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In Toni Morrison’s first novel, eternal lessons on how to feel beautiful

When Toni Morrison was in elementary school more than eight decades ago, a school friend expressed her wish to have blue eyes. It was a shocking conversation that would inspire Morrison’s first novel, in which her main character, Pecola, is also a child praying for blue eyes, the only alteration she believes will make her beautiful. It is a heart-wrenching story, but one that has existed in different versions among girls whose traits are just at the margins of what is implicitly considered beautiful.

But beauty, argues Morrison, was not something “to behold.” It was rather “something one could do.”

How was one to do beauty? A reading of Morrison’s first novel might have some clues.

1. Engage critically with all messages within and without

Everyone looking at the Breedloves, at Pecola and her family, thought them ugly, narrates Morrison’s narrator, but even on a closer look one couldn’t identify the source of ugliness. It was merely a conviction that was further reinforced by billboards, movies and their experience interacting with others.

Central at doing beauty so that one can become it and experience it, is questioning the numerous messages that attempt to build such a destructive conviction, and seeking messages that attempt to build the opposite self-affirming conviction. Become aware of your insecurities, hair that is too kinky, a nose that is too large, skin that is too dark, thighs that are too thick, identify the sources of these insecurities and the logical problems in their constructions, and proactively seek self-affirming messages that deconstruct them.

This is how Lupita Nyong’o became beautiful. Her prayers for a fairer skin never did get answered. But even as the preference for lighter skin prevailed around her, she grew into her own definition of beauty by seeing herself in Alek Wek and consuming media messages that celebrated Alek Wek as beautiful.

2. Love deeply. Care for deeply.

A stable home and a mother who loved unconditionally gave Claudia and her sibling the confidence to stand apart, to see, and to question. With sympathy, Claudia narrates the struggles of the black women that have learnt to be a little less than themselves, who “hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free”, who do not cover their entire mouth with lipstick for “fear of lips too thick”, and who “worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.”

Where Claudia is young but perceptive, the violence in Pecola’s home has taught her to retreat into herself when she experiences indifference and hostility. But how does one who wishes to disappear confront and question that which one must disappear from?

To love ourselves deeply, to love others deeply, to maintain and nurture unconditional sustaining relationships, is how we get the confidence and courage to reject messages that attempt to diminish us.

3. Get beyond the shame of internalized self-loathing

Claudia knows that the Thing that made her and her sister lesser than Maureen Peal who was not as nice, or even as bright, that was the Thing that was to be feared.

But internalized racism and self loathing wasn’t just to be feared. One had to intellectually fight to root it out. One had to look for the source of ugliness and find it absent, to reconstruct a narrative that revealed the truth. As Lupita found out in due course, a day had to come when one decided that one just had to be beautiful.

And this intellectual journey towards the truth that dismantles racist beauty standards need not be a personal project. It can be a compassionate project for others in our lives. It can be an impact-driven project for entire communities as it was for Kwame Brathawaithe when he and his brother helped found a collective, African Jazz Art Society and Studios, that would celebrate black power and black beauty.

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