It’s fifth grade. I’m eating dinner at my best friend’s house for the first time since her mom decided it was time for her to lose weight. A steaming bowl of fried rice sits in front of me. A Persian cucumber and a small bowl of dipping sauce sit in front of her.
We were too young then to realize how abnormal this was — how unreasonable it is to expect a barely chubby child to stay below a certain weight for looks. But we were cheerful, malleable little girls, and although her life of counting the Cheetos she ate, exercising during our playdates and hiding cookies under her bed sometimes impinged on our plans, we were happy.
Unfortunately, as I quickly grew to realize in later years, this type of Asian beauty standard and the way it’s practiced is not uncommon. In many East Asian countries, weight is still a major indicator of beauty, and it’s not at all unusual to comment on that of others. Women will rarely be considered worthy of praise regarding their physical appearance unless they are below 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds.
A few years later, and it’s near the end of middle school. I’m just starting to get over my prepubescent insecurities of showing my arms (or, honestly, any part of my body). For the first time in years, I put on a tank top and shorts, rather than a t-shirt and jorts. I look at myself in the mirror of my room and feel somewhat confident before walking out to the living room.
My very traditional father sees me and immediately looks taken aback before joking, “Are you sure you want to show those chubby little arms and legs off like that?” and then: “Do you think that’s appropriate for school?”
To this day, I still don’t think he realizes the weight and impact of his words. I don’t think he even considers what he said very offensive. I think he was just making a joke, an observation. So even though I was barely 110 pounds at the time, I told myself that I was fat, and I didn’t wear tank tops again for the rest of middle school.
A few more years pass by, and it’s freshman year of high school. I’m beginning to wear more revealing clothing again for the sake of fitting in. My parents’ arsenal of comments grow to include, “Is all that makeup necessary?” “You’d look better if it were more natural,” “Do you want to be so tan?”
But all of the other girls, especially ones with long blond hair and big blue eyes, are wearing strappy little tank tops and cutoff shorts and doing whatever they can to show off their assets. So I try to do the same, even though I find myself instinctively crossing my arms over my chest; even though I can hear my parents’ voices in the back of my head, accusing me of being too promiscuous, especially since I don’t have the emaciated limbs that Asian female celebrities often have. I always leave the house with a big jacket and sweats, just so I don’t have to hear their comments.
Now, it’s college, and, like high school, I’m still conditioned to wear revealing clothes, but only the most basic ones. Perhaps that’s somewhat counterintuitive, but it allows me to conform with the other girls while simultaneously avoiding any extra attention that different clothes may draw.
In my first month in Berkeley, however, I met so many new people with such diverse looks and styles. In particular, I met two girls who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would become two of my best friends. They’re both people of color, like me, but the similarities pretty much end there. Each of them has crazy styles and outfits I’d never previously dreamt of having the courage to wear, each of them with curves they’re not ashamed of — proud of, actually.
Somehow, in each of their styles, the beauty standards of their respective cultures are manifested, whether it’s through including traditional pieces or patterns. But at the same time, they’re still in keeping with current American trends and fashions. It was then that I realized I had always dressed safely. I’d avoided the beauty standards of both of my cultures in order to avoid backlash from either. All the while, I could have been combining and expressing them to my liking.
Luckily, Berkeley is a melting pot of vastly different styles — anywhere from gothic to indie to basic to cultural — where I rarely find myself surprised by other people’s choice of clothing. Many people here confidently have their own fashion sense, regardless of their shape or color or size. So I, too, have found the courage to reinvent my style — to combine the natural, light Asian beauty standards I was taught by my family with the fierce, confident American beauty standards I grew up with here.
There are still countless Asian beauty standards I cannot proudly identify with — the insane weight requirements, for example — and many American ones I don’t fully agree with either. So this isn’t to say I never feel insecure about my body and the way I look now. In fact, I’m not sure those insecurities will ever fully go away.
But now, finally, I might be okay with that.
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]