Fairest of Them All

Almost three weeks ago, Zainab Aina ’14, Charlie Jarvis ’15, Kai Kornegay ’14, Doris Nyamwaya ’14 and Alex Thomas ’15 wrote the article “Beauty Beyond Reach,” published in The Phillipian as part of the #morethanjustanumber movement. They raised important points about the current and poignant issues faced by black and Hispanic females on campus and beyond about having to live up to a set of unfair beauty standards institutionalized by a fundamentally white set of ideals. “Women of color in a Westernized world have learned that the more closely we are able to resemble our light-skinned peers, the more attractive we are found to be,” they identified correctly.

The article ­— and that line particularly — resonated with many of the Asian and Asian-American students on campus. We face both similar and different struggles than our black and Hispanic peers when it comes to standards of beauty that revolve around white features, as they exclude our natural Asian and South Asian traits. We, and most other Asians, know that is it impossible for us to reach the standards of beauty set by the Western world that are based on white women. We do not have white features, yet many of us still try our best to fit these standards: many Asians and Asian-Americans feel pressured to use double-eyelid tape, skin lightening cream and hair straighteners, among other methods.

Since many of us have strong ties to a “non-American” culture, Asian students face the added challenge of navigating dual, and at times conflicting, beauty standards. In many Asian cultures, it is desirable to have fair skin because, historically, lighter skin meant that an individual did not work outdoors, which would darken their skin. Thus fair skin signifies wealth or prosperity in many Asian cultures, and as a result, women across Asia constantly purchase and use skin lightening cream and solutions.

When juxtaposed with the fact that many white Americans are taken with the idea of darkening their skin by tanning, Asians face a double standard that makes it particularly challenging for Indians, like us, to reach Western standards of beauty. Lawning in the spring might cause stress for Southeast Asians anxious to keep their skin light while taking part in a “Western” social activity. Similarly, East Asians predisposed to have thinner, smaller frames feel the need to attain more voluptuous, “whiter” figures while dodging comments of “you’re getting fat” from relatives back home.

A further double standard is inflicted with the fetishization of the presumed foreignness of all Asians and Asian-Americans. For me, Janani Hariharan, looking quintessentially Indian was mundane when I lived in India, but “interesting” when I began studying in the United States. Sonya Chen ’14 had a similar experience after she came to the United States, with people telling her that she had “big eyes for an Asian.” While the exoticism attributed to Asian and Asian-American women often provides quick boosts of self-esteem, the patronizing sense of fantasticality that they inevitably adopt challenges a sense of belonging in an American community. Asian women may be fetishized for their “exotic” looks even while trying to appear more “white.” Asian men, on the other hand, are rarely perceived as desirable, typically as a result of their shorter stature.

The exclusion of Asian traits in our standards of beauty is a perpetuation of the “eternal foreigner syndrome” with which Asians and Asian-Americans have struggled for centuries. Even for the many of us who were born and raised in the United States, we will never be considered by others to be American due to our ethnicity and physical appearance.

What we want is not to define a beauty standard for Asians and Asian-Americans, not to bridge the gap between brown eyes and blue eyes, not to undermine our differences, but rather to equalize them and celebrate them. We feel it is just as important for us to view ourselves as beautiful as it is for all other races. Our features will never resemble the standards of beauty to which we misguidedly hold them, and so we must learn to mend these standards.