Asian Beauty Is Not Monolithic

“We’re not one-dimensional.”

Originally Published: 

What is Asian beauty, and what does it mean to you?

That’s one of several questions we posed to 16 industry influencers and entrepreneurs within the Asian diaspora. With the increased popularity and consumption of East Asian beauty products, rituals, music, and films, it’s easy to regard the Asian community as one monolithic group. But Asia is composed of 48 countries with distinct swaths of people of various complexions, religions, languages, customs, and cultures. Like most people of color in this country, they’re stereotyped, misunderstood, and deal with discrimination, bias, microaggressions, and even divisiveness. With the recent onslaught of anti-Asian sentiment and violence against AAPI people worldwide, we wanted to shine a light on the wide-ranging complexity and diversity of our AAPI peers, especially when it comes to beauty standards and expectations put upon Asian people. Below, fashion and beauty insiders speak freely on topics ranging from the hypersexualization of AAPI women to bucking body shaming. We’re hoping these sentiments will be spread year-round, and not just during this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Prabal Gurung, fashion designer, of Nepali-American descent

I have often encountered and noticed that the kind of Asian beauty which is celebrated is still close to the colonial lens—light skin and Eurocentric features. Professionally, most Asian and non-white models either need to fit within that Eurocentric lens or have to be so far off that they fall in the fetishized lens of “exotic.” For the white lens, either it needs to be familiar or one that provides some entertainment—nothing in between.

The powers at the decision-making table are more often than not white people, and they’re dictating what ideal beauty looks like. What those powers want to see within their communities are people who look close to themselves. I see this all too often across fashion, film, and social media; it’s incredibly disheartening. To truly be sustainable, we have to keep having conversations about our own implicit biases and hold ourselves accountable. I would like to see more models from the AAPI community of all sizes and genders with different forms of beauty within the fashion industry. I would love to see the decision-making table look like the world we live in—colorful and diverse.

We need to dismantle these archaic, damaging narratives and our implicit biases by having more conversations about prescribed beauty roles perpetually and not just during heritage months.

Leyna Bloom, actress, model and LGBTQ+ activist of Filipino, Nigerian, and French descent

We can all learn from each other because we are all appropriating from each other. We're in a time when fashion is looking towards people from all different walks of life, and we're trying to celebrate the ins and outs of different cultures—but we need to understand the value of these people. There are certain things that are coming from these communities—out of pain, out of suffering—that you're erasing when you're not acknowledging that. We need to be open to conversations about how we can change and respect that process.

The people in the position of power are the ones that are pausing us. If their ideas are not about equality, why are they in their position. We need more people that are progressive, with new ideas and new perspectives.

It’s imperative that my Asian, my Black, and my Brown brothers and sisters, from all different walks of life, join forces. We are the people that are being hurt. We are the people who are keeping these big businesses alive. We have the power. Why are we segregating ourselves from each other? We need to unite as one community in order to to change all that is going on.

Eva Chen, head of fashion partnerships at Instagram, of Chinese-American descent

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The narrative of individual beauty is so much stronger now than it was for my generation. When I was growing up, everyone just wanted to fit into one idealized standard of beauty. But now, because of the global nature of how connected we are—BTS are style icons in Texas!—we have some examples of cross-cultural beauty, which I hope gives the next generation inspiration that they don't have to fit into a box, whether they're Asian or not.

I try to instill pride in my children about their Chinese heritage as well as educate them about other cultures. I expose them to books that feature people that look like them and are different from them, so it becomes normal. And when they draw a family, they range in different skin tones and body types and that makes me so happy. This next generation is going to break things apart, blow things up, and bring things to light.

Patrick Ta, celebrity makeup artist and founder of Patrick Ta Beauty, of Vietnamese-American descent

For those of us who are Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao, or Cambodian, who are more on the darker side, we don’t really see representation of ourselves in the media—and it sucks. In campaigns, they usually have a light-skinned girl, a medium-skinned girl, and a brown-skinned girl (who is usually Black). If there’s an Asian in the campaign (and we’re lucky just to have one), she's usually either half-Asian or very light (almost white). We come in a range of shades, but that rarely comes across in the media.

David Yi, co-founder of skincare brand and platform Very Good Light and author of Pretty Boys, of Korean-American descent

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The most common Asian beauty stereotype and myth is that Asian folks want to look European. This is untrue culturally and historically. Asians are proud to look how they do. I'm proud to look very Korean. For East Asians, fair skin is the utmost in beauty. This comes from the notion that the upper class and royals were fair-skinned as they didn't work laborious jobs with their hands, or in the sun.

We need to ensure that Asian Americans have agency behind the camera in corporate spaces. In a culture that hypersexualizes Asian women and emasculates Asian men, it's imperative that we showcase AAPI in true and empowering ways. I think it's essential that we allow Asian Americans to tell their own stories, allow them to represent beauty and the vast diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander countries. Let's not fetishize Asian cultures, rather, normalize the beauty from these amazing communities.

Nick Barose, celebrity makeup artist and Giorgio Armani Beauty brand ambassador, of Thai descent

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People really latch on to the idea that Asians all have fair skin like snow, hair that's really straight and silky, or that we all have the same shape eyes. But we don't all have the same shape eyes and we're not the same complexion and some of us have texture in our hair. We’re not one-dimensional. Darker-skinned Asians are so underrepresented that a lot of times they look to those of other races—for example, Beyoncé and J. Lo—for makeup inspo. ”

Regarding the fashion and beauty industry, I think diversity is something that they really still have to learn. It's hard for these people to do things more than for decoration, or as an attention-grabbing bumper sticker. It's like, 'Oh, look, I'm using two Asian models in my campaign. I'm not racist—so as a brand, you have to support us.’ But it takes more than that. We’re not interested in false allyship.

Mally Roncal, celebrity makeup artist and founder of Mally Beauty, of Filipino-American descent

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I went through a stage where I didn't appreciate the beauty I was given. However, my Filipino mother really instilled in me the beauty of my ethnicity. When I would come to her with these stories of bullying, she would always say “What makes you different makes you beautiful.” As soon as that clicked within me, I realized that my ethnicity, the things that they were making fun of—my fish lips or flat nose—make me who I am. There was a lot I had to overcome when I launched my makeup line on TV, 16 years ago. One of the big things I had to prove, when consumers saw me on the screen, was that I wasn’t just selling to Asian people, but to all people.

The stereotype of being sweet and submissive goes hand-in-hand with notions of Asian beauty. I always had to battle that Asian beauty sensibility of being peaceful and quiet—I’m loud and in your face. So many of us people of color have such a stereotype around the way we're supposed to be, and white people just don't have that.

Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, board-certified dermatologist, of Indian-American descent

Image: courtesy of subject

Given how many South Asians there are in the US, you don't see that many visually. Interestingly, even in the Stop Asian Hate campaigns, South Asians were sort of left out. I think South Asians are still very much considered “other.”

Kimora Lee Simmons, fashion designer and former model, of Black, Japanese, and Korean descent.

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The term “Asian,” to me, can feel outdated. There are so many cultural differentiators from country to country. It can feel like a misnomer sometimes, because it really only refers to certain better-known beauty standards.

When I walked for designers like Karl Lagerfeld in the ‘80s, there was an intense pressure; I was often aware of being the token Asian. When I came up, fashion was finally starting to embrace color, but Black women came first.

Lovisa Lager, full-figure model of Swedish and Thai descent.

Image: courtesy of subject

To Caucasians, we all look alike. Growing up in Sweden, the racism was rampant. I would hear comments like “She would look good if she wasn't an Asian.” And in daycare, our facilitators used to teach us a game where they would have us squint our eyes and pull the corners up, while saying, “Your mom is Chinese, your dad is Japanese, etc.” As kids, most of it went over our heads, but it did give me a slight complex and make me feel insecure. I try and remind myself that we don’t all fit in a box.

Most people have this mentality of Asians being so fair skinned, so they don't even think that bleaching is a huge problem. But it is. My mom had bleaching products. Growing up, I did not want to be in the sun; I did not want to get darker because people told me I shouldn’t. Colorism is such a huge issue within the Asian community. People don't want to accept or admit it, because it makes them uncomfortable.

Deepica Mutyala, beauty entrepreneur and founder of inclusive cosmetics brand Live Tinted, of Indian-American descent

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For me, it goes back to the Scantrons I filled out for the exams I took when I was younger. I didn't know which box to check. I would always check the box that said Asian, but I always felt like [a fraud] because society-wise, and specifically in regards to Caucasians, I don’t think they would identify me as being Asian.

If we change what we see in the media in movies, will it change the way people perceive themselves growing up? Or is there some unlearning we need to do? And honestly, that feels like what does need to happen for real change to come about. A change in media representation is absolutely step one; but I do think it needs to go deeper than that.

There’s this whole performative nature of tokenism in the beauty industry. When they are in a marketing meeting, and go, “Okay, we need our Asian girl,” they’re going to go for what the mass majority of people consider to be Asian, which is more Korean, Chinese, or Japanese features (and by the way, within that group, there are very different features). They never really think about the South Asian person.

Tina Chen Craig, founder of luxury beauty brand UBeauty, of Chinese descent

It’s a common stereotype that Asian faces are hard to make up, or that we should be contoured to look Caucasian. Back in the ‘90s when I was coming of age, I had to teach myself how to do my own makeup because any makeup artist I went to would draw me like a dragon lady, with heavy black eyeliner and bright-red lips. Even today, I still have to remind makeup artists they don’t have to apply contour-shadow to my eyelids to make them look deeper or more Euro-centric. I have flat Asian eyelids—and I’m proud of them.

“You’re born with good skin” is the aesthetically minded equivalent to the enduring “All Asians are good at math”. Not only do comments like these undermine efforts and accomplishments, whether the care and attention put into our skin or a stellar report card. They’re both destructive statements, despite how light they might seem compared to other more obviously crueler commentary, with implications that stick, designed to both trivialize and degrade.

Daniel Martin, celebrity makeup artist and global director of artistry and education at Tatcha, of French-English and Vietnamese descent

I've experienced my fair share of racism in this business. I've had people think I was the manicurist on set. Or I was the assistant to Daniel Martin and even so far as showing up on a shoot and a producer not realizing I was the makeup artist because I didn't look like my name [which is very Anglo sounding].

Priyanka Ganjoo, founder of cosmetics line Kulfi Beauty, of Indian descent

Image: courtesy of subject

From Korean beauty to South Asian beauty, finding makeup created for tan-to-deeper skin tones is an issue across Asian beauty brands.

Indian females are expected to be agreeable, submissive, and ready to conform to achieve success. We're not given the space to express ourselves holistically. I want South Asians to subvert these expectations, cast off shackles of self-doubt, and step into the protagonist roles of their own lives.

Ju Rhyu, co-founder of the skincare brand Hero Cosmetics, of Korean-American descent

Asia and many other continents, countries, and cultures, have special beauty heritages and traditions that should be celebrated. But sometimes, celebration turns into commercialization. The US beauty industry owes a lot to Asian beauty, with everything from innovation, inspiration, vendors, manufacturing, and much more.

Wei Liu, founder and editor-in-chief of the WOW magazine, Chinese

Much of the beauty within Asia and the Asian diaspora comes from individuals’ ideas, their rituals, their food, their history and their understanding of the world around them. It’s not just about the structure of your face and your body, so much of Asia’s beauty comes from its attitudes and customs. It has a population of over 4.6 billion with so many different countries, ethnicities and nationalities, and within each the definition of beauty varies.

But a lot of Asian people have been taught to hate themselves; they’ve been taught that by their families, the media, and by the big corporations they buy from, which feed into the idea of colorism and self-discrimination. The constant marketing of skin-lightening products, the coded language that is used—it’s no longer lightening, now it’s brightening. These corporations are being held accountable more often now, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t affected generations of consumers.

There’s heavy pressure for a lot of Asians to assimilate. This easily changes your perception of yourself—it can be something that is seemingly minor, from a child not wanting to bring their native food to school to avoiding speaking in their native tongue. It's why accurate representation is so important for younger audiences. Seeing someone you can relate to and admire really helps your perception of yourself....It’s also important to address that Asian representation goes deeper than just characters on a screen. What those characters represent is just as important. It’s not enough to just have any Asian cast as an Asian character; each ethnicity, nationality, and culture has its own identity. If you want to tell a story, it’s important to find a person that represents that story accurately, especially if it’s a person of color.

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