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.