Growing up between two ideals of beauty

Growing up I always felt caught between different beauty standards: Eastern standards from my family and Western standards from my environment.

Growing up as a young girl, there was unfortunately very little that felt more important than being beautiful. Sadly, this is commonplace for many young women who are constantly told in many spaces that youth and beauty are what they are valued for most in society. This belief is imbued into us at a young age and supported through dialogue from parents, extended family, friends, peers, and media, regardless of whether the comments are aimed directly at us (which they often are) or not.

What made experiencing this narrative even more confusing during my formative years was the mixed messages of what beauty looked like from two different perspectives: Eastern standards from my family and Western standards from my environment, and the weight of needing to conform to both.

Growing up there wasn’t a ton of representation in popular culture, certainly not an exhaustive list of women who looked like me. Thus, I was confined to the North American caricature of beauty typical of the images seen splashed across magazines and mainstream media – tall, blonde, and white – an ideal that would always be out of reach. 

Of course that didn’t stop teenage me from studying the faces of Hollywood pop stars and actresses in vain attempts to chisel their faces onto mine with brushes and bronzer, nor did it stop me from feeling the crushing blow of inadequacy as I measured myself against the impossible standards of Victoria’s Secret bombshells or Cosmo cover girls touting their diets and secrets for glowing skin and a six-pack. It took me a long time to accept that truly no amount of omega-3 fatty acids was going to change the shape of my face.

Worst still was the unspoken agreement among my peers that it was preferred to strive for more predominantly white features as if having a straighter nose was somehow a determining factor of intelligence or success.

On the flip side, Asian Pacific culture also greatly values beauty and there’s a long list of what is deemed beautiful according to Asian standards. Growing up watching the handful of Asian women in mainstream media or The Miss Chinese Vancouver pageant also created a caricature of beauty that I didn’t fully feel a part of. Most of them, in my opinion, still felt Westernized and unfortunately, influenced my aspirations to conform to white standards of beauty. 

I vividly remember sitting in high school classrooms in eighth and ninth grade, half-listening to the English lesson and half-listening to my peers detail their dream list of plastic surgery procedures (many of those peers have committed to their list). Even as an adult I find myself having occasional conversations with other women about my list. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have one. 

Photo by Septian simon on Unsplash

Growing up watching soap operas on TVB, streaming Korean dramas, or The Miss Chinese Vancouver pageant also created a caricature of beauty to aspire to, one that was held in high regard within the Asian community. Suddenly, I felt concurrently overdone and yet not enough. Too contrived for one party but too alien for the other to really fit into having the right Asian look. 

See also: Finding my roots through an Asian beauty pageant

Thankfully as media has evolved, so have the images of beauty that are increasingly diverse and inclusive towards a wider range of women. Even more uplifting is seeing images of women who embrace their natural features and make it more comfortable to fully be yourself.

Growing up hearing about these beauty standards from my grandmother, aunties, and mother infused a deep-seated insecurity about what it meant to be enough. The result was exhaustive amounts of energy wasted on caring about where I fit into both camps and not feeling good enough in either. 

With time I’ve been able to distance myself from those messages and fully choose to only listen to what serves me. With more lived experiences I feel empowered to embrace the uniqueness of me and amplify what I choose to amplify, leaning into the powerful sides of my own Asian traits. And with age, I’m steadfast in the belief that the only person whose opinion about how I look matters, is my own.

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