Morrison and Unlearning Women’s Bodies

While discussing threads/patterns/images/etc. in Toni Morrison’s Paradise and Dante’s Paradiso this week, Emily brought up the idea of working to “unlearn.” Our group applied this to multiple facets of the society we live in today, including our ideas of race and gender. After class, I started to think about unlearning in relation to the way we look at women’s bodies and how that gaze affects the individual woman. The more I thought about it, I came to realize that this is something Morrison also addresses in her novel The Bluest Eye.

Pecola Breedlove, in the course of her life up until the events of the novel, is conditioned to believe in certain standards and ideals of beauty. In this case, she is desperate for blue eyes, the bluest eyes possible, because she has been taught by the world she lives in that this is what she should aspire to. The problem, though, is that a body is something that cannot be changed. Of course, nowadays we have developed technology in order to do just that. Yet, there is a fundamental difference in altering one’s personality or status in comparison with altering one’s physical being.

This desire to fundamentally and permanently change one’s body can possibly signify deeper roots. In Pecola’s case, it is bred of Pecola being raised to believe that she is ugly. The reinforcement of this belief results in her obsession with beauty (this particular manifestion of it: blue eyes) and, eventually, her insanity. Beauty is something that is ingrained in our ideas of success and happiness; however, recently there has been growing popularity in the movement of body acceptance and seeing inner beauty. Pecola’s problem is that she doesn’t see her inner beauty; she has not learned that, because it is not part of the society’s culture. This little girl quantifies her self-worth with how another’s gaze defines her.

What is being taught in The Bluest Eye is what Emily pointed out in class: the need to unlearn what has been taught. Pecola needs to unlearn the ideal of beauty society has burned into her mindset. Or, at least, unlearn its importance. Paralleling her last name, Pecola must learn how to breed love within herself for herself, rather than look to change herself in order to find love and happiness. The problem is that this is an issue running rampart through various cultures and societies to this day. To be anything less than perfect has potentially devastating results, especially for a girl at an age as young as Pecola. For it to be constantly emphasized during her formative years that she is ugly creates the dangerous territory in which she would internalize that belief. This is, essentially, what she does. In order for her to reverse the negativity that is impacting her life as a result, she must unlearn these childhood teachings that proclaim: one kind of beautiful and many kinds of ugly. She must learn acceptance and self compassion.

Pecola’s low self-esteem parallels that of many young women in the world today, who look to others and see themselves as inferior because they don’t exactly resemble that one image of ideal beauty. Morrison, thus, addresses the critical issue and shows us the danger of losing who you are in order to reshape yourself into the ideal defined by society’s gaze. The danger of confusing love and beauty.

One Reply to “Morrison and Unlearning Women’s Bodies”

  1. Thank you so much for referencing my thought that Morrison’s literature works as a means of getting us to assess our biases. I find that this thread is important especially now. I also want to thank you because you draw an analogy to another one of Morrison’s works, encouraging me to continue studying how exactly Morrison wants us to deconstruct the linear history we have learned. I was in my humanities class today and was asked by my professor if I believed that all of us have a “bit of fascist” in us. Going off of this bias question, which we are learned, I think it’s important to realize that all of us are capable of committing “bad” things. It’s important to humanize these bad things so that we know how to get past it. What do you think?

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