illustration of a young girl, Connie, reflected in the sunglasses of a man, Arnold Friend

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

by Joyce Carol Oates

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What does the story reveal about society's perception of physical beauty?

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I think that the story constructs a physical notion of beauty that is alluring and yet one predicated upon entrapment.  Connie is obsessed with her beauty.  Her mother constantly tells her to stop "gawking" at herself in the mirror and Connie cannot pass up a chance to look at her reflection.  She contrasts her beauty with the "plain Jane" approach of her sister.  Connie's beauty is a social construct, something that she believes that society dictates as beautiful.  While Connie internalizes this, the interesting element becomes that she adheres fully to this social construct.  Yet, Arnold Friend is attracted to her because of her beauty.  In the end, her adherence to the social conception of beauty, playing by society's expectations for young women who wish to be "hip," ends up killing her.  Arnold would not have been immediately attracted to her had she not fulfilled some element of physical beauty.

For his part, Arnold Friend is also ensnared by a social construction of beauty.  Connie sees that Arnold's makeup is meant to make him appear younger, and that the jeans he wears are meant to convey a conception of youth.  The lifts in his boots are meant to make him appear taller than he actually is.  In this, Arnold Friend is also trapped by a social construction of beauty.  Oates might be saying that the idea of physical beauty as dictated by society is one realm where victimization is inevitable for either one is adhering to norms in which they lack control or they will always be forced to chase an unattainable ideal.

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