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THH: Lily White
Even though my right leg is somehow wider than my left leg, and I have two birthmark “bite marks” on my arm like Cleopatra, I’ve never had problems with my body.
My face was a different story. I’d look in the mirror and no matter how much I smiled, there was always something off. I was too brown, too round, too flat-faced. And my eyes.
My eyes were too small.
It didn’t strike me until later that I was trying to fit western standards of beauty onto my Asian face. I felt American. But I was still the blood and flesh descendant of how many Han Chinese. The American ideal was the bottle blonde, the brunette next door, even the redhead in Avonlea. Recently, the American girl is also the black girl, with big afro hair and big dreams.
It’s not just color. The pronounced jaw, strong brows, colorful eyes, button nose, and wide lips could only be achieved at certain angles on my face, when I tilted my head in the mirror. I still tilted, though, frequently, and started to smile in a way that emphasized my cheekbones. I would start the day a little happier if my eyes looked bigger.
Meanwhile, the characters I wrote were given the traits I didn’t have. One girl had blue and green eyes, dark brown hair; another, soft brown curls. Another had white mermaid hair. And the one who has always mattered to me the most, the girl with fire powers, slowly transformed over the years from my mirror image, to blonde-and-blue-eyed, to red-haired and blue-eyed.
Only recently I discovered an Asian-American ideal exists. The perfect girl. She has big brown eyes, small lips, light brown hair, a button nose. But also white skin, and double lids.
A few of my Asian-American classmates actually look like this, which surprised me, then got me really bummed. There were a few of them, two, with lily white skin and huge eyes.
The rest of us were too dark, too round, too rough looking.
Throughout high school, I watched as my friends dyed their hair, permed their pin-straight locks, and bugged out their eyes during photos. I’ve tried that too, but I always end up pretty scary-looking. And even if these are their personal choices, I’ve wondered if there’s a “lightening” effect worldwide. On the other side of the world, there is an eastern ideal, with different emphases, softer eye makeup, light lips, and more skincare. And though it has historical roots, the white skin remains.
At the same time, I’ve always had a creepy admiration of African-American women. I think they’re just beautiful. They possess this confidence and radiance, and artistically speaking, I love the eyes, the full lips. I’m somewhat jealous of their expressive afro, too, even if its popularization is fairly recent. Um, my hair doesn’t do anything.
But I wonder if they, too, feel pressure to look a shade lighter. In the family-friendly Walgreens ads, there’s plenty of women that are “black,” their defining feature usually their frizzy hair. Otherwise, they’re plenty pale, if moderately tan, with completely white features. Thin lips, green eyes, you name it.
This is not to bash those women. I also have a creepy admiration of people of mixed race. But this whitewashing appears across the board. One of my classmates did an entire presentation on the pressure for Indian actresses nowadays to use skin-whitening creams, or risk their jobs.
Beauty isn’t the only thing that matters. But it’s tied closely to the way we see ourselves. Even as the image we see diversifies, it has yet to frankly reflect the people we see in our lives, and sometimes in ourselves.
Is it possible to see other faces and features as beautiful? Like the conversation on gender equality, of those that are equal, if different?
I’d love to be able to use the mirror each morning to transform my face, and zap between different shades and features. It’s also why I’m a writer. Instead, we’re born one way, with non-magical mirrors, and only a little wiggle room.
Even if I am a “minority,” seeing one image for most of my life has given me problems. I’ve had trouble seeing beauty where there is still symmetry and clear skin. My mom has told me I actually look pretty, by traditional Chinese standards. But despite my own reasoning, I’ve found myself wishing to look just a little prettier. But what is pretty?
It’s many faces, many shades, many women. Beautiful, beautiful.