Beauty is a heavy word. Many of us carry it around in our day-to-day lives: in the morning when we do our makeup, as we shop for clothes, when we fix our hair. It’s a presence that I’ve never really understood how to deal with, especially because it tangles with both my Asian heritage and my American upbringing. Both of my cultures have made a permanent mark on me with their distinctive beauty standards.
My first time dealing with American beauty standards was back in elementary school. At that time, my mom had a regular subscription to a fashion and beauty magazine. Every week, as my dad brought the magazine in with our mail, I was fascinated by the model on the cover, whether she was smiling confidently or staring coolly back at me.
The glamour of that magazine dazzled eight-year-old me. Often, I’d grab that week’s copy, secretly curious if I really could look gorgeous with just three tips, and flip through the glossy pages. These American women, walking through New York streets or sitting at cafe tables, made me dream of a future where I was just as effortlessly beautiful.
Still, after a while, I began to believe this was a pipe dream. As I continued reading this magazine, I noticed an obvious theme. Despite a skincare ad here and a group photo shoot there, there were almost no Asian models among the dozens of copies we received.
The Asian models that did appear usually wore makeup that exaggerated their angular eye shape and dark clothing that highlighted their smaller bodies — which looked, to me, like the magazine was emphasizing they were Asian and different. I judged them to be unapproachable, even scary — and I found myself turning away from these models and toward the bright and carefree cover girls as I struggled to define beauty.
Over time, my detachment from Asian models turned into frustration at the American media as I was exposed to more fashion trends and culture. I became frustrated that the media didn’t depict a wide range of Asian styles as they did for white women. I became frustrated that I had started seeing Asian models purely as additions for diversity’s sake. Most of all, I became frustrated that I could never see myself in any American beauty standards.
However, growing up as an Asian-American meant that I was also introduced to Asian pop culture, like dramas, anime, makeup trends and Asian street fashion. In a world where Asians were the majority race and my culture was normal, some part of me expected that the beauty standards were reachable. Maybe I didn’t even need to worry about it.
Still, once again, this turned out to be just a fantasy. The world that I had hoped would be familiar and relatable presented another version of an impossible beauty standard: one that, in some ways, haunted me more than the American one did. The Asian definition of beauty would follow me around as my family told me I gained weight, as I saw thin, white-skinned Asian girls on Instagram or as I shopped for clothes in Taiwan as a size much larger than my American size.
The expectations of beauty from each side of my identity pressured me to be a version of myself that completely challenged the other. American beauty standards told me to be tan; Asian beauty standards told me to be as pale as possible. When I tried to make my eyes look larger with Asian products and tips, the American fox eye trend began popping up on my social media. Even when American fashion started to idealize curvier body shapes, I still dreamt of a thin body type similar to the small, slender Asian idols.
After a while, the weight of these beauty standards exhausted me. I found myself sobbing when someone told me I got taller, or curvier – as if I was the problem and wasn’t trying hard enough.
As much as I had tried to squeeze myself into the different boxes of Asian and American beauty standards, I still felt like I didn’t fit. Worst of all, I still felt like I couldn’t see myself in any sort of definition of beauty – even my own.
When I started attending UC Berkeley last year, I anticipated I would continue this cycle of comparing myself to other Asians and Asian-Americans around me. At a school with a much larger population of Asian students than my high school, I felt more nervous instead of comfortable, believing that nothing would really differentiate me from every other Asian-American girl.
However, this school somehow began to change the way I define beauty – even virtually. The variety of Asian-American women I’ve met so far have been real and inspiring. This past year, my upperclassmen mentors showed me what it means to be confident and respectable; my tutors demonstrated passion and warmth; and of course, my peers reminded me that my beauty is often defined by compassion and character. That beautiful, relatable community that I’ve always longed to find and belong to finally exists.
Of course, it’s not that easy to say that I have simply begun to ignore what beauty standards have told me all my life. I still wear my eyeshadow in a way that makes my eyes look bigger, and I still shop so that I can keep up with the latest fashion crazes.
Nonetheless, I fight so that these beauty standards do not define who I am at my core, or what makes me truly beautiful.