When Beauty Standards Collide

By Joanne Lee

Skinny in America, Fat in Korea.

The great thrill of being a Mash-Up is living as a bridge between cultures. But it can also mean living with clashing expectations of how you behave, how you speak, how you look — of how you live. Our Korean-American Mash-Up Joanne Lee shares with us what it’s like to look Asian enough to be beautiful in America, and not American enough to be beautiful in Korea, and how she’s setting her own standards through the noise.

Like many girls, I believe there is no woman more beautiful than my own mother. My favorite compliment is “OMG, you look exactly like your mom!” Unfortunately, my mom is the archetypal tiny Asian woman: maybe 87 pounds sopping wet. I am not. My mom can eat three cream puffs and two bowls of rice for dinner and still worry that she’s losing weight. I eat a wedge salad with a tablespoon of low-fat yogurt and my “skinny jeans” are benched for a month.

For my 19th birthday, my family took me to an American restaurant — the Baker’s Square just down the block. Even at 19, eating non-Korean food was still an activity reserved for special occasions. I planned on inhaling a slice of strawberry cream pie. The waitress came by to ask the table, “Did anyone save room for some pie?” Before I could raise my hand, my father said, “Don’t you think you should pass? You’re getting a little too fat, don’t you think?”

Perhaps he thought that couching the words “too fat” between the modest-sounding “Don’t you think”s would soften the blow, but I will never forget how his words sank like boulders to the pit of my stomach. I passed on my own birthday pie.

My body, my face, my jaw, even — they’re all being measured against disparate standards of beauty.

The pressure to look alluring is the birthright of all women. However, being Korean-American raises unique challenges. My body, my face, my jaw, even — they’re all being measured against disparate standards of beauty. My lessons in Asian beauty were dramatically accelerated when my sister-in-law moved to the states from South Korea. I have since been educated in skin whitening, the many-faceted functions of Botox, and jaw-shaving surgery, all in an effort to look more weh-gook, or Caucasian. When I told my sweet little sister-in-law that I was trying to lose weight, she reassured me with the following, “But, Unni, you are American. You are very skinny in America. If you were going to Korea, yes, you would need to diet, but you are in America!”

Recently divorced, my entre into singledom has inflamed all my insecurities like a heinous outbreak of herpes. For the first time in my life, I have started seeing non-Asian men. It’s upended my understanding of what is attractive to who, and whether or not I should care.

Last week, when I asked my sister-in-law if I was sexy enough for my American date, she explained that I expertly blended my American-ness with my authentically “Asian” features — unlike some of my peers, I didn’t try and make my eyes look bigger with fake lashes or smoky eye shadow. “If you were white, maybe you need to be worried,” she said. “But you are Asian, so you don’t need to worry.”

Because Asian women are inherently sexy to American men? Oof. Swallowing my misgivings about post-colonial Asian fetishism and the contradiction — and probably profound truth — in my sweet dong-seng’s advice, I merely shook my head and put on my flip-flops as I got ready to meet my date. Somewhere, in the mess of skin whitening products and cardio sessions and low-fat yogurt, tucked in the folds of self doubt and budding confidence, is that slice of strawberry cream pie. I’ll eat it someday.

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