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.
THIS PROJECT WAS FILMED IN NASHVILLE, TN IN 2020 DURING THE HEIGHT OF COVID
It was my first year living in a new city and in the South. I set up an outdoor/indoor photo studio in my garage and driveway and ten women volunteered to be a part of this project and endured 100 degree humid heat, thunderstorms, lawnmowers, and aggressive mosquitos. In this second series, we go deeper into uncomfortable questions that were many of the issues I faced growing up. 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.
ALLISON STITES KOREAN-AMERICAN, 31
I think my insecurities were even more exacerbated because I was adopted and lived in a predominantly White community. I didn't have a family around telling me I was beautiful and it being mirrored back to me, even though others may tell me differently. I didn't even know what my Asian mother looked like. I didn't see myself reflected in pop culture - dolls, magazines, etc. And I didn't see myself as fully "Asian" until a couple years ago because I knew no other Asians. And then for my friends who were Black, they saw my curvy figure as something to be accepted but it was something guys hypersexualized so I hated it...but yet it may be the only attention I received. Growing up and in college, I thought that if I could achieve and be the best at everything (AKA overcompensate)...then maybe they wouldn't notice my eyes. But if they didn't notice my eyes, they'd see my wonky smile and imperfect lips and wide nose. Maybe if I just tried harder (being more stylish, etc.), I'd be accepted...but I never will be. For many years, even still today, I don't think I'm as pretty as others but so far, I'm unwilling to go under the knife for anything! Personally, I've come to love my eyes, body shape and smile (most of the time). It's what makes me who I am and it's survived a lot. I can't wait for my future daughter to have my small eyes and dark hair!
AMBER WANG CHINESE-AMERICAN, 36
I grew up feeling as though "Asian beauty" paled in comparison with other groups of people. I never even knew if my looks--my body--could be deemed "beautiful." Later on in life, Asian beauty felt like a "cookie cutter" standard so to speak. Meaning, to fit Asian beauty, which already fell at the bottom of the beauty list, was to be petite, pale, with a wider nose...essentially, as white as possible. I was athletic and tanned. I grew up having to go to a Chinese Christian church that made me feel that I would never fit any standard of beauty. In fact, my father once said, "Your sister is Chinese beautiful...you...you are new age beautiful." (What does that even mean??????)
DIANA O'BRIEN MIXED JAPANESE-AMERICAN, 32
In short, no. I had this perception of the beauty standard for being an American and being Asian one way, but my look didn't quite fall in either. Again, I personally never considered myself "beautiful," but I knew I looked different. As much as I felt different and at times out-of-place, I always received positive comments about my looks. In fact, I would always be told that I was so beautiful, even by complete strangers while I was out and about. People would compliment me and sometimes proceed to ask what my mixture was, or ask my nationality, where I would respond, American. I believe people did not know how to "categorize" me...is she white, is she Hispanic, is she hapa...but looking back in retrospect, I think that the ambiguity of not being able to figure out what my ethnicity was, is a beautiful thing. Over the last 10 years, I began to grow more comfortable in the skin that I'm in. And over the last 5 years, I would say I've accepted myself and have put to rest the constant battle that I had with my physical appearance, weight, etc. I would say that I now appreciate and celebrate exotic looks and "differentness." I think everyone should be proud of who they are and where they come from, and they shouldn't feel or let anyone tell them otherwise.
ERIN KIM KOREAN-AMERICAN, 25
I am a Korean American Adoptee who grew up in rural West TN in a white family and all white town. The only Asian women I saw were Kristi Yamaguchi or Michelle Kwan in the Winter Olympics. Knowing I was different than everyone else, especially the women in my family, it was always hard for me to fully accept and value who I was. As a child, women would come up and touch my hair in the mall, at church, and wherever else. I was introduced to exotification and yellow fever early on when men would call me China Doll. When I first came into contact with Korean beauty standards, it was a hard blow realizing I didn't fit. I enjoy the sun and getting tan from swimming or playing volleyball in the summer. I'm not skinny or dainty and enjoy eating pasta like a boss. I had accepted that I was not attractive by what men wanted or how girls treated me by the age of 3rd grade. Whether it was someone pulling back their eyes, calling me a chink, or reminding me I wasn't Korean enough...It's always been a battle to not feel the stares or look at white women in a way that makes me envious as an Asian woman.
GAGANA BORRA INDIANA-AMERICAN, 20
Also as a South Asian woman, having lots of body hair is common. I remember being so ashamed of my hair in middle school and begging my mom to let me shave when I was 10 years old. Finally after weeks of begging and crying she finally let me use a razor. I was so excited that I shaved literally my whole body: my arms, legs, stomach. AND I DIDN’T EVEN HAVE THAT MUCH HAIR! It was just the image and the stereotype I constantly compared myself to the media that pushed me to feel this way and want to shave at such an early age. After my hair started growing back I realized the stupidity of my impulsiveness and never shaved my arms again. I’ve grown more comfortable with my natural beauty. I fully support wearing your hair natural and not having to wear makeup. 99% of the time I do not wear makeup, baring my acne, scars, hyperpigmentation and all. 10 years ago I was frustrated, angry, confused, and upset with my self image and skin color. Every single day was a struggle and I am still unlearning many of the oppressive expectations society placed on me. Today I am proud of being a brown woman and embrace my inner beauty every day, but I still have a lot of work to do on myself. I want the beauty and fashion industry to be more inclusive. They need to stop tokenizing BIPOC and actually give us a seat at the table. You can’t expect to cater to communities of color if you don’t have people like us at leadership positions.
JORDAN YI KOREAN-AMERICAN, 20
I was first exposed to American beauty standards as a sixth grader, when I moved directly from Seoul to Nashville. High school was different. I knew I wasn't the cookie-cutter kind of pretty. If being Asian meant I didn't check the right boxes, then why bother trying? In the summer going into freshman year, I made the drastic decision to cut fifteen inches of hair off for a pixie cut. No other girl in my school had short hair. When you're Asian at a PWI, you stand out. When you're an Asian with short hair, you're making a statement. I had my first battles with my sexuality; the more considerate people began asking me whether or not I was gay, but the less-so simply assumed I was. I did get many positive responses, and my friends now say that me cutting my hair marked my change into a more confident me. However, I also received many statements such as "I wish I had your confidence," "You're so bold," "You're so beautiful in your own way." I knew those came from good intentions, so I was always appreciative and never offended. But I'm not dense. I wasn't being complimented for being pretty, I was complimented for standing out. I know that when people call me beautiful, it's never because I fit their standards. It's because I don't. Getting an Instagram changed everything. I had control over who I saw. I followed accounts like ThirdLove, which is greatly focused on body positivity, and Calvin Klein, which has recently featured more gender and racial diversity. When you're only exposed to one type of beauty, you believe there's only one type of beauty. When I had a greater view of the infinite types of bodies and people there are, I could determine for myself what I thought was beautiful.
KIT CANLAS FILIPINX-AMERICAN, 31
After a certain age, probably about 11, I decided I didn’t give a fuck about beauty standards anymore, American or Filipinx. I never fit into either anyway, so I threw the whole damn thing out. I got really into punk rock and my interest in smashing the patriarchy began very early lol. We can thank The Distillers for that. Brody Armstrong, the front womxn, sang openly about her battle with eating disorders. I was at the age where I cared enough about my appearance to begin experimenting with bulimia. After I read her lyrics, I didn’t want to tolerate that kind of mental state for myself. Instead, I began to identify beauty as my willingness to be autonomous. Sounds cool, but it caused me to skip over a lot of aspects of Filipinx culture that perhaps I would have appreciated. Physically, I adhered to subculture aesthetics: liberty spikes in my hair, bullet belts, ripped fishnets and band T shirts. Do and be whoever the fuck you want, as long as it comes from a healthy place and you’re not harming yourself or others. You don’t need anyone’s permission to feel beautiful or worthy in life. Tell it to all your friends- you may be the only one. I love you anak.
MONICA DJUNAIDI INDONESIA-AMERICAN, 30
To be honest, I didn't really focus on American beauty but from what I observed when I was in school was that they were always wearing what was trendy. Asian beauty to me was making sure that my hair was brushed, I dressed appropriately (not showing too much skin), fair skin, and slim. I probably fit into the Asian beauty category more just because I am a fair skinned Asian woman by default, even though I'm not "Asian" slim. As for style wise, I had always dressed for comfort even when I was little, and thankfully my parents never forced me into an outfit that I did not like so I've been able to dress how I want to dress, despite what my parent’s preferences. As I grow older, I don't care about being slim. I care more about being strong both physically and mentally and to always be comfortable in my own skin no matter what.
MORGAN YI KOREAN-AMERICAN, 25
During summer/winter breaks, we'd fly from Seoul to the US to visit our extended family. I would say that the constant bi-coastal travel truly impacted my sense of identity and beauty. At home in Seoul, I was the majority. All of my peers, friends, parents of friends, looked like me. When I was in the US, I felt differently. I stuck out. I was "Asian Morgan'' instead of just "Morgan." Sometimes I felt that I didn't make friends as easily because I looked different. I felt that people never developed crushes on me because I didn't look like the girls sitting next to me. Growing up, I always looked to Western beauty ads/images/styles for inspiration of what I deemed beautiful. I mimicked what I could with the face & body I had. I was definitely confused as a child, but I don't think it really hit me until I went to college in the US, where people were more vocal about the differences. Everything I thought in my head was said aloud, "I don't think Asian girls are hot; How do you do your makeup without a fold like that? Wow, your boobs are so small. A for Asian, right?" I am, however, thankful that I never went under the knife to make permanent changes to my body. My perception of beauty today has no boundaries. In learning how to wholeheartedly love myself and love others, I've opened up my eyes to see the true beauty in every human being on this Earth. Physical beauty is just your inner beauty or self shining through. True beauty is unique. It's personal.
TERRY VO VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN, 35
I loved my long straight black hair but it bothered me when people touched it without asking. I was bigger than my siblings and always told I needed to watch my weight. Food was always a point of contention. "Don't eat this. Don't eat that. Is that your second bowl?" No one helped me understand or research what foods would be best for my body. This created a painful and lifelong battle of a positive body image. Being told that you're fat and constantly being told that you need to lose weight is very mentally draining. As a kid, you're not given any tools and even now, I find myself struggling. People always commented that I had a beautiful smile and gorgeous hair... if only I could be thin, guys would like me. WTH!? How was my physical attributes the reason someone would like me or not? I found it very important to be kind, honest, caring, and thoughtful. Those take no "shape" in the fat vs skinny realm. Being bigger, I was fat shamed and that in turn made me think that being fat is my fault. I am doing this to myself. Why can't I stop? I would always try to hide parts of my body that were "fat. I felt less than because I was not skinny. I was supposed to eat but not eat too much. It's so frustrating because words are harmful. Growing up in the South, I am trying to unpack if less than existed among my circles and I just didn't recognize it. I have also felt less than because I am a female. I saw the difference in how adults treated boys vs girls. My voice was not as valued. I learned that I have to speak beautifully to myself so it can be manifested externally. I have made the decision that I will not be controlled by what corporations, media, and marketing say what beauty is. I have the right to explore and experiment for myself.