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 therefore more in line with American perceptions of beauty, which elevate European women’s features above my sister’s Ashkenazi Jewish ones or the Haitian ones of the characters in Edwidge Danticat’s short story Caroline’s Wedding. Unlike my sister, 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.
The narrator, Caroline’s sister Grace, does not outright say anything 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 would therefore be considered not as pretty as straight blond hair. 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.” In the next sentence, Caroline’s mother notes that she thinks she is “so American.” While her mother is referring to Caroline’s opinion on traditional Haitian soup, the placement of the two sentences links the changes Caroline makes to her hair to her Americanness.
Unlike her mother or older sister, who were both born in Haiti, Caroline was born in America. Throughout the story Grace emphasizes that Caroline is very American and that she has little connection to Haiti. 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 be noble and that 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, wishing that the rest of her arm would magically appear.
According to scholar Katharine Ott, “no one is disabled for all things; disability depends on the person, environment, and activity.” 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 on how she wants them to treat her arm; only her sister Grace strokes the stub the way Caroline likes.
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 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. 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 are 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 are drawn from her relatives’ experiences in real life. 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.
 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.
 Edwidge Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” in Krik? Krak! (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 160.
 Caroline’s Wedding, 160.
 Caroline’s Wedding, 161, 165.
 Caroline’s Wedding, 174, 194.
 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.
 Caroline’s Wedding, 174.
 Caroline’s Wedding, 174, 198, 203-204.