“I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me.”
― Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
When I was a little girl, my mother bought me a doll. It was a doll from an expensive boutique in Paris: she had rosy cheeks and long dreamy lashes. Her eyes were blue, and they closed when you lay her down. When you propped her up again, they opened. I was fascinated by how lifelike this attribute was, but what fascinated me most was the color of her eyes and her skin: so blue! so white! I named her Sleeping Beauty.
Sleeping Beauty’s name has always varied: some call her Briar Rose, some call her Rosamond. Disney names her Aurora. However, in the most popular version of the story, Charles Perrault left the princess anonymous. Before she falls into a deep sleep, she is called Beauty, because she has been given the gift of perfect beauty by her fairy godmother. While she sleeps, she is called Sleeping Beauty, for that is all she is. When the prince comes to rescue her, she is laid down in her beautiful bedchamber, sleeping. Fixed; passive; perfectly beautiful. He falls in love with her beauty, what else does he know of her?
All the fairytales have beautiful women, of course. In the cast of Disney princesses, Aurora is white; Ariel is white; Belle is white, Cinderella is white; Snow White is white. There are princesses of color – Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas, the late addition Tiana. However, the kind of beauty they possess is still the most narrowly-defined version of beauty: there is very little variation of features between the white princesses and the princesses of color. The nonwhite princesses have almost the same facial features: almost the same dimensions of cheekbone, of lip, of nose and chin. There is only enough variation to mark them ‘Other.’ Dye Belle’s hair, stain her skin with brownness, and Jasmine emerges. The brown/black is only coded as beautiful when it retains a certain percentage of whiteness. It’s a phenomenon that works both ways. In reverse, it’s what I call featural appropriation. The features that are mocked or satirized on the black/brown body are praised when they are transplanted to a white woman. Like cultural appropriation, it is a systematic deconstruction of our culture, our features: some of our parts are taken, and the rest are left discarded on the floor. We are discarded.
Jasmine’s precursor, is, of course, Princess Badroulboudour from The Thousand & One Nights. She is described as:
“the most beautiful brunette in the world; her eyes were large, lively, and sparkling; her looks sweet and modest; her nose was of a just proportion and without a fault; her mouth small, her lips of a vermilion red, and charmingly agreeable symmetry; in a word, all the features of her face were perfectly regular.”
Compare that description to this, from Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days:
‘…her fine eyes resumed all their soft Indian expression.When the poet-king, Ucaf Uddaul, celebrates the charms of the queen of Ahmehnagara, he speaks thus: “Her shining tresses, divided in two parts, encircle the harmonious contour of her white and delicate cheeks, brilliant in their glow and freshness. Her ebony brows have the form and charm of the bow of Kama, the god of love, and beneath her long silken lashes the purest reflections and a celestial light swim, as in the sacred lakes of Himalaya, in the black pupils of her great clear eyes..” It is enough to say, without applying this poetical rhapsody to Aouda, that she was a charming woman, in all the European acceptation of the phrase.’
Princess Badroulboudour is described as having “perfectly regular” features, because regularity and symmetry are pleasing to the eye, charming, agreeable, faultless. If beauty is described as regular and faultless, we presume that ugliness is the opposite. Something irregular, some fundamental fault-line in the topography of the female face, some fearful asymmetry that causes ugliness. Ucaf Uddaul describes the queen’s charms similarly: her cheeks are “harmonious contours.” What is ugly is not merely ugly, then. It offends harmony. It offends symmetry.
Verne goes on to describe Aouda as a “charming woman in all the European acceptation of the phrase.” Her eyes have a “soft Indian expression”: she is described as fundamentally Other but still acceptable by European standards of beauty, which is paramount. Verne in his benevolence makes sure to let us know that the particular kind of foreign beauty that Aouda has does not prevent her from also fitting into the mould that would be considered a beautiful woman in England.
I had an Indian friend once who asked me, on a trip home: “what do white boys think of Indian women? Do they think we’re pretty?” The question hurt me, just as it hurt me to see the Youtube comment on a Selena Gomez video: “I’m Indian and proud to see that Selena Gomez likes our culture. I never thought people would know so much about India like she does [sic].” Both were questions shaded with such innocence, how could I possibly begin to explain to either person the complex realities surrounding their assumptions? More importantly, I thought, I didn’t need to. Perhaps it would be enough to just say: “White people’s opinion of our beauty, our culture, doesn’t matter”- but then, who would be satisfied with that answer, when it clearly did? How can I describe the specific wound left by the white women on online dating sites who say “only white men” or that left by the white men who say “you’re attractive, for a [X ethnicity]?” We do not dare disclaim or minimize the woundedness of little black girls who grow up in a time with too few Lupita Nyong’os. We know what happens to a wound when it festers.
Beauty is pain, goes the saying, but what does that mean? My grandmother tells me it means that one must suffer to be beautiful. There is a certain kind of suffering, perhaps, in female beauty rituals. We pluck our eyebrows, we wax our legs, we ache in our stilettos. We go hungry and we zip ourselves into dresses that make it difficult to walk. And still, I am dissatisfied with that construction of the phrase. Is it, instead, that pain is beautiful?
Many men have told me they are attracted to sad girls, girls who are in pain, girls who need to be rescued. There is a romanticism, they tell me, in loving a sad girl, because they feel vindicated when they can make them smile. There is an exquisite vulnerability in the performance of sadness and pain that they seek out, that is beautiful in itself. When women weep in television and movies and books and even in songs, it is often an aesthetic affair: tears stream down their cheeks, their eyelashes are darkly matted with mascara, their mouths droop downward in an irresistibly sad line that speaks of sorrow but also of beauty.
Beauty is pain. Beauty causes pain, too. “She was so beautiful it hurt” is a phrase often heard: it describes the bone-deep ache we feel when we see a sunset or a city skyline at night. We ache because it is temporal, we ache because we cannot grasp it, we ache because we cannot comprehend it. But that is not the only pain caused by Beauty.
A while ago, I wrote a poem called ‘Color’. It’s about a young girl and her pretty blonde doll that she keeps locked in a closet, for fear it will fly away. The girl in the poem is a little brown girl, and as she grows older, the doll changes in her image: it transforms; its whiteness is destroyed. As I illustrated it, I noticed (for the sake of convenience, I’d begun with the white doll and overlaid its features with brown paint, black hair) that the smiling expression of the doll in the first frame was rapidly disappearing. It wasn’t that I was erasing her smile, it was that her smile was naturally eroding under the weight of the red lips, the dark skin I’d drawn on. The more color I added to the frame, the unhappier she grew.
As color seeped into her world, so did pain. Awareness of beauty hurts, but not as much as the awareness of ugliness, the awareness of lack. In Toni Morrison’s tale, Pecola longs for blue eyes so much; suffers so much as a little black girl that “the matrix of her agony” is filled with death. The awareness of our lack of beauty forces us to strip away skin, to bleach it, to cover up darkness. Beauty is a construct, but who will tell that to those who deconstruct themselves in the search for beauty?
Like Pecola’s friend, I scanned my own doll as a child for the signs of the beauty that had escaped me. I tried to dismember it, to find the secret of the desirability that had not escaped me. I locked my doll in a cupboard, because her beauty hurt me. She was a doll, she decayed. I remained.