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.