The Story Of My Body
Growing up as an immigrant in a racialized America, Judith Cofer reflects on her upbringing while weighing the effect that American society had on her and how it paralleled with her earlier life in Puerto Rico. She elaborates on how geographical and cultural differences impacted each experience by attempting to conform her to the stereotype that local society viewed as acceptable. Thematically, the personal essay The Story of my Body explores concepts such as corruption of innocence due to discrimination, the ambiguity of race as a social construct, and the definition of identity in order to highlight the absurdity of societal issues.
With each story told, Cofer’s innocent, unsuspecting mind came to face the corrupt nature of the world. After Cofer experiences her first instance of color prejudice, she says, “It was simply the first time I considered- if naively- the meaning of skin color in human relations”(Cofer 395). Through experiences like these, she gains insight into how the racialized America she lives in actually operates. According to an article written by psychologist Sumie Okazaki, “… subtle and covert forms of racism affect psychological health of racial minorities”(Okazaki 103). With every instance, her innocence becomes corrupt as she is forced to mature prematurely. Due to being exposed to racism at such a young age, immigrants such as Cofer tend to become insecure or create a persona as a shield from the discrimination they face. Another instance of highlighting the absurdity of societal issues is seen when she states, “As with the color of my skin, I didn’t consciously think about my height or my size until other people made an issue of it” (Cofer 396). This not only exemplifies how society corrupted her innocence but also shows how ridiculous the problems society faces actually are; Growing up, people were not born knowing and understanding concepts such as racism, prejudice, or discrimination- they are taught behaviors. By sharing her stories, Cofer tries to show the audience that society’s discriminatory problems are self-made as most of the problems that society faces were not made aware to her until “other people made an issue of it”(Cofer 396).
Additionally, this point of children not being aware of societal problems until adults emphasize it highlights the ambiguity of race as a social construct. Cofer opens her story with an impactful and memorable line: “I was born a white girl in Puerto Rico but became a brown girl when I came to live in the United States”(Cofer 393). This exemplifies the made-up nature of race as how can you be considered one race in one country and a different one in another? This shows how race is a label created by society in order to create a social hierarchy that favors the white race. The New York Times elaborates on this by stating, “Race is not biological. It is a social construct. There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites”(Onwuachi-Willig 1). Race is not a universal concept; It is a fluid idea that changes depending on your location and the culture that encompasses it. For instance, Cofer shares, “In America, I am a person of color, obviously a Latina. On the Island I have been called everything from a paloma blanca… to la gringa”(Cofer 394). She consistently points out society’s fixation on race to emphasize how these surface-level labels (like race, skin, etc. ) do not define a person; What defines a person, Cofer shares, is their internal traits like personality or their motivations. This further highlights society’s fixation on race as a horrible habit and the absurdity of its importance in general as race remains a relative concept.
Through her stories, Cofer struggles with the definition of identity. Initially, she separates each story with 4 different labels that she believes society uses to define a person: Skin, Color, Size, and Looks. Within each section, she compares her life in America to her life in Puerto Rico, displaying how she experienced the privileges of being a white female in Puerto Rico and the hard discrimination of being a colored woman in America. According to the article, Introduction to Body Image: Teen Decisions, “Body image is not just how one looks, but how one feels and acts in response to their perceived appearance. Body image changes over time. As Rice states, ‘Body image is not a static concept. It is developed through interactions with people and the social world, changing across the lifespan in response to changing feedback from the environment’”(2003). This explains why Cofer’s interactions shaped the image she had of herself in a negative aspect. As a child, her identity was formed by the cultural norms that were established growing up in Puerto Rico. However, her image of herself was altered with every interaction in America, which slowly changed her opinion of her color, skin, height, and overall looks. For instance, one interaction she had with a store clerk was especially traumatic as he yelled at her: “Don’t come in here unless you gonna buy something. You PR kids put your dirty hands on stuff. You always look dirty. But maybe dirty brown is your natural color”(Cofer 395). Initially, Cofer had associated her skin color with a positive memory, one of back home. She said, “My skin is the color of the coffee my grandmother made, which was half milk, leche con café rather than café con leche”(Cofer 396). Its moment like these, Cofer argues, that causes people to question their identity, to reevaluate their whole sense of self. Initially, she associated her skin with a warm memory that comforted her, but now she questions her identity- Is her skin like dirt instead? Why does her skin have a negative connotation? Through this, she stresses the impact people’s actions and words can have on others and implicitly tells the audience that societal issue can be solved by simply being nice to each other.
In essence, Judith Cofer uses her own personal history to tackle a particularly complex idea: the absurdity of society. Through her traumatic anecdotes, she discusses the theme of corruption of innocence through sharing how she had to quickly mature due to prejudice in America. She also talks about the ambiguity of race as a social construct due to its relative nature and additionally addresses the topic of identity and how she heavily struggled with finding her own. Altogether, these points underline how ludicrous society’s problems are as all of them have a very simple solution (simply being nice) but still remain huge issues due to people’s unwillingness to change. By using personal anecdotes, she uses an appeal to pathos in order to get the audience to emotionally connect with her story and understand her view of society. She does this through her victimized tone, as seen when she says statements such as, “How was I supposed to know that she and the others who called me ‘pretty’ were representatives of an aesthetic that would not apply when I went out into the mainstream world of school?”(Cofer 398) This victim-esque tone causes the audience to empathize more with Cofer and ultimately become more likely to understand and side with her argument. Despite her negative outlook on America and the extent of the impact racial America had on her, she shares that those labels society threw on her don’t define her. She pushes that who you are as an individual is what matters most, not your skin, color, size, or looks.
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