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