by Shin Yu Pai
I thought the show should be called Hey, Good Looking, but the marketing team for the the Wing Luke Museum voted in favor of the more lyric Where Beauty Lies. I’d been hired to write the narrative panels and introductory text for an exhibition organized around decolonizing beauty. Counting up the number of cosmetic and elective procedures I’ve undergone over the years, I felt at least some mild sense of disingenuousness. But part of why I signed up to help with the show was to make myself look more closely at some of my half-examined beliefs about beauty.
There were no healthy mirrors for me as a girl. My mother rarely left the house without face powder or pink lipstick, high heels and a figure-flattering dress, preserving the more formal dress standards of her native Taiwan, instead of adapting to the shorts and t-shirt fashion of Southern Californians. She didn’t exercise beyond gardening in our backyard but maintained her trim figure. And because my father had strong feelings about keeping up the appearance of youth, she colored her hair to keep its auburn hue — that is, until she was in her 60s, and she announced to my father one day she would stop.
I rebelled against my mother’s beauty practices — when my mom came near me with a hairbrush, I’d complain about being tortured. As she ripped through the snarls of my long, messy hair, she’d say things like “You’d look so much prettier if you’d take care of yourself.” She would interrogate me about any weight gain and scrutinize my skin for blemishes and freckles that developed during tennis practice or when I’d lay out in the sun in an attempt to achieve that beachy glow of health, which only ever resulted in uneven tan lines.
The notion of beauty was elusive. In order to fit in, it was necessary to normalize one’s looks and become as much like everyone else as possible. But I had competing standards. All of them impossible. I’d never be blond. Or big-chested. Chinese modesty would not allow me to put on a two-piece bathing suit. At the same time, my mother’s brand of high-maintenance femininity didn’t feel right either.
When visitors enter the gallery, they’re greeted by idealized images of Asian Americans presented in full glamor. Jenny, a seemingly nondescript city employee who produces arts programming and moonlights as a burlesque dancer, cycles through 100 fashion trends in a rapid-fire 100 Years of Beauty video created by the Cut studio. A disembodied blur of make-up artists and hair stylists converge on Jenny to transform her into 11 different looks across the decades within the span of two-minutes. From California natural to bubble-gum pop to glamorous, I’d never see Jenny again as just another civil servant working in a government office.
I was walking through the show on opening night when YouTube star Flawless Kevin strolled into the gallery and saw his image on the wall for the first time. Kevin, who is a non-gender conforming boy and has an internet fanbase of more than 300,000 followers and a channel devoted to fashion, had been invited to take part in a photo shoot for the exhibit.
The photographer had chosen to style Kevin from the shoulders up, against a simple black background, wearing winged red eyeshadow, scarlet red lipstick, and hair slicked back beneath a gold-flecked, crimson ao dai. The circular hat, which traditionally features prominently in Vietnamese bridal shoots, perched atop the crown of Kevin’s head made him appear saint-like. As real-life Kevin gazed upon himself as a larger-than-life work of art, I heard him gasp audibly and watched him cover his mouth in a mix of disbelief and recognition. Flawless Kevin’s story guided how I wrote the introduction for the exhibition.
We are rarely taught to question the “all-American beauty” ideals, or the Western beauty standards that celebrate whiteness alone. As a result, we end up imitating the dominant culture. We unconsciously accept the idea that unless you fall within the spectrum of “normal” bodies, your life is less worthy. How can we form a more personal relationship to beauty that can embrace non-Western features, histories, and inspirations? How can we see beyond the distorted body images that we are fed on a daily basis, and let go of the lies that we may believe about attractiveness?
As a 20-something social media star who’d cultivated his own community, Kevin shaped his own fame. His viewers tune in for his musings on adolescent insecurity and LGBTQ issues and turn to Instagram for his make-up tutorials. Defying any circumscribed notions of beauty, his message to his fans is simple: “To be flawless is to be yourself.”
But these images of everyday Asians made up to offer depictions of attractiveness outside of the usual norms quickly fade into popular media images of Asian American celebrities inserted throughout the show. Photographs of actors ranging from Anna May Wong, Constance Wu, and Keanu Reeves fill out the gallery. Flawless Kevin’s radical self-love butts up against stories of mainstream television personalities like former news reporter Julie Chen, who underwent Asian eyelid surgery in her 20s.
Blepheroplasty wasn’t new to me. My college roommate’s high school graduation gift from her Korean auntie was an eyelid surgery that resulted in making her eyes look rounder and bigger, like an anime character. “I don’t regret it,” she confessed to me. I couldn’t help but feel that she was quietly urging me to follow suit.
Chen’s news director told her she’d never have a seat on the anchor desk because she looked Chinese and had Asian eyes. “When you’re on camera, you look disinterested and bored.” Chen’s agent confirmed this opinion. The young professional consulted her family, underwent the knife, and came out on the other end with more job opportunities.
It was during my years spent living in Dallas, a town known for its status consciousness and plastic surgeons, that I explored the idea of changing myself with more permanent interventions. In my 20s, I had my eyesight laser corrected so that I’d never have to wear glasses again. At the age of eight, I got my first pair of glasses at my father’s insistence. We bought the cheapest glasses that we could afford — wire-framed nerd glasses that sagged below the bridge of my nose. I wore them throughout most of my childhood and early adolescence until I was fitted for my first pair of contact lenses at fourteen. When colored soft lenses came on the market, I experimented with green and hazel tones that made my eyes less brown.
In my thirties, I put up with teeth-straightening devices for two years to exert pressure on my front teeth and force them to conform. To accomplish the slow movement of teeth, I wore fitted retainers around the clock, removing them only to drink or to eat food. After every instance of eating or drinking, I disciplined myself enough to brush and floss every crevasse to prevent tooth decay or staining of the retainers. My dental hygiene was never better than in those years. When the process was finished, I allowed myself to smile openly without hiding behind a hand, held up to conceal my imperfections. I was flawed, because I could not be myself.
That was nearly 15 years ago. My teeth have migrated back to their original positions because I’m too lazy to wear a nightly retainer and hate waking up with dry mouth. I’m forced to put on spectacles when I drive, as my eyes progress towards presbyopia.
Reading about Julie Chen’s decision to change her appearance brought back these memories of not being enough. The mother in me, who now parents a young, mixed-race child and inhabits a physical body that has clearly given birth, feels differently. Following childbirth, I couldn’t rid myself of the “mask” of pregnancy — the hyperpigmentation of brown spots that bloomed across my cheeks and face. Nor could I maintain a perfectly flat stomach. I had to learn to live with the aging of my body and its farness from ideas of perfection. These lessons were hard won. And so, I wanted the young news reporter’s story to have a different outcome. I wanted her to hear the message that she didn’t have to change herself to become beautiful to others.
One of the more innovative decisions of the exhibition designers of Where Beauty Lies was to adapt an ordinary hair-drying station taken from a beauty salon into an audio installation. The piece is best experienced when sitting beneath the dome of the hair dryer. In the 1990s, I dried out many times beneath similar apparatuses after suffering through too many chemical perms that would temporarily shock my stick-straight hair into mimicking the soft waves of my white and Latino classmates. Beneath the dome, recordings collected and mixed together by Kamna Shastri looped voices and stories from the public. Women confessed messages about beauty that they heard from their parents, peers, other women, and men, while growing up. Values that hurt and shaped the adults that they would become. I emailed the artist audio clips drawn from my own memories but couldn’t bring myself to sit in the chair, even though she had also asked for positive messages of what I needed to hear instead, what I might say to myself now. What would I say to a young Julie Chen? You are precious. You don’t have to change yourself for anyone.
Further along into the galleries, I wrote this text to grace the walls:
Feminine beauty ideology puts forth the importance of physical attractiveness and venerates standards of unattainable beauty. It mandates pursuit of a perfection that is simply unreachable, since beauty ideals shift and evolve with every generation. These messages distort the mirror of who we are and create long-lasting harm.
We may believe ourselves to be flawed, like performance artist Susan Lieu’s mother. Lieu wrote the one-woman show 140 Pounds: How Beauty Killed My Mother to tell the story of her mother’s death from a botched plastic surgery.
The exhibition as a whole is an unnerving exercise in addressing the self. And that is the context in which I think of Susan’s monologue about her mother, Phuong Ha. Without the mirror of the mother, our first model of femininity and beauty, we reach into our consciousness to examine where our early beliefs about beauty come from. Ha died when her daughter Susan was 11 years old. Susan spent years investigating her mother’s killer, who didn’t have medical insurance and had 24 lawsuits against him for botched plastic surgery. Ha went into respiratory arrest during elective surgery for a tummy tuck, nostril reduction, and chin implant.
It’s in the final room of the exhibition, which collects together images of mixed-race beauty, that an image of my copper-haired son Tomo hangs on the wall. The photo was taken during a lighting test for a shoot with a local department store.
Mixed-race individuals have a more diverse genetic make-up and also face a complicated lived experience within a society that often requires choosing a single identity. By aligning with only one identity of origin, racial complexity becomes minimized through “passing.”
Unlike me, my seven-year-old son passes for more than one ethnicity. But when we are together, his Chinese features, which echo my own, are unmistakable. Throughout the rest of his life, I worry that my son will be fetishized for his unusual appearance, while also enduring microaggressions for being a redhead and for being ethnically Chinese. On the receiving end of mixed messages about beauty, I fear that he will feel both objectified and rejected by popular notions of attractiveness. Like Flawless Kevin seeing himself fully, I want my son to embrace what I have found so difficult — to look beyond the beautifully lit image of himself to recognize his own perfection.
Shin Yu Pai’s essays have appeared in Atlas Obscura, YES! Magazine, City Arts, Tricycle, KUOW’s Seattle Story Project, Seattle’s Child, ParentMap, and Seattle Met. She is the author of several poetry books, including her new collection, Virga.
📸 Featured Image: Illustration by Taylor Yingshi.
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