Caroline’s Hair and Caroline’s Arm: Body Image and Disability in Caroline’s Wedding

When my younger sister was thirteen, someone told her that she should chemically straighten her very curly hair. This person believed that she would look “better” if her hair was permanently straight and more in line with American perceptions of beauty. Such perceptions elevate non-Jewish European women’s features above my sister’s Ashkenazi Jewish ones. Similarly, black Haitian physical characteristics, such as those displayed by the characters in Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Caroline’s Wedding,” can sometimes attract negative comments from white Americans. Unlike my sister, Danticat’s character Caroline does not face any explicit pressure to change her hair in the story. Nevertheless, Danticat makes it clear that Caroline has American ideas about beauty and equates European features with attractiveness. Caroline feels like she must live up to American beauty standards partially because she has a visible disability which sets her apart from others and affects how they see her.

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Hair Salon (Photo Courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

The narrator, Caroline’s sister Grace, does not say anything explicit about Caroline’s opinion of her own beauty, but Danticat shows that Caroline has a negative self-image. Her natural hair is dark and curly and, therefore, many whites would not consider it as pretty as straight blond hair.[1] While Caroline is talking to her mother and sister, she “brushed aside a strand of her hair, chemically straightened and streaked bright copper from a peroxide experiment.”[2] In the next sentence, Caroline’s mother notes that she thinks she is “so American.”[3] While her mother is referring to Caroline’s opinion of traditional Haitian soup, the juxtaposition of the two sentences links the changes Caroline makes to her hair to her Americanness.

Unlike her mother and older sister, who were both born in Haiti, Caroline was born in the United States. Throughout the story Grace emphasizes that Caroline is very American and that she has little connection to Haiti.[4] However, the downside to Caroline’s assimilation is that she feels much more pressure to conform to American beauty standards than her mother or sister, who feel comfortable in their own skin. Caroline’s hair reveals the ways in which she has become American, but cannot completely break with her Haitian background. She can force her hair to become permanently straight, but cannot completely change its color.

Caroline also feels more pressure to appear “normal” because she is visibly set apart from others in a way her mother and sister are not. She was born without part of one arm and it is clear that she has negative feelings about her disability. Their mother confesses to Grace that part of her dislike of Caroline’s fiancée comes from her fear that he is only marrying Caroline to appear noble towards a person with a disability. Both parents worried Caroline would struggle to find a husband because of her arm. While neither parent spoke of this to Caroline, she picked up on their idea that she should be pitied because she is disabled. Consequently, she wished that the rest of her arm would magically appear.[5]

According to scholar Katherine Ott, “no one is disabled for all things; disability depends on the person, environment, and activity.”[6] In the story, Caroline’s arm never prevents her from doing anything, which emphasizes that her issues with her disability stem entirely from how others see her. For most of her life, she has been unable to control how others react to her arm. She cannot stop them from glancing at it and focusing on how different she looks than other people. Only those close to Caroline listen to her preferences regarding how she wants them to treat her arm; only her sister Grace strokes the stub the way Caroline likes.[7]

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Prosthetic arm, similar to the one bought by Caroline (Photo Courtesy, Flickr)

At several points in the story, Caroline attempts to take control over her arm. When she was younger, she fantasized about cutting her stub. While she does not actually do that, her choice not to do so is a way of showing that she decides what happens to her body. Before her wedding, she buys a prosthetic arm as a gift to herself, hoping that it will help with the phantom pain she has been feeling in her stub. While the robotic false arm does not look normal, placing a glove over it helps shield Caroline from strangers ogling her arm. It also changes how her fiancée views her; he begins stroking it, apparently more interested in the fake arm than her stub. Caroline never uses the arm for any practical purpose and does not plan to wear it every day.[8] But by buying it, she can control whether other people view her as someone who is disabled.

Just as Caroline attempts to take ownership of her arm, her decision to chemically straighten and dye her hair is not just an endeavor to appear more American, they are a way of asserting that her body is her own. Throughout her life, Caroline feels that it is necessary to change her body in response to how others see her. Her story is fictional, but in a 2014 interview, Danticat stated that several of the plot details in “Caroline’s Wedding” were drawn from her relatives’ experiences in real life.[9] Caroline’s response to American beauty standards and others’ view of her disability should not be read in a vacuum, but as issues that people in real life struggle with.

[1] Julie A. Willett, “Feminism,” The American Beauty Industry Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2010): 113; Tracey Owens Patton, “Hey Girl, Am I More than My Hair?: African American Women and Their Struggles with Beauty, Body Image, and Hair,” NWSA Journal 18.2 (2006): 30.

[2]  Edwidge Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” in Krik? Krak! (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 160.

[3] Caroline’s Wedding, 160.

[4] Caroline’s Wedding, 161, 165.

[5] Caroline’s Wedding, 174, 194.

[6] Katherine Ott, “Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History,” in Disability Histories, ed. Susan Burch and Michael Rembis (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 119, 121.

[7] Caroline’s Wedding, 174.

[8] Caroline’s Wedding, 174, 198, 203-204.

[9] “Interview with Edwidge Danticat about Caroline’s Wedding,” YouTube video, 6:06, posted by “Easmanie Michel,” October 3, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMpv2OzcDKQ.

5 thoughts on “Caroline’s Hair and Caroline’s Arm: Body Image and Disability in Caroline’s Wedding

  1. I like how you compared the way Caroline thinks about her arm to how she thinks about her hair. Since her arm doesn’t prevent her from doing anything, I wonder if we should even think about it as a disability, or if it’s purely a question of body image. It seems like her main concern, as with her hair, is “fitting in.”

  2. I love the connections drawn between the disability discussions a few weeks ago and the readings for this week! It’s a very interesting point, that between willing her disability away and breaking with her mother’s traditions, she is trying to be more American than Haitian. Navigating those waters can be difficult, as we saw in the story. I wonder what your take is on the mother’s reaction to Caroline’s actions?

  3. This is an interesting take on issues with identity. Although appearance is not everything, from Caroline’s story we can see that it means a great deal to some people’s self-identitfication. You bring up interesting points!

  4. You can really see the frustration that Caroline feels about the things about herself that she cannot control. I feel as though attempting to become more “American” was more important to Caroline than her other family members because she was determined to not have more of a reason to stand out in a place where she was not considered “normal”. I like that you pointed out that this story is applicable to all people from all walks of life, I agree that it is important to consider these real life issues.

  5. You raise some very interesting points that have made me question a little of what I read. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that these changes were more from the societal pressure of “Americanized Beauty” not from her taking agency over her body.

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