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The Asian Beauty Problem

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My friend Megan is, by traditional standards, gorgeous. Her hair gleams, she tiptoes on the line between svelte and bean-pole skinny with the finesse of a dancer, and she has that agreed-upon indicator of Tumblr "thinspiration" perfection, the unattainable "thigh gap," without even trying.

It's a good thing Megan is gorgeous, because she has to be. She's Chinese.

Let me rephrase: for all that the so-called "model minority" has made gains in educational attainment, income level, or public regard in the United States, we have done shockingly little to proactively cast away antiquated beliefs on gender and physical attractiveness -- the kind of beliefs that kept women's feet bound until the early 20th century. Today, Asian-American girls aren't mincing around on maimed feet. Instead, they're silently suffering from eating disorders, undergoing radical plastic surgery procedures to look more "Westernized" and paying a tremendous price for our collective failure to embrace an Asian-American culture that doesn't worship beauty as all-important.

For girls like Megan -- affluent, American-born ethnic Chinese -- traveling to China as an adolescent brings with it its own rites of passage, like going to studios that take heavily Photoshopped "glamour shots." In several of Megan's photos, she wears a frilly dress and pouts while holding a stuffed animal almost larger than herself. Cuteness that borders on infantilization is common in Asian pop culture -- look up "aegyo" or "kawaii" and you'll see countless examples from Korea and Japan. The cute, aegyo, or kawaii girl is pouty, submissive and ultra-feminine. In real life, Megan is none of these things. After all, she's 16, not 20-going-on-five.

The limiting ideals that drive beauty standards for her pervade other aspects of life and gender roles. Her mom tells her frequently that she should "talk quietly and be ladylike." Good Chinese girls, after all, are supposed to be "guai" -- docile, obedient. I can remember being called "guai" from the time I was old enough to understand Chinese. Incidentally, that was around the same time I decided I wanted to be white.

Forget wanting -- I tried to be white. Hats, long sleeves and sunscreen were my BFFs. When my parents asked me why I was going to such lengths, I would mutter some excuse about skin cancer and scurry back to the shade. I used to think that it was my problem, some strange fault I couldn't shake, and then I started thinking. I remembered relatives' compliments on fair skin. I found that a preference for white skin in Asian culture predates colonialism -- one ancient Japanese proverb says, "white skin covers the seven flaws." Indian television channels are saturated with advertisements for skin-whitening creams -- and an overwhelming preference for light-skinned actors, actresses and singers that helps drive the pop culture love affair with whiteness.

In recovery from those childhood years of making melanin my enemy, I started talking to Asian-American friends. Jessica Jiang, a high school sophomore, wrote:

I'm one of the darkest people in my extended families (even though I rarely ever spend time in the sun!) and relatives would always comment on it. The light skin thing has also been heavily informed by colonialism and white beauty standards. I hated my Asian features.

Another friend remembers staring at her mirror and practicing opening her eyes wide enough to temporarily create a crease. An entire clinic in Southern California, the "Asian Eyelid Center," exists for the specific purpose of surgically creating creases. Never in my childhood had I thought that a tiny fold of skin would be part of my privilege.

The intersection of 19th and 20th century colonialism and 21st century globalization with Asian ideals like conformity and the search for perfection (characterized in bestsellers like Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) leads to the reduction of "beauty" to one narrow goal, sharpened and deadly as a katana point. That goal is to be simultaneously the perfect Asian and the perfect Caucasian -- a china doll, with big eyes and eyelid creases. Within the context of a family-oriented culture, this goal is driven by the messaging of relatives and friends. For one woman, Ming, profiled in the 2003 Seattle PI article Asian-Americans and Eating Disorders, appearance "was the way she was sized up to her own mother as well as other daughters who might bring more honor to their family." Thinness became a means for her mother to compare her to other girls. In the XOJane post "Fat for An Asian," Noel Duan wrote:

When I came back from my first year of college in New York, my mother whispered to me, "You're a little fat now." When I fell on my butt during cheerleading practice, my dad said to me in the car, "I wonder if it's because you're fat for an Asian." [...] A fellow Asian girl confided in me, "When I was at my lowest weight, 98 pounds, I ate only two yogurts a day. I was so miserable, but I had to -- how can you be Asian and not be thin?"

This problem wasn't born in America, but it needs to end here. As a cultural community, we need to actively reject limiting judgments on physical beauty -- comments like "You're fat for an Asian," "You're so pretty and docile," "Why are you so dark-skinned?" Parents need to cease using weight or attractiveness as yet another metric to compare. And all of us, regardless of who we are, need to promote more unconventional images of beauty. As Jessica Jiang said:

I think the turning point for me personally was watching Avatar, which has all Asian characters, many of them dark-skinned, and all of them very cool and well-developed. All I had as a kid, before I intentionally started seeking out diverse media, was like... Cho Chang. Personally, media is huge for me, and it's a pretty important part of improving wider social perceptions.

In other words, the problem shouldn't just end with us. The solution is ours to start as well.