This is an ongoing deeply personal project I am working on. My name is Diana King. I am a Chinese-American photographer currently based in Nashville. I’ve always felt like an outsider; I never fit into the conventional definition of beauty in Asian OR American culture.
I grew up feeling insecure and inadequate in my self-worth and identity as a Chinese-American woman. I knew I looked Asian but I didn’t feel Chinese and didn’t even feel like I looked Chinese. The most Chinese thing I knew to my core is that I love Asian food, took off my shoes inside, and obsessed over anything cute. But I’m also American. I was born and raised in California and I lived the American lifestyle. I was a latchkey kid and American pop culture permeated my upbringing. I didn’t have an Asian name and I didn’t speak Chinese so I never thought otherwise of being American.
Because I didn’t have an Asian name, didn’t speak Chinese, and didn’t fit into the Asian beauty standard, I felt rejected by my own family and the Asian community. When I tried to fit in, whether it was at school or work, especially among a group of non-Asians, they only recognized my Asian-ness and questioned why my name wasn’t more Asian sounding. No matter which side I tried to fit in, Asians and non-Asians questioned me from childhood to adulthood, “What are you???” When I started this project, I wanted to examine and explore the differences and similarities of Asian-American women’s experiences about beauty and our expectations versus society’s expectations. However, as I started interviewing the first set of women, I realized that this question of “What are you?” is the foundation of many Asian-American women’s experiences and how much their appearance is tied to their identity.
FILMED IN LOS ANGELES, CA 2018: THIS FIRST SERIES FROM THE PROJECT SHOWED ME I AM NOT ALONE
These ten Asian-American women volunteered to be interviewed and photographed bare faced and makeup free. All scars, blemishes, wrinkles have not been taken away. I acknowledge this session only covers a few of the many Asian identities. My ultimate goal for this project is to receive a grant so I can travel to different cities and interview women across the U.S to represent a full and diverse spectrum of Asian identity. I hope these women’s experiences continue to empower our community to define our beauty and our identity on our terms.
QUYEN NGO VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN, 29
I did not fit that opinion [of Asian beauty], although I did not particularly feel un-pretty because of it. Positive comments would be “big eyes” -- negative would be “flat nose.” I had standard issues of self-consciousness, but in my mind, because I knew I'd never look like the images I was seeing, I was more concerned with becoming my most “beautiful” self. Despite the ever-present “lighter is better" sentiment in Vietnamese culture, I was able to evade most of the insecurity that comes with being on the tanner side of the spectrum growing up. I do recall maybe 2 years of my life where I religiously avoided getting darker, and the fact that I can't figure out where that came from goes to show how subtle unhealthy concepts of color can pervade our lives. Thank god it was momentary.
LYNN CHEN TAIWANESE-AMERICAN, 43
[On fitting in with Asian beauty] I did, but it was a struggle keeping it up. Whenever I gained weight my family (and fans) would make comments about it, and I felt the pressure to stay a certain size. Whenever I gained weight, I felt I was "wrong" - especially working in Hollywood. Being in front of the camera since the age of 5 has always made me conscious of my physical appearance. It is the reason I became a body image activist, starting two blogs - TheActorsDiet.com and ThickDumplingSkin.com. I have been a spokesperson for NEDA (The National Eating Disorders Association) since 2012 and it is a very important part of my life.
HILLARY BENEFIEL MIXED, FILIPINO-AMERICAN, 34
I didn't really understand where I fit within that [Asian beauty] standard. I did get a lot of praise for looking white. My aunties used to tell me I could be a movie star back in the Philippines because I'm Filipina but I look very white. I felt insanely conflicted about it. It was nice to be told I looked like what a movie star looked like, but I also thought the people who looked more Filipino (darker skin, black hair, etc.... people who looked like my mom and my aunties) were really cool and beautiful and interesting and I wished I looked like them. I used to be stick thin and I gained a bunch of weight so I'm self-conscious about that. But I fell in love with mixing feminine and androgynous and like doing that now. In general, one thing I've been undoing and really learning over the past few years is the perception of beauty across gender... particularly learning more about the trans and nonbinary experiences and breaking out of those awful bigoted perceptions of what a woman should look like/how to feel when someone who looks traditionally male is also pretty.
NAOMI KO KOREAN-AMERICAN, 28
Since I was born and raised in Minnesota, I didn't have a strong Asian American beauty base, thus I was heavily influenced by South Korea. South Korean beauty standards consist of: petite, long straight hair, skinny ( like you can fit into children clothing sizes skinny) oval face, double eyelid, and narrow nose. The positive comment I received was about my hair -- I have naturally curly hair. But mostly it was negative. You're too tall. (I'm 5'7") You're fat. (I have an athletic body, I was a competitive swimmer. Now I am no longer an athlete, I have gained some weight.) You should get eyelid surgery." (Nah, I'm good.) In some ways, I want to be carefree and say it doesn't bother me. I wish I could brush it off to the side. That's not the case, I am concerned with beauty and my body image. I often compare myself to everyone. Then I end up beating myself up for being concerned about my physical appearance. It's a vicious cycle.
JEAN KUAN TAIWANESE-AMERICAN, 32
I realized in retrospect that when I was a teenager I considered straight silky hair to be a classic sign of "Asian Beauty". I participated in the Japanese straight perm trend, and owned more than one power straightener in my high school years. The funny thing is that watching trends change so quickly shows you there's no reason to chase the popular perception of beauty. I'm happy to understand that everyone has positive features and the best choice always seems to be what showcases those unique features. My family being in the nails industry also taught me that a small thing like your polish color can give a woman enough confidence to feel like a queen. Each year I grow more confident in my body even though each year there are slightly more sun spots and saggy muscles, but I would say in the summer when there are a lot of outdoor activities and I'm nicely tanned. I feel SUN KISSED and radiant.
MIRIAM CHAN FILIPINX & CHINESE-AMERICAN, 32
As being half-Chinese and half-Filipino, I would hide my Filipino side and it deeply affected how I saw myself, my family and my self worth for years. I grew up in a predominately white suburb of Houston. In kindergarten, I was teased for my slanted eyes and for wearing my purple plastic glasses — this was the first time I realized the concept of race and that I looked different than my mostly white classmates. In middle school, I was called a chink by a younger white classmate who also did child beauty contests. These experiences made me desperately want to try to assimilate to white culture in my childhood on top of the amount of pressure to fit in. I would wear a ton of eyeshadow to try to hide my Asian eyes (obviously, as a pre-teen, I had no clue what I was doing and would wear this obnoxious purple eyeshadow) and make jokes for being a banana up until college. It is only in the last five years that I started working through my childhood trauma of never feeling enough to be proud of who I am.
LOAN HOANG VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN, 31
It's been pretty much ingrained in my culture that the fairer you are, the prettier you are. The female stars I idolized growing up were all from Asia so in the end colorism was something that was involuntarily put on me by my family and something I voluntarily took to through my entertainment choices. It made me insecure growing up but as an adult, it doesn't affect me as much. I don't find myself seeking out whitening creams as I did in my youth or obsessing over having porcelain white skin. It's a weird dichotomy because I never thought I fit in. In my eyes, I was too tan, too tall, and my features were not delicate. Though other people thought that I did fit in the standard of Asian beauty, I never thought I did. I decided it would be easier to be "edgy" and reject beauty norms than to chase after them. I decided to focus my time on other things (dance, art, writing). I forced beauty and appearance to be secondary to whatever else that I needed to work on to benefit my life but now that image is such a huge part of my work, it's hard to keep balance.
LAN NGUYEN VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN, 33
My mom and Vietnamese extended family would always comment on my weight and told me to stay light. I'd say I'm petite, but not skinny. I like having more color because to me it means I'm being outside more, which I equate with being healthier. I became very self conscious about my eyes once I started wearing contacts. I felt like they were too small and different sizes. I also had bad acne starting in undergrad and that severely affected my self-esteem. I've grown more comfortable in my skin and learned how to do basic makeup to cover up things that I perceive as my flaws (eyes, uneven skin from acne). I'd prefer to wear no make up if I could get away with it.
VALERIE KAN CHINESE-AMERICAN, 24
I don't think I'm skinny and I also don't think I'm fat but for awhile it was hard for me to cope with being in-between. I really don't care now how much I weigh or what my body looks like but I've definitely learned to dress better for my body type. The first time I ever experienced colorism was on my first trip to Asia two years ago. You can't escape it--there are billboards and advertisements everywhere for skin whitening treatments and products. Growing up in America, it's quite the opposite, we have tanning salons and sunbathing oils galore. It doesn't change my perception of myself but I felt like it was hard fitting in with the motherland. Growing up, my mom would always tell me to wear sunscreen, to not be tan and I was told that lighter skin is preferable. I grew up swimming and playing water polo so staying out of the sun was not an option. I was darker than other Chinese people I knew, so people always assumed I was Filipino. To this day, I still don't feel “Chinese” because of how I look.
MAURA MILAN FILIPINO-AMERICAN, 34
I grew up in the Midwest, and I was one of the few Asian American kids in a lot of my classes. I attended a really small Catholic school all the way up until 8th grade, which had a very strict uniform policy. So immediately, there was this mode of thinking where you had to conform and look like everyone else, even though I'm sure that wasn't the faculty's intentions. But even with the uniform, I didn't look like anyone else, and other classmates noticed. They would tease me and make assumptions about my race and culture that were completely wrong, and at that age, I wasn't really equipped with the type of language and knowledge to proudly stand up for myself. I kept my head down and studied so people would pay attention to my grades instead of the color of my skin. It was a very quiet and strange time of my life; I didn't see myself in the world, and more than that, I wanted to erase myself culturally. It wasn't until I became an adult that I was able to break free of that way of thinking and embrace my identity as Filipino American.