Beauty and Body Image in Two Novels by Joyce Carol Oates

In this paper, I’d like to discuss an issue for my future research with a title Body and Beauty Image in Two Novels by Joyce Carol Oates. The novels are Big Mouth & Ugly Girl and Freaky Green Eyes. I find several problems related to the issue of body and beauty image in these novels. They are how the protagonists in these novels describe their bodies; how they accept their bodies; how their bodies affect their life; and what they feel about their bodies. Furthermore, before the discussion I’d like to tell you the summary of the novels.
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is a young-adult novel by Oates which is released in 2003. The story is about a teenage girl, Ursula Riggs who doesn’t care what other people think about her. Ursula likes to confront people, especially when she knows she’s right and she is going to win the fight. That is Ugly Girl’s way. She calls herself Ugly Girl. Sometimes being Ugly Girl makes her has more power, she can do anything and be anything. She turns her lack becomes her excess. However, Ursula feels that her father and mother always seem to be more interesting in her sister than her. Her sister is beautiful and skinny, while Ursula Riggs is taller and bigger than most of the girls, some boys, even teachers. Somehow, people around her feel nervous or disturb by her attitude or her physical. And yes, she almost has no friend. One day, her classmate, Matt Donaghy, is going to be arrested because there is an accusation that he will blow up the school. Ursula doesn’t believe it and tries to free Matt from the false charge. Matt is free because of her. She is the only one who trusts in him while everybody avoids him. However, they don’t become friend because Ursula keeps avoiding Matt. Until, she accidently sees him when Matt is going to suicide. She stops it. Then, they become really close so people start to talk about them. Ugly Girl and Big Mouth are dating. Ursula feels different; while she’s with Matt she doesn’t have to use Ugly Girl. Then, it seems everything is much better in Ursula’s life.
Freaky Green Eyes is a young-adult novel by Oates which is released in 2003. The story starts with an alteration of a girl’s life. Francesca Pierson or Franky is a normal teenage girl, until one day everything changes. Freaky comes to her life. Freaky Green Eyes she calls her and it seems no one knows that she exists. Freaky comes to her at that night, when she is about to be raped and Freaky saves her life. She says, “Freaky Green Eyes, he called me. FREAKY GREEN EYES SAVED MY LIFE.” After that, Freaky always seems to know what has happened in Franky’s family while, Franky doesn’t want to know (accept) it. When Franky’s mom disappears, she blames her for leaving their family. Everyone is talking about it; police and reporter are investigating her father. Franky, her brother Todd, and her little sister Samantha swear if their dad is innocent and their mom is leaving of her own decision. Freaky always tries to tell her to convince her that Franky herself already knows the truth, but she doesn’t listen. Until, she has a dream and knows that it is a sign. Freaky tells her to follow the sign because if she follows it, she will find her mother at the end. However, what she finds is different from what she expects.
Having finished describing the story of the novels, I’d like to show you some of works related to the issues I find in the novels. They are:
1. A thesis for the degree of Scholar of Literature with a title Konstruksi Tubuh & Tehnik Espitolari Tiga Novel Gotik Abad ke-19 by Yolanda Priska Sari 2011 Universitas Padjadjaran,
2. A thesis for the degree of Master of Nursing with a title Young Women’s Voices on Body Image: The Beauty Myth, by Nadine P. Johnson November 1994 Dalhousie University,
3. A thesis with a title Grotesque Physicality: Female Excess in Angela Carter’s “Nights at the Circus by Helga Valborg Steinarsdóttir September 2009 Universitis Islandiae Sigillum,
4. A dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Literature (Feminist Studies) with a title Girl Avengers: Revising Feminist Approaches to Sexuality, Violence, and Power in Representation, by Katie M. Kanagawa December 2009 University of California.
1. The thesis by Yolanda Priska sari. This thesis analyzes body construction (grotesque body) in three gothic novels. It identifies that grotesque body is an abnormal body image just like there is a physical defect in that body. This thesis discusses a body that is supposed to be non-human body, for example like Frankenstein’s body. However, the main idea of this thesis can be related to the issue of body image. This research focuses on the concept of normal and abnormal bodies in society and how society and the character perceive it. The problem of the body is because there is a problem on what people (society) think about it. “Penggambaran tubuh normal disini merupakan penggambaran tubuh manusia pada umumnya yang sempurna, mempunyai anggota badan yang lengkap dan tinggi yang masih dalam batas normal. Penggambaran tubuh grotesk merupakan penggambaran tubuh tidak normal, seperti adanya kecacatan dalam tubuh tersebut.” (Sari, 2011).
According to Sari, the body image can be perceived in the protagonist, Ursula Riggs (Big Mouth & Ugly Girl). In Ursula’s perspective, she has an [un]usual body because she’s taller than any girls, some boys even some of her teachers. “I’d grown taller than my mom by the time I was thirteen, and I really liked that. …….. It felt good, too, to be almost as tall as my dad (who was six feet three, weighed over two hundred pounds), so he’d have to treat me more like an equal than just a child. …….. Most of all it felt good to be as tall as, in some cases taller than my teachers. Not one of the Rocky River female teachers was Ugly Girl’s height, and I always made sure I stood straight, like a West Point cadet, when I spoke with them.” (Oates, 2002). Furthermore in the reference, Ursula mentions that she likes being taller than anyone. It seems that Ursula takes some pleasures and advantages from her [un]usual body to become, somehow, more powerful. Thus, I will discuss that issue in other paragraphs. The same as the first novel, the second novel too, shows the body image of Franky (the protagonist of Freaky Green Eyes). She is viewed to have [ab]normal body. In Franky’s case it is her eyes, those are green, which some people think the eyes are creepy.
In Sari’s thesis, she quotes Kristeva’s Power of Horror that an image of a body which inappropriate, according to society agreement, will be looked as an ‘eyesore’ for the agreement. For example, some people in Ursula’s life feel disturb by her height. It is revealed when Grandma Riggs asks her, “Ursula, dear, when are you going to stop growing?” (Oates, 2002). It indicates that Ursula’s height fittingly disturbs her grandma because ‘girl’ supposes to have that kind of height in her age. Evidently, that [un]usual height of Ursula has upset the social construction of a female body which has supposed to be shorter than male[s] and people around her seem to be disrupted by her tallness.
Ursula’s body somehow annoys people, however Ursula too, thinks like that. For example, she uses to be on a swimming team at junior high school but she feels that she doesn’t fit in the ‘system’ — , because of her body doesn’t have the ideal shape of a female body like all of her friends when they are wearing swimsuit. At that time, she realizes that is how her body should look like because it is constructed by people, culture, and society. The development of Ursula’s body is faster than any girl at her age. Then, she quits and changes to other sports that she considers proper for her body. As the result, because of her body image doesn’t fit in what people defines as a normal body for a female, it makes Ursula calls herself as Ugly Girl, with big U and G. This state is also reviewed in the thesis; I quote “Jika tubuhnya dipandang menjijikan maka citra dirinya pun akan mengikuti seiring citra tubuh.” (Sari, 2011). Since her body is looked as an abnormal body by people, consequently Ursula too looks it that way. Then, Ursula embraces the fact that she is different and she is not one of the beautiful girls, who has normal height, by calling herself as Ugly Girl, even though no one has ever calls her Ugly Girl. People in school know and call her as Big Girl or Big Ursula, but they do think that she is weird, “Wow! Big Ursula”….. “Ursula Riggs! She’s weird”…… (Oates, 2002), and it seems that a girl like her did not proper to be liked by a guy. “They’re just friends, obviously. No normal guy would be attracted to Big Ursula” (Oates, 2002). They believe a big girl like Ursula will never find a guy who likes her because she is a weird girl who has big body. However, I think people consider Ursula as a weird girl because she too thinks she needs no friends, then she doesn’t socialize much and always gives them kind of ‘I don’t need you’ impression. Of course, people will avoid her.
Conversely, it will be a little bit different for Franky. Freaky Green Eyes comes to her because of a guy, Cameron, who tries to rape her but she fights back and then he says, “He’s staring at me saying, ‘You f-freak! You should see your eyes! Freaky Green Eyes! You’re crazy!’” (Oates, 2003). After that incident she takes Freaky Green Eyes as a part of her life because like she says, “FREAKY GREEN EYES came to me. FREAKY GREEN EYES saved my life.”(Oates, 2003). Ursula accepts the idea of Ugly Girl without any urge to suppress her, while Franky has resentment to suppress Freaky, “In the bathroom mirror Freaky Green Eyes glares at me. I feel a crazy urge to claw at those eyes.” (Oates, 2003). I think it is a little bit different for Franky. Freaky doesn’t come to her life because social construction of a normal female body and/or her felling about having unusual body, but because there is a person who calls her like that. That is the result of her struggle to fight the oppressor [which is Cameron who almost rapes her] which in this case saves her life. So in my opinion she feels like she owes Freaky her life and doesn’t have much option than let her to stay, but in other way she doesn’t really like the fact that someone thinks her as a freak. I believe that’s why Franky doesn’t embrace Freaky as fast as Ursula embraces Ugly Girl.
2. The thesis by Johnson. This thesis I find useful to my research because it uses literature theory about body and beauty image and discusses the process of self-critique which I recognize it happens in both novels, for example “There are four themes or patterns identified, within the domain of the self-critique process. The four themes are comparing, valuing, desiring and striving.” (Johnson, 1994). However, I notice the step for these protagonists is a little different. They are comparing, valuing, desiring and accepting.
Johnson states the first step is comparing. “The first step was comparing was intertwined with what they perceived that others thought of them. This formed what they thought of themselves…”(Johnson, 1994). The assessment of Ursula and Franky body approach them to see what people and/or social construction think. At first, none of them realizes that their bodies are different from the others until someone tells them. They see and hear what other people say and show if their bodies are [un]usual. Afterward, they will actually compare their bodies with others and find out that they don’t have an ideal image of a female body, “Through comparison, the participants developed a vision, an idealized image and a belief about how they should have looked.” (Johnson, 1994).
The second step is valuing, through valuing they seek recognition from other people to prove if they have benefit for society. In this step, they need to have approval from other people. Ursula and Franky, they feel the need to be admired and good at something. I think the reason behind this is because they think they are already lack of something, so they have to prove to people that they still have value. However if they fail, it will make them depress, upset and confuse. It happens at Ursula when she fails at Basket competition. I see that Ursula and Franky are somehow still confuse about themselves, and both of them picture themselves as what people say, as Johnson says if people especially women discover their true-self over other people’s eye. That is why both of them believe what other people judge about their bodies become what they really are.
The third and fourth steps from Johnson’s thesis are desiring and striving. From what I notice from the novels, it has different step from what this thesis states. Because the thesis is from nursing department, it states that the problems of desiring and striving make them have eating disorder, anorexic and other sickness result from dieting. However, both of the protagonists in these novels don’t do striving which is diet or make an effort to change themselves into the body they admire. Even though, they still have desiring other bodies. They have an ideal body image of how the body should look. The body Ursula admire is her little sister, “My kid sister’s eyes were so beautiful, warm and dark and fine-lashed like a doll’s eyes, that sometimes it was hard for Ugly Girl to be jealous of her.”(Oates, 2002). As same as Franky, her sister, “She was a dreamy ten-year-old with a sweet, shy disposition and beautiful dark eyes no one would ever call freaky.”(Oates, 2003).
As I see for these protagonists, the last step is accepting. Yet, they don’t make changes or in this case dieting to have an ideal body image which is constructed by society. They learn to accept their physical bodies and they use it to gain something than normal bodies can have. They want to be free from patriarchy culture. Then, I find Johnson writes, “Young women realize that beauty lends them limited power although beauty and youth provide only temporary acceptance and attention. The Cult of beauty is a survival strategy that allows women to maneuver safely around rather than threaten men’s privilege and power.” (Johnson, 1994). However, this condition doesn’t happen in Ursula. She chooses to make her body becomes taller and muscular to threaten male’s privilege and power so she can be free from that. Because if she chooses to become pretty, she has to bow to male’s power while what she wants is to exceed them.
3. Thesis by Helga Valborg Steinarsdóttir. This thesis discusses a grotesque body; however it is different with the first thesis. It focuses on the effect of the female who has grotesque body and people around her. This thesis argues that if a female embraces the physicality of her bodies, it will be a premise for female empowerment and can help reorder the social construction of the female bodies. And it explains the acceptance of grotesque physicality can be a weapon to defend itself against the perceived threat of it.
Steinarsdóttir claims that a female with a normal and ‘controllable’ body can easily expose and bent down to male’s hierarchy, which means if a female with an abnormal and uncontrollable body cannot be like. That is way this matter (abnormal and uncontrollable body) really helps Ursula because she realizes by embracing her body, she does not have to be afraid to confront people especially guy when she has to. It is like she has some kind of ‘privilege’ to behave like that. “Unlike other girls, I didn’t shrink away like a balloon deflating if guys teased me or said crude things meant to embarrass. … As if Ugly Girl would go down for any guy, or any human being, ever!” (Oates, 2002). Then, they seem to be intimidated by her because Ursula embraces Ugly Girl and people seem to avoid for making a contact with her even when they have to. Ugly girl gives Ursula more strength and power, and when she becomes Ugly Girl, it makes her doesn’t afraid of anything. Ugly Girl gives the chilly feel.
For Franky, that quote, actually, happens for a while. Franky obeys her father even though she knows if Freaky knows that he lies about her mom. Freaky doesn’t have much use for Freaky because when she uses Freaky to oppose people, she always gets punishment. She can’t antagonize the authority of man. It is like, people around her especially her father tries to make her behaves like a ‘proper’ girl, and when she doesn’t she gets punishment by her dad. She is being hits, slaps, shake until she gets traumatize to try to confront him again. This is another reason why Franky needs time to accept the whole Freaky. Even when she finally decides to oppose his father, she is still afraid of the idea of his anger. This situation constructs that a girl should behave precisely like what their parent/culture tell her and when the girl rebels them, she will get penalty. When she accepted a whole Freaky Green Eyes, Freaky had Franky to see the truth, to be brave and to release herself from her father’s authority.
In her thesis, Steinarsdóttir argues that when there is someone who sees them without think if their grotesque bodies are beauty rather than disgusting, that only happens to people who can accept something with unusual appealing, it will be the time they will see a beauty in themselves. It is exactly what happens to Ursula after Matt, the Big Mouth, tells her, “You’re beautiful, Ursula. Most like other girls but – in your own way. Special.” (Oates, 2002). And to Franky when she accepts that her eyes are beautiful green like her mom’s. I realize that Ugly Girl and Freaky Green Eyes, both of them are layers or suits for the protagonists. The suits will fit for some of the events but not all of it because there is time when both of them don’t have to put their ‘special suits’ to interact, to see, or to hear people.
4. The last work I’d like to review is a thesis by Katie M. Kanagawa. Kanagawa analyzes adolescent girl who behaves violence toward people as a result of their oppressions. This thesis identifies that this behavior can occur because there is oppression in the girl that emerges aggressive behavior. This thesis is useful to my research because the behavior presents in both novels. They act ‘violence’ and intimidate people who oppress them, and they gain power and pleasure upon people anxiety.
The thesis explains that “These narratives’ textual ambivalence and their feminist potential by exploring the dialectical processes of female sexual victimization and empowerment that they consistently produce.” (Kanagawa, 2009). What I conclude form that sentence is they intentionally built power and their confidence to produce such a behavior, it especially shows in Ursula. She constantly makes her body even more muscular. She even becomes vegetarian to make sure that whatever she eats doesn’t contain fat. According to Kanagawa’s statement, Ursula does all of that in order to maintain her body shape (an unlike women body shape) in order to maintain her position as a girl avenger by keeping her body like that.
Kanagawa helps me to recognize violence act of the protagonists. According to Kanagawa’s opinion in the thesis the oppression behavior doesn’t always happen in the protagonist’s everyday life. For example, when Ursula is with Matt or when she feels that her parents don’t annoy her, or when she is in happy mood. Ursula doesn’t have to be Ugly Girl, “It was strange about Ugly Girl. She was like a uniform, or a skin, I could slip into, but she wasn’t right for all occasion.”(Oates, 2002). This kind of behavior will not show if there is nothing that trigger the behavior in the first place because this matter only happens when Ursula feels threaten, disturb, and need to intimidate people. Ursula acts rude and sarcastic to make people respects and scares of her by using her [un]usual body as a tool to terrorize people. And when she does she takes pleasure and excitement from people’s anxiousness.
It is different for Franky; she doesn’t consistently produce Freaky because her [un]usual body is her eyes. I think it because her eyes are something that she can’t generate. You can’t make your eyes to be more muscular and beside Franky’s green eyes don’t really make people feel intimidate or disturb, even some people think they are pretty. Freaky comes to Franky because the almost-rape accident, her braveness to attack and reject Cameron makes him embarrass and breaks his pride as man. The man authority, in this case Cameron desire to rape Franky, which she ‘must’ follow and maybe Cameron isn’t expecting if Franky will disobey him, makes him says about Franky’s eyes to gain his pride again. So, her eyes only seem annoying for Cameron. Thus, I see that Franky knows she cannot use Freaky as a suit [as much as Ursula did] because Freaky Green Eyes is only a voice inside her head that can see and know what Franky can’t accept, for example the fact that her father is the one who kills her mom.
Furthermore, it is what Ugly Girl does as a suit for Ursula. Kanagawa observes if the uses of an aggressive act such as confronting, assaulting, and attacking her is in order for achieving her object. It happens to Ursula when she realizes who the informers which reports Matt to the principal with ‘fake’ information are and the one who kidnaps Pumpkin (Matt’s dog). Ursula confronts, forces, and threats them to admit and confess what they have done.
Kanagawa declares, “Girl avenger narratives feature adolescent girl subjects who engage in acts of violence to avenge their own (or other girls’ or women’s) sexual subjugation….. Rather than reiterating the paradigm of woman-as-agent versus woman-as-victim, these narratives posit dialectical relations between experiences of resistance and domination….. Girl avenger narratives posit domination as a key context for resistance, closing the distance between seemingly contradictory experiences.” (Kanagawa, 2009). Kanagawa improves me to understand why those two protagonists do confront, strike, and force people to achieve their aims. It is because they have experienced the resistance from people’s domination that oppresses their will and their freedom.
As I have discussed my issue and the four related works, I can conclude that the protagonists in these two novels consider their bodies as grotesque body or the abnormal body. Their bodies have been constructed by people/culture and society to be abnormal body because it is different than the other. And as society constructs, they believe and take it as a way to see their own bodies. They have to through some process so they can accept their bodies. They have been comparing their bodies with other bodies, valuing themselves by getting acknowledged from people, desiring the perfect ideal body image in their minds, and the last step is accepting their bodies. By accepting their grotesque bodies, somehow they can transgress themselves from what patriarchy constructs. They can their own pleasures and their will and nothing can block them because if there is something/someone who tries to oppress, to dominate, and to oppose them, they can show them a violence behavior which other girls can’t do. The issue, the problems, and the interpretation of my future research of body and beauty image in these novels which I have already discussed, I hope my paper can support and enrich other works relating to this issue.

Work Cited

Johnson, N. P. (1994). Young Women’s Voices On Body Image: The Beauty Myth. Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.
Kanagawa, K. M. (2009). Girl Avengers: Revising Feminist Approaches to Sexuality, Violence, and Power in Representation. University of California, Santa Cruz.
Oates, J. C. (2002). Big Mouth & Ugly Girl. New York: HarperCollins.
Oates, J. C. (2003). Freaky Green Eyes. New York: HarperCollins.
Sari, Y. P. (2011). Konstruksi Tubuh & Tehnik Epistolari dalam Tiga Novel Gotik Abad ke-19. Universitas Padjadjaran.

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