Today’s article is inspired by a Facebook post in one of my Korean adoptees’ groups, speaking closely to several topics in my work-in-progress. How do we measure Asian attractiveness; or, how do we measure any person of color’s attractiveness?
His post highlights an unfortunately prevalent beauty standard where White/Caucasian is the ring for which POC should reach. The article showed a bevy of gorgeous faces, Eastern in origin but with one key characteristic: They’re Asian, but not too Asian.
The Facebook user provided this (unedited) commentary:
You would never see a Chinese person on this list with a wide nose or a Filipino with dark skin. And if they do feature dark-skinned POC they always have to have thin AF noses and seafoam green eyes. They only praise us when we resemble the beauty of white people.
This is indeed why eyelid surgery and nose jobs are so popular in Asia and it’s exactly the reason I grew up hating my own appearance.
In my case, as I’m sure is the case in many other adoptees’ experiences, I grew up studying my family’s Whiteness, analyzing my mother’s blonde hair, large blue eyes, and her long, straight Caucasian nose. I clung hopelessly to my father and brother’s dark hair and dark eyes, convincing myself that we shared similar features and thus I could pass as them – White.
While the less enlightened of us (or more generously, the optimists) might counter with “You should love yourself the way you are!”, let’s examine that sentiment.
Loving your appearance requires that our internal and external expectations for our image must match; for example, I was raised in a very anti-POC community with White-dominant values. Anything else was ugly, scary, or unacceptable. My flat face and watermelon eyes became immediate targets for haters, offensive enough to provoke spiteful commentary by classmates. At some point, my parents even rejected interracial relationships (Black/White), while their Asian daughter dated only Whites.
The ultimate message: Asian is bad, your face is worse. For many years – and even up until this point – I despised having my photo taken in profile; it only enhanced my face’s flatness, drawing a thick line between myself and the pristine profile shots of White-girl models in glossy teen magazines. At one point, my mother suggested a nose job once I got older, informing me that I lack a bridge, a feature fixable via plastic surgery.
Later, the Internet led me to articles on ethnic plastic surgery, a medical phenomenon brought on by both a wealth of disposable income and a plethora of Western values. When I shared this tidbit with friends and family, they were rightly horrified but the depth of their reactions tempered by their lack of lived experience within a non-White body.
Through my research and my chats with others, I’ve inferred that being raised in an ethnically diverse community makes a significant difference, and I would agree only based on my current adult experience. No one bats an eye at my mixed family or son when we go to the Asian food market or walk the streets of Philadelphia; this isn’t saying that our appearances don’t raise eyebrows for some – I’m not naïve – but the likelihood of us eliciting some type of exotic wow response by the majority of acquaintances is much lower.
One of the most humiliating experiences I ever had – well, one of the top ten anyway – was when my mom took me to the make-up counter in our local mall. Keep in mind that I lived in a White non-diversified area, where Italian was considered foreign cuisine. She intended to get me a prom-makeover. The counter girl undoubtedly lacked experience applying eyeliner, eyeshadow, and foundation to an Asian palette; without double eyelids and with yellow-toned skin, I came away looking like I got punched in the eye and subsequently spent a week recovering in the hospital.
I finally understood how vastly my face differed from those around me and required care unique to my race – something that would have been taught to be if I’d been adopted in-race. Similarly, my hair confounded my mom’s (White) hairdressers. No matter how much they razored, sheared, and thinned my coarse hair, it just wouldn’t fall into the ’90s Jennifer Aniston layers of the day. I lived through two perms in an effort to achieve that turn-of-the-century crunchy-haired look (failing, obviously), again deluding myself that I was this close while most likely fooling no one around me.
I understand the complexities though. It’s become impossible to admire someone of color without being accused of fetishization or holding the non-White up on some strange exotic pedestal. In my experience, I remember being told by the last remnants of Korean War vets that we were all “beautiful, beautiful people,” making me wonder if even the ugly ones of us were beautiful, or if our strangeness made us attractive.
Perhaps it was also just my unfortunate experience, but I’ll relate this unflattering anecdote for educational purposes only:
I wanted to wear the thick-framed, black-rimmed hipster glasses for the same reason every other early twenty-something did; it was fashionable and obvi expressed my edginess, like come on. My mom was anti-dork glasses for whatever reason, but after pleading with me to get rid of them, she finally dropped this one: They make your face look flatter.
Not only did I not stop wearing them after that, but I filed her words away into the forefront of my mind, the place where painful memories swish around, reminding you to keep your defenses up. Using racialized facial features to discourage following a fashion trend is ineffective, small-minded, and racist. I’d presume it’s also an occurrence that POC regularly confront, adoptees possibly more.
For transracial adoptees especially, we need to find support – outside of our families – to help develop positive self-image and racial appreciation; no one wants their child to be a self-hating anything, so transracial parents require awareness of not just their child’s larger culture, but their child’s unique needs with regards to self-care and facial features. Transracial parents should be prepared to adjust trends according to their child’s needs; this isn’t racist, it’s prudent. Just as a White parent of a Black child would learn hair care and other nuances, parents of Asian children and others require similar education.
But I know there’s more to changing the beauty narrative than simply figuring out how to apply makeup or cut hair. It’s a larger issue that’s finally being addressed by increasing numbers of POC – particularly Asians – in mass media, which will help normalize their appearance and provide guidance that a parent cannot.
Transracial adoptees and their parents are in a powerful position: We live within the minority and majority, making us privy to subtletities others miss. We can use this knowledge to spur progress in so many ways, including that of beauty standards.
I acknowledge I’m writing from a purely Americanized viewpoint, but I welcome your thoughts on this topic and I’d love to hear your encounters with this unfortunate byproduct of Western society!