Once, when I was a teenager, after having spent countless hours picking and poking at my face in the mirror, I took to scribbling furiously in my journal. “I hate the way I look,” I wrote, taking inventory of all my unsavory features. “Flat face, puffy lips, buck teeth, huge nostrils, horrible skin, bushy brows.” I compared myself to the typically pretty teen queens at school and on TV, and I obsessed over all the ways I came up short. I knew that being Asian accounted for much of the difference between us, but I understood it as my burden to bear, not as a problem with the white standards of beauty I was internalizing. I was not accustomed to questioning things at that age.
Instead, I was always good at doing what I was told. And society told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to be pretty if I wanted any hope of happiness. So I picked up my older sister’s magazines. I started shaving my legs—and even my eyebrows and knuckles, intent on taming my body. At fifteen, I got my first job, as a hostess at a diner during weekend brunch. After the manager handed me the $60 cash after my shift on Sunday, my first purchase was a trendy pair of jeans from Delia*s. This was a symbolic moment. I could have bought some books, or CDs, or a set of watercolors, but instead I invested in my outward appearance.
I quickly learned the art of being pretty. It isn’t hard to pick up, but it is expensive. I accumulated the brushes and palettes and hot tools, collected the creams and powders and accessories, mastered the DIY manicure and the cat eye. I could tell boho from glam, cashmere from a poly blend. By the time I graduated high school, accepting my diploma in wedge heels, with my hair curled and a full face of makeup, I had successfully and very consciously completed the transition from plain, clueless Asian to hot, well-assimilated Asian.
Quite predictably, men started to notice me, particularly white men. For a long time, I basked in the glow of the male gaze. I was so hungry for that kind of attention; I owed it to my pimply-faced younger self to go on all the dates, blush at all the compliments, be the most doting, accommodating girlfriend I could be. After all, being desirable is hard work, and if they could see who I really was underneath the artifice, they might desert me and I’d find myself alone, again.
But there was a dark side to this male attention, and I soon could no longer deny the fact that I was viewed as a fetish object. One ex-boyfriend told me it would be sexy if I spoke with a “broken English accent.” Another guy I used to date once quizzed me on the pronunciation of menu items at a Vietnamese restaurant, on Valentine’s Day. On one occasion, a man swaggered toward me at a bar and loudly proclaimed that I looked just like a North Korean refugee.
These injustices coincided with my own feminist awakening, and I responded with rebellion. I cut my hair off and have sported a pixie for the past five years. I now favor oversize military jackets and eschew high heels. I feel free to paint my puffy lips red and purple and black. Like any art form, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Where I was once delicate and docile, I now prefer to respond to men’s advances with hostility and mockery.
I understand now that there’s a system—an economic system—that has a financial stake in upholding a particular feminine ideal. If I could go back and meet my younger self, frowning at the mirror, I would tell her not to worry. Men will surely notice her regardless of how pretty she thinks she is. In fact, they’ll feed on her insecurities. And then I would tell her to save the $60 and buy some books.