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Since its 1987 publication in Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, Helena Maria Viramontes’s short story “Miss Clairol” has provided outsiders a look into the Chicana culture, and has also sparked a criticism for standards of beauty and femininity for all women—and especially for women of color. “Miss Clairol” follows the brief day of Arlene and her daughter Champ. As the story begins, the pair are walking through a K-Mart contemplating what color to dye Arlene’s hair, and what makeup would go well with a borrowed dress for Arlene’s date later that evening. After leaving the K-Mart, Arlene goes home and immediately starts the long process of getting ready for her date, while she leaves Champ alone to entertain herself and cook herself dinner.
Though there is not much action that takes place within the story, Viramontes allows readers to get into the heads of both Champ and Arlene. Throughout, Champ is ten years old and she has not yet hit puberty. Champ is a very imaginative child and she appears to be mystified by her mother’s beauty rituals and femininity, though Arlene vows to teach her how to be pretty one day. On the other hand, when in Arlene’s head there is a dichotomy or duplicity between appearances and reality, romanticizing versus realism in Arlene’s life. Arlene dreams of a better life for herself, aside from the “constrictions” of her economic status, race, and single motherhood. In fact, Arlene is so estranged from reality that she essentially ignores her children and lives in her own fantasy world. Through “Miss Clairol,” Viramontes explores multiple facets of femininity: beauty standards, puberty, white-washed Eurocentric ideals, and also the patriarchal sexualization of women.
The characters of Arlene and Champ illustrate the never-ending cycle for women who are and will always be stuck in the throes of the patriarchy and the Eurocentric world. Throughout the text there are consistent references to specific beauty products, which alludes to the fact that in order for women to be beautiful in the white-washed patriarchal society, they must put on literal masks of makeup and completely buy into the consumerism of the beauty industry, because they almost have no other choice. Nearly the first words of the work, Champ commences with the discussion of her mother’s varying hair colors: “for the last few months she has been a platinum ‘Light Ash’ blond, before that a Miss Clairol ‘Flame’ redhead, before that Champ couldn’t even identify the color—somewhere between orange and brown, a ‘Sun Bronze.’ The only way Champ knows her mother’s true hair color is by her roots which, like death, inevitably rise to the truth,” (Viramontes 1301). “Inevitably” rising to “truth” is Arlene’s black roots “like death,” the roots of her culture as a Chicana woman, in which she kills or disguises to essentially white-wash herself to conform more to American beauty standards. Herein, hair color becomes an identity for Arlene, in which she is able to become whomever she wants, and try on different personas. Arlene uses hair dye to both attempt to fit into American beauty standards of beautiful “Light Ash” blond women, and she also uses it to literally “mask” her roots—which doubles as her cultural roots. By dying her hair, a ridiculously light shade of blond, Arlene is literally killing her hair (culture), with the peroxide, ultimately meaning that she aspires to identify more with American beauty standards, than that of her Chicana culture.
After deciding on a hair color, Arlene requests Champ’s help in picking out a nail color: “She finally settles for a purple-blackish color, Ripe Plum, that Champ thinks looks like the color of Frankenstein’s nails,” (1301). First off, the color purple/black is repeated throughout the work, possibly as an allusion to the old anecdote “beauty is pain,” or it could also be a nod to Arlene’s past relationships and the physical and mental bruises that they have left on her. Secondly, the fact that Champ references the color of her mother’s nails to Frankenstein implies that she is fairly imaginative, yet naive. Also, Champ is not specific when she references Frankenstein, she could either be speaking of Doctor Victor Frankenstein who created the monster, or she could be referring to Frankenstein’s monster. Analysis of this quote could go either way: either Arlene is Dr. Frankenstein and she is about to mold a sexualized, “whitewashed”, feminine monster out of Champ once she comes of age, or Arlene is Frankenstein’s monster—a sewed up construction of parts of the dominant Anglo culture. In the work “Tapestries of Space-Time: Urban and Institutional Spaces in Helena Maria Viramontes’s Short Fiction,” authors Gutierrez and Muhs argue that, “Viramontes carefully lists several brand names: Aqua Net hairspray, the Maybelline ‘rack of make-up’ in the store, Jean Nat bath crystals, and the Calgon commercials that Arlene’s afternoon bath mimics. By providing such a detailed list, Viramontes parodies the relentless target marketing schemes of the cosmetics industry,” (Gutierrez and Muhs 126). To reference all of these different beauty products in such a short story emphasizes the fact that women are expected to buy into this consumer culture of the beauty industry as fashioned by the patriarchy.
Though not listed by specific names, the reader is overwhelmed by another excessive list of beauty products when Champ goes hunting for a bobby pin, Champ: “goes in the steamy bathroom, checks the drawers. Hairbrushes jump out, rollers, strands of hair. Rummages through bars of soap, combs, eyeshadows, finds nothing; pulls open another drawer, powder, empty bottles of oil, manicure scissors, kotex, dye instructions crinkled and botched, finally a few bobby pins,” (Viramontes 1302). This extensive list of beauty products nods to the ridiculous beauty standards put on women by society. In order to be deemed “beautiful” in the eyes of society, one must constantly alter and/or dye their hair, and essentially cake on a mask of makeup in order to disguise “ugly” natural features. For Champ, “though makeup and femininity all seem foreign and strange to her, Champ realizes that her mother is not only attempting to sexualize herself, but, more specifically, she is trying to conform to the white beauty standards that dominated, and still manage to dominate American culture,” (Guti?rrez and Muhs 125). Not only are beauty standards terrible for all women, but they are especially terrible for women of color in a white-washed world, therefore making them have to buy into the industry harder, and essentially disregard their culture in order to feel pretty in the eyes of male-dominated society.
Though Arlene tends to be more of a romantic, she tries very hard to sexualize herself to make herself look more pleasing in the eyes of men, and therefore attempts to conform to the dominant Eurocentric feminine beauty standards of the time. Among the first descriptors of Arlene is when she is shopping in K-Mart with Champ, and she is “wearing a pink, strapless tube top. Her stomach spills over the hip hugger jeans.” (Viramontes 1301). The color “pink” for a tube top screams femininity, due to the fact that pink is culturally associated in America as an incredibly feminine color. Also, the image of Arlene’s stomach spilling over her jeans implies that they are too tight and constricting her womanly body. As Viramontes describes Arlene’s outfit, one cannot help but compare it to that of a teenage girl. Arlene is desperately trying to be sexually attractive, even though her body does not fit into what the perfect Eurocentric cultural construction of what beauty is, but since she is desperate to conform she shoves herself into pants two sizes too tight to where she is incapable of even bending down. The next sexualized and significant detail that Viramontes gives readers of Arlene is that, “she has a tattoo of purple XXX’s on her finger like a ring,” (1301). It is significant that the tattoos on Arlene’s finger is a “purple XXX,” the purple, which is a recurrent color throughout the piece nods to the domestic violence that Arlene has endured from previous relationships with men, and the bruises that she had to show from the failed unions. The “XXXs” are a common cultural symbol for adult content or pornography, and since they are wrapped around “her finger like a ring” this implies that Arlene is married to the overt patriarchal construct of feminine sexuality.
Another instance that illustrates Arlene’s uncomfortable conformity to feminine beauty is when Arlene is squeezing herself into her friend Pancha’s dress: The dress is made of chiffon, with satin-like material underlining, so that when Arlene first tried it on and strutted about, it crinkled sounds of elegance. The dress fits too tight. Her plump arms squeeze through, her hips breathe in and hold their breath, the seams do all they can to keep the body contained. But Arlene doesn’t care as long as it sounds right. (1302). The dress “crinkled sounds of elegance,” which implies that Arlene does not care if she is uncomfortable, due to the fact that her in the dress sounds like money. But, yet again, the garment is “too tight,” and it keeps her body constrained, essentially to the mold of appealing femininity. Appearance versus reality becomes a prominent theme throughout the piece. None of these clothes that she is squeezing herself into allows her any room to breathe, she is constrained physically by her clothes, and she is constrained metaphorically by the patriarchy. This quote is also a nod to Arlene’s sub-proletarian class, she does not have enough money to afford her own fancy dress, but rather, she has to shove herself into her friend Pancha’s dress in order to have the appearance that she is wealthy and living the whitewashed American dream. But in reality, Arlene is a Chicana woman who will never be able to conform to Eurocentric notions of femininity. In his article “’You talk ‘Merican?’: class, value, and the social production of difference in Helena Maria Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus” Dennis Lopez argues that in “Chicano nationalist discourse, Chicanas can occupy only one position, either as the self-renounced female, lamadre abnegada (suffering mother), the passive virgin, or the embodiment of female treachery and sexual promiscuity,” (Lopez). In “Miss Clairol,” Viramontes breaks this Chicana stereotype through the character of Arlene. Arlene is a struggling single mother, yet, she is not exclusively the “self-renounced female,” or “the embodiment of female treachery and sexual promiscuity,” but rather, she is just a woman who is doing the best that she can. Though she is a mother, she breaks the Chicana stereotypes. It is made clear that Arlene has sexual needs, and that she needs men in order to be happy—which somewhat takes over her care for her children.
Overall, Arlene does the best that she can to live her best life, despite her inability to perfectly conform to whitewashed feminine beauty standards. Throughout the story, there is a tension between Champ’s innocent youth and her upcoming sexual maturity. Arlene spends a good deal of the short story contemplating how to have “the talk” with Champ concerning her impending womanhood. Gutierrez and Muhs argue that “Arelene is estranged from many realities in the narrative, including single parenthood… Arlene’s alienation is so thorough that she opts for romance over reality where her daughter’s emergent sexuality is concerned. When Champ begins puberty, her mother is prepared to lie about her own sexual initiation. (129-130)” (Gutierrez and Muhs). This duplicity is made most apparent when Arlene thinks back to her first time having sex, and contemplates whether to tell her the reality, or the romanticized situation. The story that are Arlene wants to tell Champ is: “the first time she made love with a boy, her awkwardness and shyness forcing them to go under the house, where the cool, refined soil made a soft mattress,” (Viramontes 1303). But the reality, the story she will not tell Champ is: “that her first fuck was a guy named Puppet who ejaculated prematurely,” (1303). In this first quote, the idealization of a romantic first sexual encounter, Arlene makes “love” to the boy, which has positive connotations. However, in the second quote, Arlene talks about her first “fuck,” herein, this language is very harsh, as opposed to the latter, and it illustrates the reality of what losing her virginity was like, and she knows that Champ will have to go through a similar experience, but she thinks that by romanticizing the experience Arlene will be a good mother and ease the awkwardness.
According to her own account, Arlene lost her virginity at eleven years old, and Champ is ten years old, which means that Arlene is under the impression that the sexualization of Champ is waiting right around the corner. Yet, Champ does not feel comfortable with her impending womanhood, instead she dresses up in “one of Gregorio’s white T-shirts, the ones he washes and bleaches himself so that the whiteness is impeccable. It drapes over her deflated ten-year-old body like a dress.” (1302). The T-shirt “drapes” over Champ’s “deflated” ten-year-old body, this implies that she has not yet been sexualized, she has not yet hit puberty. In addition, the T-shirt being draped over her “like” a dress, furthers the idea that Champ has yet to be sexualized, and she does not know how to feel about her body at this point in time and she therefore hides it behind a baggy boy shirt. The fact that Champ is wearing one of Gregorio’s treasured white shirts implies that at this point in her ten-year-old life, she is not a slave to gender norms, unlike her mother Arlene.
In “Miss Clairol,” Viramontes shows the perpetuation of beauty standards and femininity through Arlene’s generation to Champ’s. Though at the time of the story, Champ has not yet been sexualized, one is constantly reminded of the impending doom of puberty and the challenges Champ will have to face in order to thrive in the male-dominated Eurocentric world. However, through Champ’s character, Viramontes offers women a glimmer of hope, yet, will not conforming to standards of the patriarchy allow one to live a pleasant life?
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