Asian-American beauty standards perpetuate colorism

For most of my adolescence, I believed the lie that a lighter skin complexion was more worthy and signified greater beauty. As someone who grew up as a dark-skinned Asian, I knew I did not fall into that category.

It was the first thing that anybody would ever point out whenever they saw me. I remember very clearly, on a family vacation to Hong Kong, a stranger saw my mom and me and stopped us.

“Hi little girl, are you Native American?” he asked me, smiling. His voice was condescending and high-pitched. “Why is your mom so pale and why are you so dark?”

He asked my mom in Cantonese, unaware that I speak fluent Cantonese, if I was adopted.

I remember running to the bathroom and sobbing in a stall because I did not want anybody to know and also because I couldn’t hold the tears in.

I was only 7 years old, but at that moment, I knew that there was more than one way to look “Asian.”

The homogeneity of East Asian beauty is startling and in a way, unsettling. If you look in any Korean, Japanese, Chinese or Taiwanese magazine, every girl has the same porcelain skin, small pink lips, straight eyebrows, dyed straight hair, and big eyes with double eyelids. Their bodies are petite and have super slim figures.

However, if you asked any millennial what the American beauty standard would be, chances are it would be along the lines of tan skin, full or thick lips, a curvy physique but with a nice flat stomach and arched and well done eyebrows. White people actually pay to get darker and make trips to the beach just to tan and pale means that you didn’t go out much.

Whenever some of my friends suggest to go to the beach to go tanning, I think about if I ever went back to Taiwan, my grandparents would be encouraging me to stay in the shade so I don’t get too “dark.” Whenever some of my friends talk about wanting a bigger booty, I think about how that would have been viewed negatively in Asian media. I have realized that, as an Asian American, I will never be completely homogenous to the beauty standards of both of the worlds that I am from.

Over the years, my skin has lightened naturally, possibly due to the fact that I hate playing sports and prefer indoor activities. However, there are still parts of my body that are darker than others, and I still tan extremely easily, especially in the summer.

But guess what? I take it with a grain of salt. How can I hate myself, when God has made me the way that I am with my best intentions in mind? It’s great that it doesn’t matter to me anymore. But I can’t help but wonder — if it has taken me so many years of self-loathing and self-doubt to come to this conclusion, how many other girls in the world currently hate themselves because they don’t meet a certain physical and cultural beauty ideal?

I think of my younger self, the one who thought that drinking milk or bathing in lemons would make herself feel less worthless and more beautiful, who cried in the bathroom, and I would never want any other young teen girl to hate herself because she is bombarded with these standards of beauty that she can’t live up to.

It’s too late to go back and change where it began, but it’s not too late to change the way it will end. What’s the solution besides the advice that everyone gives, like “love the skin you’re in and love who you are?” The solution is not only limited to practicing self love, but also with diversity in media and acceptance within our own community. There are almost no celebrities in Asian films and television who are darker skinned unless cast as the villain or a derogatory role. Being beautiful and being light are not mutually exclusive, and we can all work toward shattering this belief by viewing and treating every person of every hue equally and calling out other people who promote colorism. Nobody deserves to feel like a foreigner in their own culture.

Erika Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.  Her column, “Asian Amerikan Heroine,” runs every other Monday. She is the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan.