I wrote this article almost seven years ago, but this is why an Indian American Miss America is important, because without her, little girls like me know as objective fact that one must be blond to be beautiful, and since we as Asian Americans can never be blond, we can never be beautiful.
Beauty is certainly not the most important thing, but in our many culture(s), it still impacts so many aspects of our lives. I had hoped to stay out of both beauty stories this week, but here they both are already.
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World (and me?)
Originally published in IMDiversity.com Asian American Village in March 2007:
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World (and me?)
The author tries to get her head and her heart together when adolescent insecurities and the shadow of Farrah Fawcett suddenly resurface
Last fall, I pulled up to a red light alongside a very big, very muddy, red Ford F-10 pick-up truck that had just come from off-road wheeling. Since two-year-old Little Brother likes trucks and mud, I pointed it out: “Oooh. Little Brother, look.” We took our time checking out the ooey, gooey mud on the big, big truck, when I accidentally caught the eye of the young blond driver.
Next thing I knew, he was revving his engine at me!
Then he started rocking his truck back and forth to get my attention. I looked back at Little Brother, strapped into his car seat in the second row, and I realized that the guy in the truck could not see Little Brother. He thought I was checking him out. With my two braids shaking with embarrassment, I became completely unglued. All I could do was look down at my steering wheel and giggle.
Of course, I had to tell someone. My girlfriend Linh laughed, “I bet he got a big kick out of an Asian woman checking him out. He’s probably thinking he’s hot stuff!”
A few days later, standing in an elementary school gym for Curriculum Night, a Chinese woman came up behind me and put her mouth on my ear and whispered, “You beautiful.” Then she stood in front of me, looked me up and down, and proclaimed me very “wen rou”—gentle, soft, tender, but more than that. I am not completely sure how to translate the full feel of the word. Certainly no one has ever called me wen rou before.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the age of Farrah Fawcett andCharlie’s Angels taught me at a very young age that you have to be blond to be beautiful, by definition. Before I even hit puberty, I remember deciding that since I could never be blond, I could never be beautiful, by definition. Sure, my parents’ friends would sometimes say I was pretty (as I spilled tea all over the table), but even by Chinese/Asian standards, I was too tall, too strong, too dark. So I put my energy into my studies, but then I was warned that boys did not like girls who were too smart or too well-spoken. My family shook their heads over how impossible it would be to marry me off. I remained continually surprised whenever a boy liked me (or else discounted him as an Asianphile with bad taste).
I thought that I had long outgrown those adolescent insecurities, but it turns out that I had merely tabled them. They suddenly resurfaced last year when I turned 40. I, who never really paid attention to these sorts of things, suddenly found myself buying anti-aging creams, putting on makeup, trying out new hairstyles, wearing jeans again. I did not want to look like the graying and tired mother of four. I wanted to look like the hip and vibrant arts and culture editor of this cool online magazine.
I know now—in my head at least—that you do not have to be blond to be beautiful, that Asian women are the most beautiful of women, but what does that have to do with me?
Seventeen and Drowning…Again
Two months ago, I found myself tucked into a corner of a nonprofit fundraiser with a handsome stranger – a handsome Chinese stranger, I must point out – a tall, brilliant, breathtakingly handsome Chinese stranger. It was one of those perfect moments when the conversation just flowed, without having to think of what to say, without posturing and posing, without trying to impress, and without barriers of culture or language. I have no idea what we talked about. I think I may have even punched this very famous man in the arm for some reason. It was not until he left—followed into the night by The World Journal—that I even realized I had completely monopolized his time, when, as the guest of honor, he should have been mingling (and I should have been networking).
As a writer, it is incredibly difficult for me to stay in the moment. I am always outside of it, my mind constantly racing ahead to how to write about that moment in my next article, so I notice and appreciate the rare occasion when I am able to stay present easily. Of course, as a writer, I am also always incredibly self-conscious about whether I am smart enough or clever enough or accomplished enough. This time, I dissolved into further doubts about whether or not I had also been beautiful enough to warrant this handsome stranger’s attention or if he was just being polite to That Crazy Woman with the Pippi Longstocking Hair. Suddenly, I felt like I was 17 again, and drowning.
I realized, with not a little shame, how deeply my programming runs. Even though I tell my children how beautiful and smart they are, even though I lecture and write about how beautiful we Asian men and women are, even though I am outraged at the cosmetic surgeries Asian women subject themselves to to meet Western beauty standards, I realized that in regards to myself, I will never, ever believe it. Part of me will always be that awkward gangly teenager (with the impossible Farrah Fawcett hairdo). It does not matter how many men in pick-up trucks rev their engines at me or how many girlfriends tell me I am beautiful, I will never be able to believe—in my heart—that I could possibly be beautiful, too.
I was so sad to discover this relic of my childhood still rattling around in my head that I wanted to lie down and quit.
Ok, Farrah, you win. I’m not playing this game anymore.
I told myself I have more important work to do—a book to write, a world to change. However, I had a nagging suspicion that if I was able to write about this at all, rather than turn it into a joke like I usually do, then I must believe—in my head—that I am at least reasonably attractive. I mean, I do not really expect people to read this article and say, “Yes, it’s too bad you’re so ugly.” (At least I hope not!)
The problem is getting what is in my head in line with what is in my heart.
A Trick Question
Enter “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai. 60 Minutescorrespondent Bob Simon cannot believe that this beautiful and unassuming woman sometimes looks in the mirror and thinks she looks terrible, but she insists, “Of course…just like anybody else.”
Simon asks, “I have never known a woman who was 100% pleased with the way she looked. Are you 100% pleased with the way you look?”
Rai answers with laughter, “This is such a trick question! ‘Cause if yes, then you’re presumptuous, you’re a narcissist; and if you say no, then you’re willing to do anything to correct it. But I’m ok with the way I look. It’s fine.” In the print edition, she continues, “All this is transient….it changes with time, and that’s the external.”
Then I remember what I have always known, that although beauty can be an important part of one’s self-image, it is hardly the most important thing. Especially now that we are older and have so many accomplishments—degrees, careers, friends, family, art, style, humor—to show. We know who we are and what we can do. It is not like when we were younger, when beauty was all we could prove for certain that we had.
Last month, I was standing on a stage getting ready for a lunar new year’s performance when a Taiwanese girlfriend yelled across the crowded auditorium, “Wang Kai-Hwa, you’re beautiful!”
“Thanks,” I yelled back in Mandarin, not minding the several hundred people sitting right there and unable to resist a joke. “Do you have any shuai ge (handsome older brothers) to introduce me to?”
She just laughed and yelled back, “You’re dreaming, Wang Kai-Hwa! Nobody wants you! You have four children!”
Ouch, but I was asking for that one. Yes, I certainly am much more today than just my looks, and it is ok.
Other Recent Readings of Interest
- Facing Forty Out from Behind the Wizard’s Curtain
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Contributing Editor
Author finds herself not immune to the ageism/lookism anxiety she once thought particular to white women