There is an unbearable whiteness of beauty. That is, what and who may be considered beautiful is Eurocentrically defined. Beauty standards have long stood as a rejection of non-white bodies, and as an exclusion of other ways of being. By being mixed race I have experienced white beauty standards in a peculiar way: I am simultaneously the beautiful Western ‘self’ and the ugly Asian ‘Other’. While growing up, my mental health got caught in between. One side of me was constantly validated, encouraged and sought after. The other, I was taught, was the locus of my flaws. I learned quickly that my whiteness should be emphasised, and my Asian-ness should be downplayed.
As far back as I can remember, beauty has always been taught to me as something racially inscribed. My earliest memories of this are at the local supermarkets, where cashiers would remark to my mum that my sister and I were “ho leng,” meaning beautiful – but this was always followed by an inquiry or remark about our white father. As young as six years old, the precondition of my beauty was whiteness.
Later, aged 10 or 11 in primary six, my classmate said to me, “Michelle, you’re so lucky you have a tall nose.” I was confused. What was a tall nose? She explained to me that the bridge of my nose was prominent, and not flat. She explained that this was a ‘white’ trait, and that I was lucky to be mixed. At the time, I thought very little of this remark, mostly, I thought it was a little weird. But the remark never left me. Eventually, it even made perfect sense to me. I learnt that my white “tall” nose was indeed a pretty feature. I also learnt that my rounded eye shape and double-eyelids were beautiful. I learnt, that my white skin was coveted but I also conversely learnt, that I was ugly. I learnt that my hair was too dark, too Asian. I learnt that my dark brown eyes would be prettier if they were blue or green.
By high school, I was acutely aware of how ugly my Asian features supposedly were, and how my white features were a source of redemption.
I became frequently acquainted with phrases like “she’s pretty…for an Asian.” Though I had been subconsciously internalising white beauty ideals all my life, during my teenage years they really came to fruition.
Everyday I looked in the mirror, dissecting which parts of my face were Asian and which parts were superiorly white. I hated the former and loved the latter. If only I could get rid of my Asian features, I thought, I would be beautiful.
Western idolisation had wider repercussions beyond beauty, however. It fed into, and guided, which side of me I should be proud of, and which side of me I should be ashamed of. It guided which sides of my heritage and culture I should be proud or ashamed of. At school, to be ‘cool’ was to be White not only in beauty but in terms of language, TV and culture. The racialised beauty standard has been a burden on my mental health in dividing my sense of worth along the lines of my race, learning to value one side of myself more than the other.
(Slightly) older now, I can intellectually recognise these feelings as a response to a racialised beauty standard that demonises non-White bodies. When I look at my dark eyes in the mirror and think they are loathesome, I can mentally correct myself, knowing that this is not true.
While I am proud of this, and think this of the utmost importance, that sad truth is that emotionally, there is no reset button. On a psychological level, the racialised beauty standard remains my beauty standard. And I think that will remain true my entire life, as much as I protest it.
Illustration: Hannah Robinson