Morrison Deconstructs White Standards of Beauty in The Bluest Eye

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Words: 2289 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 2289|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison questions the origin and validity of truths imposed by white standards of beauty. The white standard of beauty is defined in terms of not being black, so in turn, blacks equate beauty with being white. Morrison examines this assumption in terms of its origin and validity, its growth and impact on her characters, and the long-term effects of this assumption on her characters.

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In addressing the origin and validity of socially accepted truths, Morrison questions whether theses truths are natural. In particular, is it natural to define beauty in terms of the opposition of whites to blacks? Michael Ryan's summary of Michel Foucault's ideology addresses the issue of the origins of truth in society:

The way knowledge is organized in the discourses of western society is allied with the organization of power in society. Power seeps into the pores of society rather than occupying a single-state site; over time power becomes part of the habitual everyday procedures and operations of such social institutions as the school, the hospital, and the workplace. Citizens learn to absorb and perform discipline themselves. Morality, all the various ways in which one is instructed to be "good," becomes inseparable from voluntary compliance. One no longer needs to be told what to do because one does it oneself automatically. (71)

Foucault's idea calls for a necessity to examine truth further in order to eliminate false assumptions created by the power of the society, especially when these false assumptions are social constructs believed to be natural truths.

Morrison answers this call in her story centering on the self-hatred and destruction of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove. Pecola is exposed to an impossible standard of beauty the moment she enters the world. Her mother's first reaction to Pecola is that she had a "head of pretty hair, but Lord was she ugly" (126). From the day Pecola is born, she is told she is ugly. Pauline, Pecola's mother, passes on the standard of beauty she has acquired from the world around her: "The sad thing was that Pauline did not really care for clothes and makeup. She merely wanted other women to cast favorable glances her way" (118). Because of the influence of the world on Pauline's ideas regarding beauty, Pecola is subjected to an impossible standard of beauty from the beginning moments of her life.

This impossible standard continues to remain a strong influence throughout Pecola's life. With every experience that confirms her ugliness, Pecola's self-hatred grows. One such experience is an encounter with a shopkeeper when she goes to purchase candy: "He does not see her, because for him, there is nothing to see" (48). Pecola realizes the shopkeeper does not even acknowledge her as a human being worth looking at, because, Pecola believes, she is ugly. No one she encounters gives her any reason to dispute her presumption, and thus Pecola maintains the belief that she is ugly. In response, she resorts to self-contempt and a desire to be beautiful, basing her standard of beauty on influences such as the "smiling white face" (50) looking back at her from her Mary Jane candy she purchases. Pecola desires to be like Mary Jane with "blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort" (50). Pecola believes cute white girls, like Mary Jane, are not subject to the ridicule she is. So, in turn, Pecola associates their beauty with love, or a lack of ridicule.

Pecola convinces herself that in order to be loved she must become beautiful.

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes... were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like some of those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they'd say, "Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of those pretty eyes." (46)

The standard of beauty Pecola is subjected to is strictly defined by white characteristics, therefore creating impossible standards for a black girl. Her self-contempt grows in direct correlation to her desire for blue eyes, or achieving the white standard of beauty.

The same self-hatred that consumes Pecola is demonstrated in varying degrees by many of Morrison's characters. Rather than resort to the madness that overwhelms Pecola, these characters use Pecola as a scapegoat for the suppressed self-hatred they possess. A group of black schoolboys illustrate this suppressed self-hatred when they rally around Pecola, mocking her blackness:

That they themselves were black... was irrelevant. It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They 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 that burned for ages in their hollows of minds... consuming whatever was in its path (65).

These boys demonstrate a blind embrace of white domination. As Foucault would argue, these boys no longer need to be told that black is equivalent to ugly. They proclaim this ideology automatically, ignoring any contradictions or unnatural tendencies they may demonstrate in the process. They fully accept the white standard of beauty, labeling Pecola ugly.

In the same way the boys determine "black" Pecola is ugly; they determine "whitish" Maureen Peal is beautiful. It is Maureen's beauty that prevents the boys from harming Pecola: "Maureen appeared... and the boys seemed reluctant to continue under her springtime eyes so wide with interest. They buckled with confusion, not willing to beat up three girls under her watchful gaze" (67). Maureen, "a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back," (62) is a physical demonstration of the black boys' standard of beauty. The combination of the boys' contempt for "black" Pecola and their desire for "whitish" Maureen illustrates the strong influence of the white standard of beauty, even for young schoolboys.

Blacks in Morrison's novel accept, even embrace, white domination; holding themselves to a white standard for everything, including beauty. Another example that truly demonstrates this to be a social construct is seen in the gift of a "blue-eyed Baby Doll" (20) for Claudia, a young black girl. Claudia recalls "all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured" (20). Still too young to understand the social construct placed upon her as a black girl, she rejects the white standard of beauty. Claudia did not find the doll beautiful; rather, she despised the doll. She rebelled against this assumed truth regarding beauty to the extent that she actually destroyed the doll. "To see what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me [Claudia,] but apparently only me [Claudia]" (20). Too young to be fully influenced by the world around her, Claudia shows resistance to the idea that it is natural for blacks to conform to a white standard of beauty. This experience illustrates Foucault's argument that the truths of society are not natural, but created by the power in society, in Morrison's novel, whites.

Claudia's resistance to the white standard of beauty relies solely on her youth and innocence. Similar to her disgust for the doll, Claudia finds herself alone in her distaste for the "cu-ute Shirley Temple" (19). While her older sister, Frieda, and Pecola adore the young actress, Claudia claims:

I couldn't join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it with me...Younger than both Frieda and Pecola, I had not yet arrived at the turning point in the development of my psyche which would allow me to love her. (19)

Claudia illustrates how her youth prevents her from acceptance and understanding of the black conformity to white beauty. Eventually, her youth fades and Claudia falls subject to the social beliefs imposed upon her. "I learned much later to worship her [Shirley Temple,] just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement" (23). Claudia's eventual love for Shirley Temple illustrates the power this social construction truly has. Despite Claudia's strong initial rebellion, she is lured into the white standard of beauty along with Morrison's other characters.

Morrison addresses the long-term effects of imposing this standard of beauty on her black characters. Geraldine is an example of black conformity to white standards of beauty gone badly. Geraldine "is not like some of their [Geraldine's] sisters" (82). She is raised in a very different environment than other black girls. The concern and acceptance of white standards is greatly emphasized in Geraldine's upbringing, even more so than in Pecola's. Geraldine's subjection and consumption of the social construct that whiter is better results in her affections becoming misplaced. Consumed by the obsession to make everything perfect in terms of white standards, Geraldine's "cat will always know that he is first in her affections. Even after she bears a child" (86). Adhering to the false social truths imposed upon Geraldine leads her to become null and void. She cannot even create or maintain an emotional attachment with her black baby. "Geraldine did not talk to him, coo to him, or indulge him in kissing bouts, but she saw that every other desire was fulfilled" (86). Geraldine passes on the ideologies she had been raised with. Ashamed of her blackness, Geraldine teaches her son that he is distinct from other blacks, saying, "Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud" (87). Geraldine's cold and practically non-existent maternal instincts, a result of her preoccupation with maintaining white standards and denying her blackness, produce a cruel little boy who helps contribute to the growth of madness brewing inside Pecola as she continues to strive for beauty and love.

Searching her whole life to be loved, the only person to finally demonstrate love for Pecola is her father, Cholly Breedlove. Unfortunately, the love Cholly gives is not exactly the love Pecola needs: "Love is never any better than the lover" (206). The same ideologies that result in the standard of beauty under which Pecola suffers is also at the root of Cholly's alcoholism, violence, and distorted views of love. Much like Pecola fools herself into thinking beauty will bring her love; Cholly distorts love until all he knows is how to "breed." Cholly demonstrates his love for Pecola in the only way he knows how; he rapes her.

As a result of her father's rape, Pecola becomes pregnant. The contempt from her mother and the rest of the community for her pregnancy quickly becomes distorted for Pecola. In achieving her goal of being loved, though a distorted love, Pecola becomes delusional with the idea that she has finally become beautiful. She becomes convinced the reaction of the world around her is not contempt for her pregnancy, but rather jealousy for her long awaited blue eyes. She becomes obsessive, repeatedly asking an imaginary other if, indeed, her eyes are the bluest. "A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by evil fulfillment" (204). Though convinced she has received her greatest wish, Pecola is left unsatisfied. She devotes her entire life to the white standard of beauty, and it leaves her mad and broken.

The effects of the tragic outcome resulting from the social construct imposed upon Morrison's characters extend beyond the Breedlove family. Young Claudia, still maintaining her rebellion against social norms concerning beauty, gives one last desperate attempt to point out the irrationalities involved in Pecola's situation. As she listens to the adults' judgment and contempt for the Breedlove family, she tries to maintain hope and faith in Pecola, and in the society that allowed this to happen to her: "More strongly than my fondness for Pecola, I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live- just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals" (190). In the end, Claudia and Frieda are the only ones to see beauty for what it really is. But with the loss of their youth comes the loss of this knowledge.

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Ryan states that "literature draws attention to such things as the construction of realities through signification and explores the undersides of social life that normality banishes from view... literature can be an important site for exploring the processes that Post-Structuralism claims are at work in western thinking, society, and culture, processes that must be otherwise violently suppressed if the dominant concepts of normality and reality are to be sustained" (69). This summarizes the purpose of literature such as The Bluest Eye. Morrison digs up "the undersides of social life that normality banishes from view" as she forces her readers to reconsider the "dominant concepts of normality and reality." This novel works to deconstruct the long-held notions of black and white oppositions. Morrison portrays her characters in such a way as to allow her readers to decide for themselves whether it is unreasonable or unnatural for blacks to maintain a white standard of beauty.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Morrison Deconstructs White Standards of Beauty in the Bluest Eye. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Morrison Deconstructs White Standards of Beauty in the Bluest Eye.” GradesFixer, 05 Nov. 2018,
Morrison Deconstructs White Standards of Beauty in the Bluest Eye. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Morrison Deconstructs White Standards of Beauty in the Bluest Eye [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Nov 05 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from:
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