October 25, 2021

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Where by Attractiveness Lies | South Seattle Emerald

10 min read

by Shin Yu Pai


I considered the present ought to be termed Hey, Fantastic On the lookout, but the advertising group for the the Wing Luke Museum voted in favor of the a lot more lyric Wherever Elegance Lies. I’d been hired to write the narrative panels and introductory textual content for an exhibition arranged all over decolonizing beauty. Counting up the number of beauty and elective techniques I have undergone about the yrs, I felt at minimum some delicate sense of disingenuousness. But aspect of why I signed up to support with the demonstrate was to make myself glance extra intently at some of my 50 %-examined beliefs about magnificence.

There were no wholesome mirrors for me as a female. My mother hardly ever still left the household without having encounter powder or pink lipstick, high heels and a figure-flattering costume, preserving the additional formal costume standards of her native Taiwan, as a substitute of adapting to the shorts and t-shirt manner of Southern Californians. She did not exercise beyond gardening in our yard but maintained her trim determine. And for the reason that my father had strong inner thoughts about preserving up the look of youth, she coloured her hair to continue to keep its auburn hue — that is, till she was in her 60s, and she announced to my father one particular day she would prevent. 

I rebelled towards my mother’s elegance practices — when my mother arrived near me with a hairbrush, I’d complain about being tortured. As she ripped through the snarls of my prolonged, messy hair, she’d say points like “You’d search so substantially prettier if you’d consider treatment of oneself.” She would interrogate me about any pounds gain and scrutinize my pores and skin for blemishes and freckles that designed for the duration of tennis apply or when I’d lay out in the sunlight in an try to obtain that beachy glow of health and fitness, which only at any time resulted in uneven tan lines.

The idea of attractiveness was elusive. In buy to in good shape in, it was important to normalize one’s appears to be and come to be as much like absolutely everyone else as achievable. But I experienced competing benchmarks. All of them difficult. I’d hardly ever be blond. Or huge-chested. Chinese modesty would not make it possible for me to place on a two-piece bathing suit. At the identical time, my mother’s manufacturer of large-routine maintenance femininity didn’t feel right either.

When guests enter the gallery, they’re greeted by idealized illustrations or photos of Asian Americans offered in total glamor. Jenny, a seemingly nondescript metropolis worker who makes arts programming and moonlights as a burlesque dancer, cycles through 100 trend trends in a speedy-fireplace 100 Yrs of Magnificence online video designed by the Reduce studio. A disembodied blur of make-up artists and hair stylists converge on Jenny to remodel her into 11 distinctive looks throughout the a long time inside of the span of two-minutes. From California natural to bubble-gum pop to glamorous, I’d by no means see Jenny all over again as just an additional civil servant operating in a govt business office.

I was going for walks via the show on opening night when YouTube star Flawless Kevin strolled into the gallery and noticed his image on the wall for the initially time. Kevin, who is a non-gender conforming boy and has an net fanbase of additional than 300,000 followers and a channel devoted to manner, experienced been invited to consider part in a photo shoot for the exhibit. 

The photographer experienced decided on to model Kevin from the shoulders up, towards a straightforward black background, donning winged pink eyeshadow, scarlet pink lipstick, and hair slicked back again beneath a gold-flecked, crimson ao dai. The round hat, which historically features prominently in Vietnamese bridal shoots, perched atop the crown of Kevin’s head produced him look saint-like. As actual-lifetime Kevin gazed on himself as a larger sized-than-daily life function of art, I listened to him gasp audibly and viewed him cover his mouth in a combine of disbelief and recognition. Flawless Kevin’s story guided how I wrote the introduction for the exhibition. 

We are rarely taught to problem the “all-American beauty” ideals, or the Western splendor criteria that rejoice whiteness by yourself. As a result, we end up imitating the dominant culture. We unconsciously acknowledge the idea that except if you tumble in the spectrum of “normal” bodies, your lifetime is significantly less worthy. How can we type a extra particular marriage to natural beauty that can embrace non-Western features, histories, and inspirations? How can we see beyond the distorted human body visuals that we are fed on a day by day foundation, and enable go of the lies that we may perhaps believe that about attractiveness?

As a 20-some thing social media star who’d cultivated his individual community, Kevin shaped his personal fame. His viewers tune in for his musings on adolescent insecurity and LGBTQ problems and turn to Instagram for his make-up tutorials. Defying any circumscribed notions of magnificence, his message to his supporters is simple: “To be flawless is to be your self.”

But these pictures of day-to-day Asians created up to offer you depictions of attractiveness outdoors of the usual norms swiftly fade into well-liked media visuals of Asian American celebrities inserted during the clearly show. Pictures of actors ranging from Anna May well Wong, Constance Wu, and Keanu Reeves fill out the gallery. Flawless Kevin’s radical self-appreciate butts up towards tales of mainstream television personalities like former information reporter Julie Chen, who underwent Asian eyelid surgical procedures in her 20s. 

Blepheroplasty wasn’t new to me. My higher education roommate’s large school graduation present from her Korean auntie was an eyelid surgical procedure that resulted in producing her eyes search rounder and greater, like an anime character. “I don’t regret it,” she confessed to me. I couldn’t enable but come to feel that she was quietly urging me to stick to suit.

Chen’s information director explained to her she’d never have a seat on the anchor desk because she looked Chinese and had Asian eyes. “When you are on digital camera, you seem disinterested and bored.” Chen’s agent confirmed this feeling. The young professional consulted her relatives, underwent the knife, and arrived out on the other end with much more task alternatives.

It was through my many years put in living in Dallas, a city acknowledged for its standing consciousness and plastic surgeons, that I explored the concept of modifying myself with a lot more long-lasting interventions. In my 20s, I had my eyesight laser corrected so that I’d hardly ever have to dress in glasses all over again. At the age of eight, I bought my initially pair of eyeglasses at my father’s insistence. We bought the lowest priced glasses that we could manage — wire-framed nerd eyeglasses that sagged down below the bridge of my nose. I wore them during most of my childhood and early adolescence until I was equipped for my initially pair of contact lenses at fourteen. When colored delicate lenses came on the marketplace, I experimented with green and hazel tones that created my eyes a lot less brown.

In my thirties, I set up with enamel-straightening equipment for two several years to exert tension on my entrance enamel and drive them to conform. To complete the slow movement of tooth, I wore equipped retainers all around the clock, removing them only to drink or to eat food. Immediately after just about every occasion of taking in or consuming, I disciplined myself plenty of to brush and floss each and every crevasse to reduce tooth decay or staining of the retainers. My dental hygiene was hardly ever much better than in those people many years. When the procedure was finished, I authorized myself to smile overtly with no hiding guiding a hand, held up to conceal my imperfections. I was flawed, simply because I could not be myself.

That was virtually 15 decades in the past. My enamel have migrated back to their authentic positions mainly because I’m also lazy to put on a nightly retainer and despise waking up with dry mouth. I’m pressured to put on spectacles when I travel, as my eyes progress to presbyopia. 

Looking at about Julie Chen’s conclusion to adjust her visual appeal introduced again these memories of not getting adequate. The mother in me, who now mom and dad a youthful, combined-race youngster and inhabits a actual physical human body that has evidently provided beginning, feels in different ways. Pursuing childbirth, I could not rid myself of the “mask” of being pregnant — the hyperpigmentation of brown spots that bloomed throughout my cheeks and confront. Nor could I maintain a properly flat tummy. I had to master to dwell with the aging of my human body and its farness from suggestions of perfection. These classes ended up hard won. And so, I wanted the youthful news reporter’s tale to have a unique outcome. I preferred her to listen to the information that she did not have to modify herself to come to be beautiful to other folks.

One particular of the far more modern conclusions of the exhibition designers of The place Magnificence Lies was to adapt an common hair-drying station taken from a splendor salon into an audio set up. The piece is ideal experienced when sitting beneath the dome of the hair dryer. In the 1990s, I dried out quite a few periods beneath identical apparatuses after struggling by means of as well lots of chemical perms that would briefly shock my adhere-straight hair into mimicking the smooth waves of my white and Latino classmates. Beneath the dome, recordings collected and combined alongside one another by Kamna Shastri looped voices and stories from the community. Gals confessed messages about attractiveness that they heard from their moms and dads, peers, other gals, and adult males, while escalating up. Values that harm and shaped the grownups that they would turn out to be. I emailed the artist audio clips drawn from my own memories but could not carry myself to sit in the chair, even although she experienced also requested for positive messages of what I necessary to hear as a substitute, what I could possibly say to myself now. What would I say to a youthful Julie Chen? You are precious. You do not have to modify your self for any person.

Even more along into the galleries, I wrote this text to grace the walls:
Female natural beauty ideology places forth the worth of bodily attractiveness and venerates standards of unattainable magnificence. It mandates pursuit of a perfection that is simply just unreachable, considering that splendor ideals shift and evolve with every single generation. These messages distort the mirror of who we are and create long-lasting harm. 

We may well believe that ourselves to be flawed, like efficiency artist Susan Lieu’s mother. Lieu wrote the one-woman exhibit 140 Lbs .: How Elegance Killed My Mother to notify the story of her mother’s dying from a botched plastic surgical treatment. 

The exhibition as a full is an unnerving exercise in addressing the self. And that is the context in which I assume of Susan’s monologue about her mother, Phuong Ha. With out the mirror of the mom, our initially design of femininity and attractiveness, we achieve into our consciousness to take a look at in which our early beliefs about elegance occur from. Ha died when her daughter Susan was 11 many years outdated. Susan put in several years investigating her mother’s killer, who didn’t have professional medical insurance policies and had 24 lawsuits versus him for botched plastic surgical procedure. Ha went into respiratory arrest for the duration of elective surgery for a tummy tuck, nostril reduction, and chin implant.

It’s in the final room of the exhibition, which collects jointly pictures of combined-race beauty, that an image of my copper-haired son Tomo hangs on the wall. The photograph was taken for the duration of a lighting check for a shoot with a nearby division store. 

Blended-race folks have a extra diverse genetic make-up and also face a complex lived encounter inside of a culture that often calls for deciding upon a one id. By aligning with only one identification of origin, racial complexity will become minimized as a result of “passing.”

In contrast to me, my seven-year-aged son passes for far more than one ethnicity. But when we are jointly, his Chinese functions, which echo my have, are unmistakable. All over the relaxation of his lifetime, I worry that my son will be fetishized for his abnormal look, while also enduring microaggressions for becoming a redhead and for remaining ethnically Chinese. On the obtaining close of mixed messages about splendor, I panic that he will experience the two objectified and turned down by common notions of attractiveness. Like Flawless Kevin looking at himself absolutely, I want my son to embrace what I have uncovered so tricky — to seem over and above the beautifully lit image of himself to recognize his personal perfection.


Shin Yu Pai’s essays have appeared in Atlas Obscura, Sure! Magazine, Town Arts, Tricycle, KUOW’s Seattle Tale Challenge, Seattle’s Little one, and ParentMap, and new work is forthcoming in Seattle Met. She is the creator of a number of poetry publications, including her new assortment, Virga.

📸 Showcased Graphic: Illustration by Taylor Yingshi.

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