In the American society, the notion that light-skinned people are more beautiful than their darker counterparts has existed for centuries. Many believe that the notion might have been heavily influenced by the perception of the Whites toward the Africans and African-Americans during the slavery era. Non-white people during this era were considered and treated as lesser beings due to their skin color. The notions created during this time have since been passed through generations to the modern society. In the story, the author, Toni Morrison, speaks how race and skin color contribute to an individual’s perception of beauty, and how the issue of beauty is a social construct. The author goes further to dissect how beauty is understood in the African American community, and she argues that the continued misconceptions of beauty and ugliness have greatly undermined the socio-economic structure and position of African-Americans in the modern society. While beauty or ugliness is not dangerous, it is the internalized ideals associated with these factors that influence how people perceive themselves and those around them.
At the end of the Great Depression, the MacTeers take in an African American girl named Pecola after her abusive father tries to burn her family’s house. Pecola adores Shirley Temple whom she believes is extremely beautiful since she is White. Pecola detests her dark color and believes she can never be as beautiful as the White women. She later moves back to her family where her life becomes even more difficult. Her parents engage in constant fights and her brother, Sammy, runs away frequently. Pecola believes if she were light-skinned and had blue eyes, her life would better. “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the picture, and knew the sights- if those eyes of hers were different, that is say beautiful, she herself would be different…Each time, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes” (Morrison 46). She repetitively receives corroboration of her sense of ugliness from different people. For example, boys constantly make fun of her skin color, Maureen Pearl, Pecola’s light-skinned friend also makes fun of her, and after he accidentally kills a boy’s cat, her mother calls her “nasty little black girl.” It is later revealed that Pecola’s parent also had difficult lives growing up. Her mother, Pauline, has a lame foot and believes she is too ugly to enjoy the privileges of true love. She loathes her home and would rather her spend time cleaning houses belonging to rich white people. Cholly, Pecola father’s childhood was also dysfunctional. After his parents abandoned him, he moved in with his great aunt, who later died leaving him all alone. His first sexual experience was in the presence of two white men, and his father refused to recognize him as his son. By the time he met Pauline, he was a man craving human connection. However, his marriage fails, leaving him emotionally and psychologically disturbed – both factors that lead him to rape his daughter, Pecola. Her mother does not believe Pecola’s accusations and instead assaults her. She runs away to seek help from a sham mystic who instead use her to kill a dog he detests. Pecola gets pregnant and later gives birth to a stillborn. She loses her mind and in that states, believes her wish has been fulfilled and that she has blue eyes.
The African-American characters in this story believe that white is the epitome of true beauty. Early in the story, Pecola gushes over Temple’s beauty, and her mother spends most of her time admiring white actresses at the movies, wishing should become a part of her world. The link between white and beauty pushes the notion past the exterior body and makes it a significant determinant of one’s worth and value. Many of the characters in this story are of the opinion that their beauty (or lack of) defines their worth in the family, community, and society. The characters establish their amour-propre bases on their ideas of beauty. As a result, ugliness and beauty become internalized concepts with devastating effects on these characters. Pecola’s parents believe that their “ugliness heavily influences their economic situation.” Pecola’s self- perceived ugliness leads her to believe that she deserves the anguish she experiences at home.
Pecola’s believe in the power of beauty is again influenced by Peal’s actions that protect Pecola from bullies. The supremacy associated with beauty convinces Pecola that owning blue eyes (an ideal signifier of beauty) would help her to transcend the desolation of her life. As her life becomes brutal, she becomes obsessed with blues eyes to an extent of going crazy. At the end of the novel, it is obvious that elements of beauty or ugliness do not have the power to destroy the socio-economic structure of individuals. However, it is the internalized idea of these elements that hold power psychologically destroy individuals.
The events of this story take place during the Great Depression, a time when African-Americans were racially discriminated against by white Americans who felt that their skin color gave them some superiority over the African-Americans. Even though slavery was abolished way before the Great Depression, its archetypes are deep-rooted and have continued to racially discriminate people of color. Although fictional, Pecola’s life shows the effects of colorism in a society that has for centuries undermined the socio-economic position African Americans. The story shows how skin color is used to determine one’s self-worth, and value in the society. Some scholars have argued that colorism, which is a caste system that has existed since slavery is rooted on the hierarchy established by slave masters, where light-skinned slaves would work in the houses, while their dark-skinned counterparts tended the field (Jones 77). The racial perceptions of this era laid the foundation of socio-cultural structures witnessed in the modern society. Additionally, since most African-Americans were born into these systems, they believed that they could not enjoy the same privileges as white Americans.
Colorism and racial prejudice are two factors that have continually affected people of color. While White Americans mostly exhibit racial prejudice, “colorism is an intergroup stratification generally associated with Black people in the United States, but present among all people of color” (Beck).It is an aspect that influences how people of the same perceive themselves as well as others. When Pecola accidentally a cat, her mother insults her color complexion, a point that highlights the existence of colorism in among African-Americans people. Coupled with the effects of racial prejudice, Pecola believes she is not as beautiful as anyone lighter-skinned than she is. She exhibits the same perceptions witnessed among Africans and African-Americans in the slavery era. Sadly, no one seems to be in a position to change her perception, and in the end, she escapes the harsh realities of her life. Her insanity gives her the one she yearns for in her life- blue eyes, and she finally seems happy with her “new appearance. Pecola’s behavior after her mental breakdown shows the effects of the unrealistic internalized ideals of beauty.
The internalized elements associated with beauty are ugliness is not only dangerous but also destructive, as they influence how people perceive themselves and the society in general. The notion that white and light-skinned people are more beautiful than their darker counterparts has existed for centuries. They are notions created by the slavery system and passed from one generation to another. Morrison highlights some of the perceptions African-Americans have towards themselves and as well as the white Americans. To some extent, the belief that white and light-skinned people are more beautiful than darker-skinned individuals has continually affected the socio-economic structure of many people, who belied that race or racial background determine success. Even though Peculo and her parents had the potential to work towards bettering their lives, their misguided perception of white and dark skin color limited their ambitions and desire to excel. Even though the modern society has many successful African-American individuals, many of them argue that they have had to change their perceptions about color and work towards better lives. Therefore, color and race are not crucial determinants of one’s success or failure in life.
Beck, Essence. “Colorism and Its Impact On Society.” The Odyssey Online, 26 Apr. 2016, www.theodysseyonline.com/colorism-and-its-impact-on-society. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.
Jones, Lu A. Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South. University of North Carolina Publishers, 2002.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Holt McDougal, 1970.