also just got fired for speaking her truth and for wearing hairstyles that were considered ‘too black’ for AGT’s audience. A stark indication of just how little the standards of beauty have evolved over the last century.
And so now more than ever, we must not shy away from speaking our truth. We must continue to have these uncomfortable conversations with ourselves and with each other and to redefine for ourselves what beauty is. It’s a call on us to be more selective in the images and the messaging we are consuming and allowing to frame our perception of self and beauty.