The Beautiful People
Picture me, an awkward Adopted Korean girl, dyed, permed, and overly made up. It was the eighties and I wore off color foundation with too much eye shadow, always insecure about sprinklings of acne and the Asiatic smallness of my eyes. At the time I had very few illusions about American and even Korean standards of beauty. I was by American suburban social standards average, neither distinguishingly beautiful like my best friend with her almost Polynesian bone structure, large eyes, and full lips, or “stereotypically” unattractive like the non-descript, overly full faced Asians with thick prescription black rimmed glasses. In the age of Madonna, Molly Ringwald and the Breakfast club, my adolescent social mirror only offered the role of the girl who was at best a Yellow fetish.
In my youth I spent more time in front of the mirror than Snow White’s stepmother and like Carrie Mae Weems’s, photograph, Mirror, Mirror, my self-image was even more susceptible to the sweet words of a narcissistic boyfriend. At 19 he told me I was beautiful. It was the first time these words had been said to me, and the first time I allowed it to be true. And so, I rushed headfirst through the looking glass into the role of the lovelorn princess. As in most romances ours began with infatuation and adoration then descended into boredom, betrayal, and abuse. Love’s addiction plays well into fairy tales and the role of a mad princess was like opium to my literary soul. I allowed my ego to be buried with Hamlet’s Ophelia and it would take many years before I could crawl out from the romantic undertow.
For a variety of particularly good reasons feminists believe one should not emphasize the beauty of one’s daughters. Many women worry that to focus on how a girl looks may lead her to equate her value with the measure of her “beauty.” I do not ever recall my mother calling me beautiful. Perhaps she was waiting till I was married. But as I eloped, she lost her chance. Regardless, without such attentions or words of appreciation and with a good dose of literary precedents, and social reinforcement my girlish brain came to the inevitable conclusion: beauty equals value. No value, no beauty and equally visa versa. As an Asian girl in Suburban White America, I was conspicuously undervalued. I hungered for anonymity and dreamed of validation.
To say to your child, ‘I see you and what I see is beautiful’ goes beyond the idea of reinforcing superficial standards of beauty. To tell your child, he or she is beautiful does not objectify them either. As a mother, I tell my sons, ‘I see them and they are beautiful, and sometimes more handsome than others, though often just smellier.’ The beauty I see in them rests on the fullness of their brows hinting at unknown ancestors. It finds expression in their gait so like their father’s. It is demonstrated by their wonder at the world and the love they engender and give to others.
Recognizing and feeling one’s beauty validated is so important for men and women. Ironically for Asian’s in a predominantly White Western Society, that which makes us most unique and beautiful externally, i.e., our eyes are also the feature that often is used to degrade us. This judgement is rendered by society and in some cases by our families. When I was growing up in the 70’s, my models of Asian beauty came from Chinese Restaurant Calendars, bad stereotypes in movies and the National Geographic. Thankfully, today images of the beautiful Asian eye and aesthetic abound.
Just because we are living in America does not mean we need to prescribe to the White social beauty standard or even live within its limits. I keep a Pinterest board titled Pseudo Pompous, Wigs, to collect images of the amazing beauty I find represented globally with a focus on ornamentation, hair, and head coverings. In addition, as I continue to draw the portraits of Korean Adoptees, I am attempting to redress the “White Western eye” and reconceive the value and beauty of these images, as I look on them with love. Still, as I participate in the Korean Adoptee community, I observe the backlash over the trend of using make up to create a “chinky” eye or hear about parental calls for double eyelid surgery. Regarding the former, there are many women who would love to have “Asian Eyes,” of course, and as to the latter, I am literally gutted, and heart broken.
In America, I believe we are literally living in the upside down. Firstly, the word “mono-lid” being used for Asian’s is biologically inaccurate and absurd. Physiologically all humans have mono-lids. Due to the deeper eye cavity many Races, Asians among them some have a longer eyelid which requires the lid to fold upon itself. In the animal kingdom Cats and Alligators have true Double eyelids as in two sets. Does it seem funny that Asian’s are often stereotyped as Cat like or like Dragons? The shape of ignorance always seeks to dehumanize.
As an artist I see the smoothed line in the profile of Asian skull that shapes our eyes, flowing from the chin to the crown of the head like a poetic arc. In truth all human profiles have poetic lines that rule the structure of their faces. When people have plastic surgery these lines are broken and redrawn. When this is done according to a trend the face loses a certain natural credibility. This creates a visual dissonance, like a glitch for the observant eye. The editing of an original implies wrongness. With the prevalence of plastic surgery and the desire for it among Korean and American women I must ask, “Why are we so convinced we are the ones who need editing?” I also grappled with the smallness of my eyes and the broadness of my face, even so it is those very features that tie me to my unknown ancestors and the continent of people who look like me in bits and pieces.
Even as our Asiatic eyes may be devalued, our hair is coveted. Women desire it for its strength and thickness and men see it as a symbol of sexuality. “All-natural wigs” are sewn with hair from all over Asia and India whether sold and possibly stolen. The value held on a woman’s hair is a cultural norm among Eastern and Western Cultures. Biblical and Muslim religions require women cover their hair in varying degrees and in some cases shave it off, to erase its power among other men. To the Western Eye trained by images of Geisha’s and colonial systems of sexual slavery our long Asian hair symbolizes a primal chain. Thus, so many of us have, permed, or dyed or flattened or cut off that marker as a way to assimilate or alternatively to exert control over our own visual narrative and free ourselves from the weight.
Again, all these acts make me wonder. Why do we change or torture ourselves when it is really the Western “eye” that is faulty and should be changed? We are not broken or wrong or unsightly, or exotic toys. We are just beautiful as we were born. We are rare Lotus blossoms among Westerners only because we are a captive minority. We are in fact common among the millions of other Lotuses like us, living on the other side of the world. If this reasoning is true, then why do Koreans in Korea want to change? Might they be a captive minority too or have their aspirations for racial superiority guided their own knife in reshaping history?
In my fifties now, the hair I once warred with has shed like the leaves off an old willow tree. I am left with something as light as butterfly wings and reminded that some of the older Korean women I would see at the H mart with their thinned hair permed to create body is where I am headed. I have no Korean mother or grandmother to tell me this or to see in the mirror, but my surrogate Korean Society at the H mart has long foretold this future.
My age and marital status also afford me a level of comfort. As menopause takes her time, I look forward to flashing a neon ‘closed for business’ sign. A lack of a competitive reproductive drive means I can admire the youthful beauty of other woman without insecurity or jealousy. I can look at the awkward pictures of my twentysomethings and sympathize with the self-conscious girl convinced that a small thickness over her hip was the last hurdle to Beauty and the American crystal palace. I see myself then and recall how deeply ugly I felt. I look back on pictures and think, “I was so blind.” I was in my deepest of depressions, at my most fragile and I was probably never more superficially lovely.
Today, when I observe beautiful earnest young girls craving the attention of their White Western male peers, I see myself. I was that girl wanting to be beautiful, wanting to be seen and it breaks my heart. “Love you daughters,” I quietly think to myself, “See them with love in your eyes. Show them the world is much bigger, and their value so much greater.”
I chased ‘beauty’ all through my youth, only to truly understand it in my 40’s. I did not find my beauty in ideal proportions, pale complexions, and golden hair, not in a mirror or the reflection of a man’s eyes. Beauty was not a standard for something I either was or was not. What I discovered after having children, gaining, and losing weight, the trials of motherhood, teaching and over a decade of marriage was that in each one of those moments I was beautiful. I was not glamourous as in primped for some edible public display, but my beauty was everywhere in every moment created by everything I chose to do with love. As a woman, as a mother, as a wife, as an artist, as a teacher I know where my true beauty resides.
The mirror, a thin metallic veneer has nothing to tell us, shadows, and refractions a 2-dimensional sketch that favors dramatic lighting. It will never come close to representing the beauty that I am, that we are, and that we all have the possibility to become. The truth is we always see ourselves from the inside out and the mirror does its best to mimic our mind’s eye.
Chase your dreams, love the beauty of the earth and the smallest flower. See into the eyes of a friend or a child you care for. Acknowledge and savor the fruits of your labors. The love and beauty you create will propagate.
The mirror will smile back at you like an old friend with lines tracing the tales of your story. You are beautiful in action and beautiful in being. Even and especially if your story like mine is one of survival.
Where do you think all the greatest art comes from? See it. Let yourself in. Let that be the plan you exercise in this new year.
Happy New Year all you beautiful people!