Beauty and Belonging: Decoding Our Social Norms With An Eye Toward Race

Beauty might seem insignificant as a concept, but it’s not. Things and people who are “beautiful” get certain advantages. They’re welcomed into exclusive spaces, seen as having special value, even judged to be “good.” And there’s a flipside. Since there’s a benefit when society sees you as beautiful, there’s also a cost when society doesn’t.

The first part of The Black Experience in America: The Course centers on identity. Cycle 1 is Double Consciousness, named after W.E.B. Du Bois’s exploration of the tension between being both American and African. After we introduce the concept in Lesson 1 and explore its historical roots through Shakespeare’s Othello in Lesson 2, we take on the beauty issue in Lesson 3, The Bluest Eye.

As the lesson title suggests, the central text in the Lesson 3 is Toni Morrison’s first book. The main characters are Black girls navigating a world that fails to affirm their beauty, and that damages them in various ways. One little girl, Pecola Breedlove, comes to believe that if she can just get blue eyes, they will fix everything. Of course, she can’t really get blue eyes. And the truly ugly thing is the way the people around Pecola are destroying her.

When I taught this lesson to the group of kids over the summer, I also showed them a clip from the movie Clueless. When the Tai character arrives at a high school with such clear lines of belonging, it shows how beauty standards play out in both spoken and unspoken ways.

A real standout in the lesson, though, was an old MTV Decoded video, The Problem w/ White Beauty Standards. Sometimes when we take a step back and consider some of the negative messages the culture sends, we can defang them. That’s what this lesson tries to do.

Remember, you can take portions of The Course online. You are among the first to know about The Course, and I appreciate your early support. Remember, you can buy a lesson bundle, and send others the link:

Also, it’s now easy to purchase a lesson as a gift:

New: Buy a $5 lesson in The Course for someone else! Fully-paid access to an interactive lesson will go to the email address of your choice. This is a great option for introducing kids to the lessons.