This article is part of Mochi’s Fall 2022 issue on politics. In the late ’60s, the slogan “The personal is political” came out of a second-wave feminist movement, presenting an alternative thought that politics is about one’s dignity and agency. As Asian Americans, we know this to be true, since even our identities are political. In this issue, we talk about what politics mean to us — from the politics of our identities to political dynamics in our relationships and communities. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
Growing up, I never considered myself pretty. Pretty seemed synonymous with white, blonde, slim, and conventionally attractive Eurocentric features. Pretty didn’t exist in my dictionary. And I never felt pretty, especially not when I turned 13 and my face broke out in angry red spots, acting as a mocking reminder every time I looked in a mirror. My 15th birthday rolled around, and I resolved to fix my appearance woes. I figured out how to take care of my hair and skin and spent an excessive amount of time and money buying new clothes. I spent hours upon hours trying to be “pretty” — why?
Beauty in general is a form of social currency, with psychologists finding that more attractive people tend to seem more trustworthy, smart, and hardworking. Additionally, as a woman, it is even more etched into our beliefs that how we look is the most important thing about us. The first thing that people think to compliment a girl on is her beauty: “You’re so pretty!”
Pretty privilege is no myth, either. Earlier last year, a TikTok trend where girls were asked to “tell me you have pretty privilege without telling me you have pretty privilege” became popular. Dozens of pretty girls added their own takes, from getting free drinks from baristas to police officers letting them off the hook for parking and speeding tickets. It’s no wonder people want to be pretty so badly, if this is the treatment they could get.
Beauty standards are interwoven into our everyday lives, with Instagram models making their way onto our recommended posts and social media creating unrealistically beautiful people with the help of angles, lighting, makeup, and cosmetic procedures, as well as photo retouching and editing.
The standard of beauty has always been one of Eurocentric features, with a small and high nose and large eyes being most desirable. So how does this affect Asian American women?
When I was younger, I felt like in order to be deemed pretty, I had to look less Asian. And this notion can be seen in the types of procedures Asians take to attain beauty. Among Asians, double eyelid surgery, nose jobs, and whitening procedures are exceptionally popular.
“I’ve heard comments about beauty for as long as I could remember — from dentists, teachers, parents, and relatives,” says Yvonne Su, Mochi Magazine’s Arts and Culture Editor. “Adults have felt free to comment on girls’ looks since their births,” she adds, “It’s hard not to internalize what adults describe as pretty when you hear it all the time as a kid! In middle school, girls often criticized their own weight and size. I grew up around either Asians or Asian Americans, so the beauty standard was being thin and pale.”
Light skin is seen in Asian cultures as a status symbol, associated with class and beauty. In a Refinery29 YouTube video titled “Why People Risk Their Lives To Bleach Their Skin,” the host travels to the Philippines to look into the dangerous business that is skin whitening to investigate the question: “When the color of your skin can determine your future, how far would you go to be lighter?”
In the Philippines, where there is an increasing possibility for social mobility as the country is on an economic rise, “one of the most popular strategies to get a leg up is skin bleaching.”
Only in the last few years has Asian entertainment truly entered the mainstream, with K-pop reaching global popularity, and along with it, influencing how Asians are perceived by the rest of the world. Famous K-pop idol diets, such as the “IU diet,” where you eat an apple for breakfast, a sweet potato for lunch, and a protein shake for dinner, have also gained traction online, with dozens of these “I tried the IU diet for a week” videos popping up on my recommended YouTube feed. Many of these extreme crash diets that idols partake in right before a performance or comeback result in the artists needing IV drips to sustain their energy onstage, while some end up fainting due to malnutrition.
“It’s funny,” Mochi Magazine Executive Editor Sarah Jinee Park muses, “As K-pop has reached a more global influence over the last decade, more and more white people tell me I don’t look Korean because I’m shorter and darker.”
The politics of pretty are complex for Asian American women, and we can’t help but wonder: How does it define us, marginalize, and objectify us? And how can we take back our agency, regardless of whether we look “too Asian” or “not Asian enough,” and just exist without the confines of what we should look like?
While I’m still young, I have definitely grown since my “glow-up” days (over three inches!). Though I can’t say that I have completely let go of my desire to conform to beauty standards and I’m not sure I ever will, I have started to bring focus to how I feel: my strength, my intelligence, and my opinions. These are the things that make me who I am, and they’re a million times more significant than the blemish on my cheek or the number on my jeans.
By emphasizing our value beyond how we look as Asian American women, we can take back our agency, empower others and ourselves, break the confines of expectation, and perhaps redefine the politics of pretty.
Cover credit: Hoàng Nguyên Lý/pixabay
Last modified: September 19, 2022