Catharsis: Trying to reconcile two disparate beauty norms

As the old cliche goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As a second-generation Chinese American, I was raised at the intersection of two equally intricate and wildly different worlds — the East and the West — and I grappled with perceptions of my own beauty, depending on which world was beholding it.

During my most formative teenage years, I struggled to understand how I fit into narratives constructed by both sides of my identity. My almond eyes and slight double lids were considered wide and endearing by the East but deemed squinty and comical by the West. At 5-foot-4, my stature was average in the West but too tall to be labeled petite and desirable by the East. My cousin lusted after my sharp chin while my aunt criticized my tan skin. I was tiny and big-boned, too yellow and too brown, ugly and beautiful.

Beauty ideals are sure to be distinct according to culture and nationality but reconciling these disparities has proven to be a daunting process. Take the meaning of light skin tone, for example. In Chinese society, paler skin has long been deemed a more desirable trait than tan skin because of its association with high status. Upper class people would not have to perform manual labor in the hot sun and cultivated a class difference based on fairer skin. This standard only metastasized post colonialism, as Western ideals of pale skin, light hair and slim faces were glamorized in tangent with Western capitalism and culture.

Today, plastic surgery has surged in East Asia, with young women routinely altering their appearances to attain heightened nose bridges, lighter hair and double eyelids, all in an effort to conform to standards borne from and idealized by the West.

I know that body image isn’t an issue specific to Asians, but being a minority in America made me more critical about my own image. Growing up, I rarely saw women who looked like me on TV or in magazines. Instead, I was sold an airbrushed image of white perfection — long legs, tiny waist, peach skin, blue eyes — that was unattainable for my genetics.

If I ever did see an Asian woman in media, she represented a further paradox in that she was always the height of Asian beauty, often hypersexualized or exploited for her cultural exoticism. There are roles for white actors of all shapes, sizes, ages and creeds. But within the Asian American community, only the best of us, the most physically ideal, are chosen for rare roles — roles often intent on homogenizing and sexualizing Asian women or roles that only exist so the network can boast diversity. In Hollywood, there’s no room for average-looking minorities.

The homogenization of Asian women also created a palpable pressure to “blend in” by appearing less Asian because ethnic features were correlated with archetypal traits and demeaning portrayals. The skewed and blatantly inaccurate representation of Asians my entire childhood perpetuated false notions that if I couldn’t look white and had to look Asian, I had to be the perfect Asian.

And collectively, these pressures take a toll on Asian American women in particular. The American Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Health found that U.S.-born Asian American women between the ages of 15 and 24 exhibit higher rates of depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than the national average, including white women. The International Journal of Eating Disorders also established that young Asian Americans are acutely prone to eating disorders, a phenomenon stemming from pressures to conform to the model minority label and idealized beauty images.

Four years ago, I was an unknowing 15-year-old victim to this subjugating cultural agenda; I counted calories religiously, agonized over every physical flaw and measured my own beauty against a ridiculous (not to mention, impossible) standard that was all I knew. Since my partial emergence from the chrysalis of insecurity, my self-perception has evolved past that which was spoon-fed to me by the media culture I was born into.

There are still tremendous strides to be taken in combatting Asian American body image issues that start and end with the media’s acceptance of different types of beauty and willingness to perpetuate representative images of minorities. Beauty can wear more than one face — but only if millions of beholders make it known.

Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Catharsis,” runs every other Wednesday.

6 replies
  1. Tony Marques
    Tony Marques says:

    I have a great respect for the feelings of people. I am in the beauty business more than 50 year and I never—ever—discourage any girl to become a model, regardless their biotype or looks. Note: Some visibly did not had a chance, however nobody knows the future, maybe the girl can change their looks by loosing (or gaining) weight, have a plastic surgery, etc…

  2. Lunderful
    Lunderful says:

    If any of us look into a mirror long enough we will find something to complain about. Glob onto another issue if you feel compelled to join the gaggle of malcontents. Surely there is an app out there to accommodate you.

    • HM
      HM says:

      I think the point that Catherine is making is that being torn apart by the beauty standards of two different countries makes it difficult to understand one’s own perception of beauty. Yes, everyone has something to complain about but that’s not what she’s saying. With her being the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan and her experience with writing about topics similar to these in general, it is unfair to say that ‘there is an app out there to accommodate (her)’. At no point in her article is she complaining about her image, she is merely describing a situation that most Asian American children face during their growing years. It’s sad that you missed her main point and made her sound as if she has a self image problem, when the real problem may just be ignorance, similar to yours, about the issue.

  3. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    Sad to say, Catherine’s description of this self-image problem are unfortunate, and damaging to millions of girls and women. Sadder yet; however, is the impossibility of her desired action happening:

    “. . .combatting Asian American body image issues . . . start and end with the media’s acceptance of different types of beauty and willingness to perpetuate representative images of minorities.”

    “. . . start and end with the media’s acceptance.” Who can induce the media to accept varied types of beauty? The collective media is under no one’s central management. The media will print, display and broadcast as beautiful whatever the individual editors and producers want. And “willingness to perpetuate representative images of minorities?” What are these representative images? Who supplies them for this perpetuation?

    Looking at Catherine’s photo, she seems glum, but she has a cute face and gorgeous, long brown hair. One can only hope that she realizes her image is a nice one. A nice smile is all she needs for that photo.

    Few of us look as gorgeous as models or movie stars, men or women. It is up to the individual person to foster their own health and grooming, and to take satisfaction that they have done their best for good appearance. More important, the individual needs to take steps to be a kind, listening, supportive and upbeat person. That will provide the greatest appeal of all, countering one’s inability to become model/movie star gorgeous.

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