How Striving to Achieve White Beauty Standards Pushed Me to Embrace My Asianness

Getty / Carol Yepes

As a biracial Southeast Asian and white kid, my affinity for beauty first began when my mom took me to a locally-owned beauty supply shop. I remember being mesmerized by the array of cosmetics that lined the shelves. Fascinated, I watched each customer’s eyes gleam as they swatched countless rouges in an attempt to decide on a lip colour. As they landed on the perfect ones, they smiled, looking into the mirror – and it was then that I understood the power of beauty. But growing up in a small Southern town, most of my peers were white, and I spent most of my adolescence using beauty to chase after an unrealistic and impossible standard of white beauty.

I remember being in the comfort of my room, blaring my idols, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, as I blended three eyeshadow colours across my eyelid and crease to make my eyes appear bigger, just like theirs. My caboodle in tow, I studied the makeup looks of each white “All American” celebrity that graced the covers of every popular teen magazine in the ’90s and early 2000s, like YM, Seventeen, and Cosmo. In middle school, I began to loathe my black hair as I watched all of my blond friends be praised by our peers for their beauty. So, I began testing out almost every natural hair colour under the sun – from blond to bronde to auburn red.

By high school, I became the (unofficial) resident beauty enthusiast among my friends, regurgitating expert advice on everything from how to treat breakouts to which eyeliners had the best-staying power, thanks to hours of practice and reading. Junior and senior year, I wore grey coloured contacts every day, and got so used to the look of them that I hated the way I looked without them. I remember getting ready for my senior prom – my makeup on and hair all styled – but all I can recall is looking in the mirror and feeling unworthy. I smiled through the prom photos, but deep inside, I didn’t feel beautiful and I couldn’t wait for them to be over. As my white friends smiled and posed for the camera, I recall wondering if they had ever felt so out of place, like I did in that moment.

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realized my love affair with beauty stemmed from a desire to erase my Asian identity and to achieve white beauty ideals. After seeing Shay Mitchell for the first time on Pretty Little Liars, it made me question why I had ever been scared to embrace my Asian features. As I began to reflect on my youth filled with beauty experiments and trials, I recalled all the times in my early adulthood where I actually felt the most confident. It was when I was embracing the Southeast Asian features I was born with: my golden tan skin, my dark brown almond-shaped eyes, and black hair. And it broke my heart to come to terms with the fact that something I loved so much was born out of something so insidious.

I’m so thankful that conversations of representation continue in the beauty industry, among others. To those who wonder why 40 plus shades of foundation is important: please consider my experience. The truth is it’s not a unique one. When you’re navigating adolescence, you need to see people who look like you in entertainment, media, and positions of power. I wish I could go back in time and tell that young girl who dreamed about looking like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera that she was just as beautiful and worthy, too. We need to have role models to look up to that don’t make you question your worthiness and sense of belonging because they look like you. We should all feel beautiful and be celebrated for our uniqueness.

As I write this today, I’m 30. A month ago, I opted for subtle caramel balayage highlights that maintain the darkness of my black hair and complement the rich golden hues of my skin. This week, I experimented with my makeup with no motives other than to enjoy testing out new products. I’ll still always be down to try out the latest TikTok beauty hacks or new hair colour trends, but my experiments no longer come from a need to erase my Asian identity in an attempt to achieve white beauty standards. Rather, it comes from a place of joy because I love beauty and its power to emphasize what I was naturally born with.

I’m not perfect, but I finally recognize the incredible Asian woman standing in front of me and I love her. I’m the spitting image of my mother – the incredible woman I love so dearly, who sacrificed everything she ever had in this world for her family. My jet black hair and tan skin are reminders of her and my Thai grandfather and grandmother, Chun and Bangorn Sanyavee, whom I never had the privilege to meet but feel deeply connected to in this life. My almond-shaped eyes are sincere and tell a story of empathy that only comes when you’ve known what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. In a world that’s always felt, to me, that white beauty reigns over all, it is an empowering notion to be able to love yourself freely and authentically – and I do.

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