On beauty and looking “American”

asian woman

photo credit: Time

I was going to post something more innocuous today until I read the status update of an Indian/Japanese-American friend on Facebook: “It’s really hard not to take this personally.” She had posted a link to the angry outbursts on social media over the fact that an Indian American was crowned Miss America last night.

I’m not going to rehash the racist and other asenine comments here. But the issue made me think about what it means to not look “American” in America, to be bombarded with images of beauty that are not only difficult but literally impossible to attain.

I am Asian and I grew up in America. I was and am petite – thin framed and with a soft face that, for better or worse, makes me look perpetually youthful or perpetually childlike depending on your interpretation. As a child I went from worshipping Snow White and Cinderella to worshipping Charlie’s Angels, especially Farrah Fawcett, Cheryl Ladd, and Jaclyn Smith. I was much less interested in the brainy and skinny Kate Jackson, whom I probably had more in common with than the other three sexier and more curvaceous Angels.  I wasn’t much older than my son is now when I began collecting celebrity magazines and analyzing actresses’ facial features and bodies. The cruel secret that I didn’t know at the time, when I didn’t yet know to distinguish white from brown from yellow and continued to hold up pictures in front of the mirror to compare against my own face, was that I would never, with any amount of exercise, diet, hair color, make-up, plastic surgery and positive thinking, look like a beautiful Caucasian – American – woman.

In late night talks in my women’s college dorm, after spending our days studying English literature and economics and feminist theories and doing good in the community, my Asian-American girlfriends and I would sometimes trade tips on how to look less Asian and more white: clothes pins to elongate our noses, hydrogen peroxide to lighten our hair, blush applied strategically to create more angles on our even faces. We would envy friends who were blessed with double eyelids.

According to ethnic identity theories, it is often during college that we in the 2nd and 3rd generation would become curious about and appreciative of our heritage, after having spent our adolescence rejecting it. We would enroll in ethnic studies classes, look for same-ethnicity peer groups, and start using chopsticks in the college dining hall. I followed lockstep with this model minus the chopsticks, but the one thing that stayed was the dissatisfaction with my appearance. I often felt self-conscious and less than in student gatherings and campus parties, allowing my appearance to stand in for who I was inside, and worrying that others – including and perhaps especially members of the opposite sex – would find me as attractive as I found myself.

My mother used to say to me, “In Hong Kong you would not be small. In Hong Kong you would be so normal. The girls in those beauty pageants are all your size.” At some point I had seen a photo of Hong Kong pageant contestants, and indeed many looked like me – petite, narrow shouldered, narrow-hipped, small busted. I still judged them against the American ideal though, thinking, how pubescent they looked, how unwomanly. But at least now I knew that somewhere in the world, even if 6,000 miles away, someone like me was not so far off from the standard of beauty.

Whether it was my surroundings or maturity I don’t know, but I started to obsess less and less with my appearance after I moved to Japan when I was 30. I went for a personal challenge, and ended up staying for nearly a decade. What’s interesting is that the emphasis on beauty in Japan is even more insidious than that in the U.S. In Japan you’ll never see any woman running around with a suit and sneakers, or with hair wet from the gym. Hair is perfectly coiffed, nails are clean and polished, and make up is flawlessly applied. Beauty is not just aesthetics but evidence of personal responsibility. Still, it was during my years in Japan that the expectations of beauty began bouncing off of my now hardened skin and ego. Definitely it made a huge difference to be surrounded by images of people who resembled me, but I was also living on my own and in a foreign country for the first time, and running a $1.25 million department in a Japanese company as the sole woman manager. I was doing things I never thought possible during those earlier years when I hid behind a mask of learned helplessness and obsessed over things I couldn’t change. Working in Japan I barely had time to pee let alone manicure my nails, and I was the most satisfied with myself I’d ever been.

America literally looked different when I came back, five years ago. Barack Obama was running for U.S. president, and my son was introduced to Dora and Wendy Wu on children’s television. However, as evidenced by the reactions to President Obama and to Nina Davuluri, the new Miss America, there are still many places in our country where the American face is supposed to look one way only.

At the moment, I am at a loss as to how to make any changes at all, except to start with my own child. We don’t talk much if ever about people’s appearances, and usually when Daddy can’t contain himself and has to tell Mommy she’s beautiful.  And we’re fortunate enough to be able to choose where we live: in an open-minded and internationally diverse town with like-minded neighbors. This year my then 8-year-old caught a glimpse of the Academy Awards red carpet for the first time, and watching him react was like watching him land on another planet. Why are the women so tall? Why do their faces look like that? To watch Hollywood is to open the American dictionary of what beauty should be, and I closed that book fast. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now we are going to bask in our 9-year-old’s world in which it is decency and not looks or narrow expectations that define us.

19 thoughts on “On beauty and looking “American”

  1. I have a confession: I love the Miss America pageant (despite my feminist leanings) and I even participated in it at a local and state level and then directed a local franchise for several years. I was so pleased with the outcome last night. To me, it was the first time in two decades that a Miss America actually represented America and actually deserved to win. It pains me to hear that people are being so angry about it. And I feel your pain at being small and youthful looking. I am short and thin with freckles and people constantly mistake me for at least ten years younger than I really am. Thanks for this post and giving me the realization that there’s nothing wrong with me, but instead with our ideas of beauty and the industry that promotes them.

    • I love your confession, Emily, and I also grew up glued to every Miss America, Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe pageant. (I don’t know if your experience with it is something you’d ever be interested in blogging about but I bet you’ve got some fascinating stories.) I think that anything tied with “patriotism” and representation of countries is going to bring out these very ugly emotions and comments, especially now with social media. I remember being in an electronics store years back when Kristi Yamaguchi was being shown on one of the store televisions, and I overheard a man saying, “Why are they allowing non-Americans to represent the U.S. in the Olympics?” This ignorance is such a deep part of our society that I doubt will ever go away.

      On a different note, I love it when I meet other petite and young looking people 😉 I’m always getting mistaken for 10+ years younger too. People say it’s a good thing but sometimes I wonder, especially when it means you are taken less seriously, like at work. (That’ll be another blog post for another time. 😉

  2. Such a great post. You and Emily are beautiful women! I think it’s admirable of you to shield your son from Hollywood’s manufactured images. I hope I can do the same for my children!

    • Aw, you’re sweet, Ariel. I know I won’t be able to shield my son from images forever, but hopefully I can help instill in him the ability to look beyond the superficial. Thanks so much for reading!

  3. I absolutely could not believe some of the comments about her winning. Embarrassing, shameful, hurtful, ignorant … I could go on and on. I can also relate to so much of this piece, despite being Caucasian and American in a society that seems to value both in its women. I’ve never looked like anyone on the red carpet and have spent decades trying to convince myself that was okay. Now, I’m just hoping I can somehow prepare my own daughter to overcome those same challenges.

    • I really appreciate that, Stacia. It is interesting that the images of the perfect woman are so pervasive, and yet I wonder how many women can really identify with them?? I believe only a very small minority, regardless of color. I think you and your daughter are both beautiful (and I am not just saying that to be nice), but I have no doubt that you’re raising her to be much more. It’s really good to hear from you!

  4. Pingback: Beauty Contest - Daily Plate of Crazy

  5. The racist, ignorant comments are baffling, and I know it’s prevalent in many parts of the country, but living in a really diverse neighborhood myself, it’s hard to comprehend that these are uttered by people who live in the same country as us.

    As for looks, I think in every culture, there’s a certain standard and expectation that everyone’s supposed to live up to – not that I condone it. Being from Malaysia with three major races, each had its own version of prejudice and superiority complex. The Chinese in Malaysia would look down on the Indians and Malays because they were of fairer skin, the Indians would poke fun at the Chinese for their “Chinese” features, which they deemed were inferior to theirs, like a high-bridged nose and big, round eyes.

    When I was growing up, being of Chinese-Indian parentage, I remember my Indian relatives (especially my grandma and aunts) would always pull hard at the bridge of my nose, hoping they could shape my “Chinese nose” into theirs, and it has often resulted in my own tears from the pain.

    Now, years later, that nose – my father’s nose, as everyone would call it – resurfaced again in my second daughter, and secretly, I’m glad we’re nowhere near Malaysia so she can avoid being taunted by her own relatives. Isn’t that sad? You know what’s even sadder? That I found myself apologizing to her for passing that gene down to her!

    On a different but similar note, even among the Indians themselves, they value being light-skinned so the darker someone is, the less beautiful, and that’s why skin-whitening cream is rampant in that part of the world. But I’ve also seen that same cream advertised in South Korea. These ideals are everywhere, and it’s sad to see them being upheld by the majority, making it an uphill battle for anyone who doesn’t conform to these unrealistic expectations.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Justine, and forgiving a more global perspective. I was thinking the same thing, and about how relatively accepting it is at least, in America. (But my blog post was getting way too long as it was ;-)) This is not really related to beauty but in Japan women are “allowed” to only gain about 15-20 pounds during pregnancy. This is to make sure the baby isn’t too big to come out, but I can’t help but feel it is one piece of a culture that emphasizes thinness so much. There are whitening creams everywhere as well and I had no idea what they were at first. The standards of beauty in that country and I imagine in many parts of Asia where homogeneity is common are even less forgiving. Regardless, it’s bad in every country and has a negative impact on so many women.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story, Cecilia! I detest beauty pageants (sorry, Emily!) but I did see a news item about the new Miss America, and I can’t fathom how anyone wouldn’t think she’s lovely.

    • Thanks, Carolyn!
      The issue with the Miss America news that I didn’t go into was all the outcry that an Indian woman, or Arab, or Muslim had gotten chosen Miss America. A lot of people were upset about it. It was just a lot of ugliness though I know that’s not going away any time soon…

  7. My mother is a great teacher of special needs children and adults and she taught me it is about what is on the inside of a person that matters and counts:) I do not understand when people are unAmerican and it feels as if the time has morphed back into the 1920’s or 1950’s. I know it makes me sad that instead of progressing forward it is going backwards in a way too. I feel as if as a society there is less kindness and more rudeness and anger too. Great Post – thanks so much for sharing:) Happy Hump Day!

    • Thank you for reading! I think that is quite something that your mother taught special needs children and adults. I imagine she must be extraordinarily compassionate and able to see the good in all people. It’s too bad many people are not like that. You’re right that it’s as if we have not made much progress after all as a whole society, even if we have seen some changes, like in electing our first black president.

      • I learned from my mom to be a questioner because when you are questioning your are curious and the judgements usually are set aside because you want to know more about the person and their culture. I really think it comes down to learning and educating ourselves within our society and cultures.

  8. Cecilia,

    I realize I am late to this conversation, but wanted to add my thoughts to your insighful post.

    I too, felt the pressure of looking Indian, as a little girl and a young woman. Although I am a lighter-skinned Indian, I got teased because I had a “big” nose and was too thin growing up. It was definitely hard to fit in as people teased my heritage and names like “camel jockey” and such were thrown around.

    Looking like an “other” is something I’ve felt all my life, but now, with some maturity I’ve learned to embrace the beauty that this encompasses. I do fear for my daughter, however, who has mentioned a couple of times that she longs to have white skin and blond hair. We’ve slowly tried to educate her on how the word beauty encompasses so many different layers and it is not simply about appearances.

    Thanks for your post Cecilia. The discussion afterwards was equally engaging.

    • It’s always good to hear from you, Rudri. Thanks for sharing your experience growing up too and I am especially intrigued by what you are beginning to experience with your own daughter. I’d like to think our world is a little more open now, but maybe many little girls will continue to have dreams of being blonde haired and blue eyed. You are so aware though, that I’m confident you will do your best to arm your daughter with healthy self esteem.

  9. Pingback: From the Outside Looking In - Daily Plate of Crazy

I'd love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s