beauty standards

“pretense,” oil on canvas

On trips back to China, it was always amusing to hear relatives praise my height, considering my grand stature of five-two. (You can imagine how short the local girls were.) But quickly followed by that would be acclamations for my skin color, or the lack thereof. Bái. That’s the word for white. There’s even a Chinese proverb, Yī bái zhē sān chǒu, which translates as “A white complexion can hide all other faults.”

At the time, I did not yet understand the notion of racial hierarchy due to skin color. Growing up in the Bay Area as an Asian American, I’ve been exposed to cross-cultural interactions throughout my life: I’ve enjoyed Biryani at Indian parties or Rugelach at Jewish ones, sometimes being the only Chinese girl there. I’ve tried learning Hangul, binged anime with my brother, and I’ve taken my racially-diverse friend group to eat hotpot. I’ve blissfully nested myself among the motley inhabitants of Silicon Valley, a suburban bubble where I’ve been privileged enough to never have experienced overt discrimination for my skin color.

But eventually, the deeply embedded legacy of race structures made its way into the forefront of my consciousness, served to me on a silver platter called the beauty industry. Unknowingly, I had been sucked into its perpetuation of colorism and marked exactly where I wanted to fall on that color spectrum. As a child, I internalized East Asian beauty standards and glorified fairness. Fair skin somehow became synonymous with positive, lovely adjectives. Fair was beautiful, fair was attractive; subsequently, dark skin was unalluring—it was inferior. I wish I was kidding, but I remember on a trip back to China, my aunt told me watermelon rind would whiten skin thus I sat on the couch chomping pink watermelon flesh to rub the green rind all over my body.

Later on, in middle school and early high school, I began to hyper-fixate on my ethnic features. I wanted the big, doe eyes and tall, slim noses of Asian celebrities, and secretly wanted double eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty to physically realize those ideals. At the time, I hadn’t noticed how Eurocentric the Asian mainstream beauty ideals were, and looking back, I was actually hoping to mold myself into my Caucasian counterparts since Asian media subscribed to Western ideals.

Another facet of my quiet disdain for my racial makeup was my exaltation of biracial people. Specifically, half white and half Asian individuals. I saw features of myself in these Wasian or Eurasian people, but those features were, in my mind, enhanced. I was jealous of their natural Western features and how the racially hybrid space they occupied allowed them to be and look Asian, but a seemingly, more beautiful Asian.

Something more confusing cut into my chase for beauty standards. White skin became no longer desirable for me. I was deemed as a ghost and friends would make flippant jokes about how I blended into a white wall, thus I spent a summer oiling my pallor with self-tanner, wanting to look like those sun-kissed Western stars instead of those Asian porcelain dolls I had previously looked up to.

The overall landscape of American beauty ideals also began shifting and diversifying, but in a way that still centered around whiteness. I saw Caucasian women wearing the features of women of color. Box braids that held deep ancestral roots for Black women, became an Instagram photo for Kim Kardashian, nothing more than a disposable accessory that can be donned and then ditched. Fox eyes that Asian women have historically been mocked for were now sexy when adorned on white women, the slanted and almond-shaped look that was once a source of oppression now an aesthetic. 

When Black women wear box braids, they’re kicked out of school, or they’re seen as ghetto and unsophisticated. As for people tugging on their eyes to mimic the natural physical features of a particular race—well, maybe it’s just to show off how good their winged eyeliner looks. There may not have been malicious intent in sporting these racially coded looks, but I believe I and other women of color have the right to find specific actions offensive when we’re so personally implicated.

While everyone deserves the right to change their nose as they see fit, it’s worth noting that there exists a racial history that influences the current standards. I’ve spent my whole life conforming to Western ideals and after being aware of its damaging implications to my own ethnic background, I might spend the rest of my life navigating the complexity of internalized racial oppression. I hope American media continues to champion the representation of monolids, chocolate tones, and expand its definition of beauty, heroines, and protagonists. And as a minority female, I hope to continue making the conscious effort to relearn my definition of beauty and value the features that connect me to my cultural roots.

– julie

tanghulu, candied hawthorn

Chinese “candied apples”

On the chilly, winter streets of Beijing, you spot an odd sight: Street vendors selling bright-red spheres stacked on long, wooden sticks. The smooth and glossy spectacle looks like a glass figurine! You find out it’s edible and as you bite into them, you’re alarmed to hear a loud crunch.

That’s the sound of eating Tanghulu, or candied fruit skewers. This Chinese snack is similar to candied apples in which fruits are coated with a sweet sugar syrup that harden into a shiny shell. Traditionally, hawthorn berries are used but other fruits like strawberries, kiwis, grapes, or mandarin oranges can be made into Tanghulu as well. The combination of tart fruit and sweet candy makes for a lovely treat to enjoy. 

The Story of Zao Jun

In ancient Chinese religion, people prayed to many gods and goddesses for good fortune. One of the most famous gods is Zao Jun ( 灶君), the Kitchen God. His job was to report to the Jade Emperor ruling over Heaven on the family’s behavior throughout the year. It’s like when your teacher handed out report cards to your parents back in middle school—a nerve-wracking experience if you happened to be failing geometry. (What? I would never.)

by Granger on Fine Art America

That’s why around Chinese New Year, families would offer Tanghulu to Zao Jun and hope the sugary snack will “sweeten” his words. Perhaps the Kitchen God can be bought off with candy but don’t try to bribe your teachers in this way.

– julie

the grandmother i never met

Embroidered binding shoes, Image via eyeofsam

Four bowls of steaming white rice and colorful plates of Chinese home dishes crowded the kitchen table. As per usual, my dad’s sonorous voice expressed his opinions on trifling matters, addressing no one in particular while our chopsticks clinked as the bass beat. I like to joke that you could sit my dad in a room alone and he’ll strike up a jolly conversation with the wall. 

My parents like to reminisce about their childhood over dinner, the famous “back in the days” stories. They would lament over the harsh lifestyle in rural China, how rations of meat were so tiny and fresh fruit was akin to candy. I would listen as I helped myself to the gleaming plate of Kung Pao chicken or twice-cooked pork belly in front of me, trying my best to sympathize. 

When two hard-working immigrant parents built a comfortable living for me, I grapple with how to approach my privilege. What if my formative struggles were one of weight and acne, and not of having enough food on the table?

Over dinner, I typically absorb myself with musings of my own while the background noise of sentence segments played like a broken record: S&P 500…you should major in accounting…America gives free money to lazy people… in Dream of the Red Chamber…Elon Musk…

On this particular meal, my dad settled on the topic of his birth mother. She passed away in her forties, so I never called her grandma in person. He told us how my grandmother refused to undergo the age-old tradition of foot-binding. The process sounded absurd and inhumane. They would crush your bones to mold you into a symbol of status and beauty. A young girl’s dainty steps proved she didn’t labor in the fields and had servants to tend to her needs. 

Maybe like me, my grandma’s formative struggles did include beauty standards, the difference being that she fiercely opposed them while I, though not wanting to maim my toes, furiously chased after my perfect ideal of Eurocentric features.

“They wouldn’t let her go to school but she forced her way in anyways,” continued my dad.

I asked him if girls in that period weren’t allowed an education.

“Families were too poor to send the girls. She insisted, though,” my dad said with a mouthful of rice. He had a habit of talking too much and too loud with food in his mouth and I’ve contemplated whether to learn the Heimlich Maneuver. 

Just a day earlier, I complained about despising school and AP exams. I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I mulled over the stories of my grandmother. 

Academic stress is surely unfavorable but I realized it’s a struggle I’m privileged to have. I don’t have to fight for an education because my family cannot afford to send the daughters to school after they’ve already sent the sons. As for my quiet but ongoing pursuit of feminine beauty ideals, maybe I should see it for what it is— a trend that will go out of style. Foot-binding is surely a relic of the past.

– julie