'The Bluest Eye' in a Brave New World

11/09/2011 02:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012
  • Stacia L. Brown Writer, mother, adjunct professor, and contributor to

The mirror does not tell you who you are. It is an objective pane, delivering unbiased reports: here is a nose; it has two nostrils -- one of which is adorned with a ring. Here are your ears; the lobs are attached. And there are your equidistant eyes; they function as they were intended.

We disbelieve these facts. They cannot be trusted, without any of our personal skewing. The mirror cannot just show you a unibrow; the unibrow must be evaluated. It is unsightly, disgusting, cro-magnon, if left unplucked. The forehead cannot simply be present; it must be bulbous or pimpled or scarred.

We know too well the premium placed on a pleasant appearance, on a body that yields -- either by nature or the knife -- to societal expectations.

And so we want more from the mirror than its simple truths. We want it to affirm worth and to assign value.

Short of that, we'll seek our validation elsewhere. If we're fortunate, we'll find it in ourselves and in the reassurances of guileless loved ones. If we're not, there will be no end of offers; everyone will be all too eager to tell us what we deserve -- and what we should be willing to risk to attain it.

Dr. Gregg Homer of California is a part of that chorus, having recently announced his invention of a surgical method for permanently turning brown eyes blue. In so doing, he aims to convince the public that blue eyes are not just aesthetically superior, but spiritually preferable, too:

"The eyes are the windows to the soul, [there's] this idea that people can actually see into it -- a blue eye is not opaque. You can see deeply into it, and a brown eye is very opaque, and I think that there is something meaningful about this idea of having open windows to the soul."

Never mind that the soul-window trope is more romantic metaphor than incontestable fact. Set aside that there is nothing more arbitrary indicator of physical beauty than the color of a person's irises.
This surgery, which may be available in the US in as few as three years, carries the warning of significant visual impairment in the long-term. It might cause glaucoma.

Why would anyone spend time developing a cosmetic procedure that creates physical harm where none was previously present?

For the answer to that, turn to Toni Morrison. More specifically, look to her seminal 1970 work, The Bluest Eye and its tragic heroine, Pecola Breedlove:

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes... were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.

She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.

Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty... A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. His outrage grew and felt like power. For the first time he honestly wished he could work miracles.

The world is full of Pecola Breedloves. They aren't all black. They aren't all poor. But they are all desperate to change themselves, and surgeons have built an empire by preying on them.

Cosmetic surgery is an oiled rope. You cannot grasp it and remain where you are. The moment you "correct" what you perceive as an "imperfection," you are on a slide. Once you've convinced yourself that you will be "better" when you are "fixed," you will be tempted to invent other flaws in need of immediate repair.

Pecola was right about one thing: changing your physical appearance in painful and permanent ways will make you different. Whether or not those differences are positive ones is highly debatable.

See Li'l Kim. Consider Heidi Montag. Ask a Jackson.