How 6 Asian Women Have Grown To Embrace Their Beauty In A World Influenced By Western Ideals
Bustle presents our Beauty IRL package, a tribute to our readers' love of beauty and the way they use makeup and skin care to express themselves, to embrace their identities, and to self-soothe. Check out more of those stories here.
I didn't realize I looked any different from my friends until one afternoon in the fourth grade. I landed the leading part in my elementary school production of Alice In Wonderland, and I couldn't have been more excited or proud. But right before the show started, as my fellow classmates shuffled to their seats, a blonde girl looked at me and then turned to her friend and whispered, "Isn't Alice supposed to have yellow hair?" I'll never forget it — the sharp pangs of embarrassment and self-doubt hit me so suddenly, they could've knocked the blue bow off the top of my head. It's been over 20 years and I can still play the memory so clearly in my mind.
I grew up in a very suburban town in San Diego. It was predominantly white, and my best friends were two blonde girls. They were tall, blue and green-eyed beauties, with shiny hair that sparkled when the sun reflected on it during recess. They were spitting images of the kind of white, eurocentric beauty that American girls and women are taught to covet from a young age. As an Asian American girl with Filipino and Chinese background, I was much shorter, much rounder, and my hair was a flat black — facts that never really bothered me until the day of the school play. All of a sudden, I was painfully aware of how different I looked — and worse, I felt so alone in my insecurities. I didn't have any Asian friends I could commiserate with, and there definitely weren't many Asian role models being featured in the TV shows or movies I was watching to help make me feel like any less of a weirdo.
For years, I would pinch my nose every night before bed, in hopes it would result in a pointier tip. I'd try to avoid outdoor activities, so I wouldn't end up "too dark" (I still got tan — with my Filipino skin, it was inevitable). I'd practice smiling without squinting (which was also impossible). And as soon as my mom let me, I got thick, streaky blonde highlights to cover as much of my black hair as I could.
I'd be lying if I said that I was no longer insecure about a lot of these physical traits. You can still find me scrolling through Instagram, comparing myself to one long-legged blonde beauty after the next — it's hard to shed these insecurities when society is constantly telling us that's what it means to be beautiful. But I've made progress on the road to self-acceptance and self-love. As I've gotten older, I've come to genuinely embrace and love the way I look. I'm done with trying to avoid looking "too Asian." I'm proud of my small eyes, my tan skin, and my natural dark locks. It's a reflection of my parents and my ancestors. It's not boring or basic, and it doesn't define who I am as a person — a lesson that many of my Asian-American friends and peers have also told me they've learned over the years.
Unlike that painfully unforgettable moment in the fourth grade, there isn't one instance I can recall when I started to feel more comfortable in my skin, but I'd say that meeting other women throughout my life who have had similar experiences has had the most impact. And if you had told my nine-year-old self that decades later, I'd be in a room with six strong and beautiful Asian women who grew up feeling the same way I did, I would've rolled my eyes in disbelief. But in fact, that's exactly where I found myself when I gathered together a group of other Asian women to talk about how they've struggled with, accepted, and celebrated their appearances.
Each of these women, gorgeous in their own individual ways, shared with me how they overcame looking different as an Asian woman in America, and how they've grown to embrace, and perhaps even love, the way they look now.
Here are their stories.
"I was born and raised in Southern California. When I was in elementary school, I grew up in a predominantly non-Asian community. I remember being made fun of a lot because I was the only Asian kid, surprisingly. They would say, 'Oh, your eyes are so small — how can you see through them?' and I also remember being super self-conscious about my nose because it wasn't as high and pointy, and when I would wear sunglasses, they wouldn't really sit on my face properly. I also wished I had bigger boobs! My role models were Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie.
Once I hit college, I felt a little bit more confident about myself, but once I moved to Korea, when I was surrounded by people who looked just like me, I felt super comfortable. There were ways to put on makeup that wasn't how I learned when I was living in California, because there are different techniques that could accent or highlight your features that are different from the Western look. Even accentuating the almond eyes — that was really unique and different. Usually I am trying to do something totally different that doesn't even match my eye shape because that's what I was taught when I was younger from non-Asian models. I was happy to accentuate what I had rather than trying to change what I had.
I don't feel like there's one type of pretty or one type of beautiful. I also think it's just about growing up and meeting so many different people. I don't think you have to go to Korea to feel that way — the more people you meet, the more you grow up, and the more you mature, the more confident you are about things that aren't just physical."
"I would carpool with these girls when I was younger, and we were all friends, and they were both white. And we would play this game, like, Mary-Kate and Ashley or whatever, and we'd have to switch off being Mary-Kate or Ashley or the friend, and it was so awkward, because I was either the friend or I'd be Mary-Kate or Ashley and it'd feel so wrong. And it still stuck with me to this day. It was just proof that there were really no Asian women that you could even pretend to be.
People talk about icons, and I don't really think I had that because there was no one who I identified with. That's changed so much, especially in beauty. I think it's so amazing — there are all of these bloggers and vloggers now. I started my career writing for Michelle Phan and working on her website. I feel like she has really changed the game for Asian women in beauty as well.
I didn't grow up thinking, 'I wish I was a different race' or 'I wish I looked a different way,' but I think it wasn't until college that I really fully embraced and loved the fact that I was Asian and that I had Asian features. I was born in Shanghai, but came to America when I was two-and-half. I'm from Seattle originally. I think moving to LA and going to USC changed my perspective a lot and really helped me embrace who I was. Being in an environment that is so diverse just helps you realize there are so many different types of beauty. You really start to appreciate your own sense of self."
"When I grew up in Hong Kong, I went to an international school, so I was one of the only Northeast Asians there. So, all my friends were blonde and were from everywhere else. The hardest thing for me growing up with Westerners was — and this is funny, because it's not something I complain about now — but everyone grew up faster than I did. I was smaller, I looked like I was 12, I was the one who would get stopped at the clubs, and they'd be like, 'She can't come in.' And I just thought, body-wise, it was harder because we don't have the legs, and the shape in general is so different than everyone else and I wished I looked the way they did, wearing the things they did. As a teenager, that was really sort of difficult for me. The whole body image thing was a big thing.
Every single friend of mine with single fold eyelids — which I think is beautiful — they all got [plastic surgery to get double fold eyelids]. It's so sad, because I always felt like they always looked so much better before. It's like, 'OK, now you look like a normal person and that special part of you is gone.' My generation, when they're having children, they're wishing it upon their kids, like, 'Oh my God, when they come out, I hope they have double fold eyelids.' It's such an awful thing, because here [in the United States], [single fold eyelids] are celebrated. Exoticness or just even racial ambiguity. Cultural ambiguity."
"I was born in India and I grew up in the UAE and then I moved [to the United States] for school when I was 18. I personally have had the privilege of being raised by parents who are very open-minded and reject some of [the] societal ideas that people would put on me. I didn't grow up so conscious about wanting to have lighter skin or anything like that, but I saw it all around me with my cousins and comments that were made towards me.
People in the Indian community will talk about how people discourage us to go into the sun cause we'll tan ... People are always giving me home remedies for how to lighten my skin and I'm not interested in that. I have always loved the color of my skin. It helps me feel very connected to my roots. It's interesting how this internalized colorism we have in our communities partly stems from our colonization. You think we wouldn't want to have these ideas about ourselves — you think we'd want to embrace our heritage and our roots, but it's unfortunate that not everyone sees it that way.
For me, what has been really amazing is seeing women that look like me in the media, and it seems so silly to say that Mindy Kaling in a TV show has made such an impact in my life, because I grew up reading books written by white people about white characters. I watched TV shows and it's all about their experiences. It's nice to see a nuanced portrayal about what a brown person can look like and be like — and show that we don't all have accents and that a Muslim woman isn't just a woman who wears a hijab. It's more than that."
"One of the biggest insecurities I had growing up was the broadness of my face. Even though I grew up in the diverse streets of New York City, I was still deeply influenced by the Chinese conventions of my immigrant parents. Being the youngest daughter of a Chinese family, I was expected to be fair-skinned, thin, polite, and intelligent.
According to the Chinese community, an ideal girl was delicate both in mannerism and in physical features. I was neither. I was tan-skinned, athletic, and had a huge head. My American friends at school never understood this 'problem' I had with my face — they couldn't understand why it mattered so much. Now that I am older and more confident about myself, I am starting to love my wide face. Instead of feeling embarrassed, I feel bold. My face is huge, but it matches my personality."
"I grew up in Thailand up until I was 19, and I grew up very westernized in Thailand, so I've always felt like a misfit my entire life. My background is Filipino by blood ... so I had these ginormous eyes and this crazy frizzy, lighter colored hair, and that isn't the typical idea of beauty for Thailand. Even for Westerners, they didn't know what to do with me, so I felt very out of place growing up. I remember in pictures, when I was younger, I would purposefully squint to the point where I used to get migraines and my mom used to take me to a doctor and they would try to inject botox in my forehead because they thought something was wrong with my eyes.
I think when you're younger, it's harder to deal with. You're easily influenced by everyone else. I never had the self-confidence that I felt much later on in life. Loving everything about myself took a lot of time. Being in my mid-to-late 20s and living in New York, [I was surrounded] by so many people from all over. My group of friends were very diverse and taught me to appreciate everything about me."
I've still got a long way to go on the journey of self-love, but hearing these women's stories inspires me to be a little nicer to myself every day and to appreciate my uniqueness, both on the inside and out. The more we celebrate different kinds of beauty, the sooner we can all recognize ourselves as beautiful.