Claudia Li, an Asian fashion designer, had her show at New York Fashion Week featuring all Asian models. I started to cry the moment I saw it, and I don’t seriously cry about a whole lot, to be honest. My crying sessions are a lot of “3 am listening to Lana del Rey while drunk” incidents. But that post and the pictures really just got me.
I thought to myself, “If only I had seen this as a young girl.”
Because if I had seen those pictures as a young girl, I never would have asked my mom if I could dye my hair lighter. I wouldn’t have been grateful when people said I was “pretty for an Asian girl,” I wouldn’t have drawn myself in crayon pictures with blue eyes and I never, NEVER would have sat silently as the other kids pulled their eyes at me and chanted, “Ching, chong, ching, chong!” like a nursery rhyme.
I never would have grown up thinking that a preliminary requirement of being beautiful was being white, and I wouldn’t have had to teach myself as a teenager that there are a million valid definitions of beauty. I would have just known it, the same way I know how to tie my shoe.
And the same thing is probably true for many, if not all, women of color living in the US. All the magazines and the TV shows and YouTube videos showed us so many white people being praised as beautiful and remarkable. So many that when, once in a blue moon, somebody praised a person of color for their beauty, that people were especially impressed, as if being non-white was a disadvantage and made it harder for someone to be attractive. And I really don’t know if that was because the people working in media at the time just didn’t think people of color existed, or if they really thought the most beautiful, normal kind of person had to be white.
Either way, that lack of representation in our societal definition of beauty hurt a lot of people. Not as badly as a lot of other forms of racism, but this is one of the most deep-rooted and psychologically injurious forms of discrimination.
I know its effects on the Asian-American experience the best because I lived it. I remember a popular lightening cream among Asian and Desi girls called Fair & Lovely, which many mothers bought for their daughters because colorism ran so deep in the culture that it seemed that the words “Fair” and “Lovely” were one and the same.
I myself have actually considered getting eyelid surgery to change the shape of my monolid eyes so that they had creases, like most western women. It wasn’t really because I wanted my eyes to look less Asian and whiter. It was because I love makeup and experimenting with new techniques, but very few beauty influencers and makeup artists advertise makeup techniques that work for Asian and monolid eyes. Reminds me of the way that some makeup companies *cough cough* (Tarte and Beautyblender, to name some examples) *cough cough* don’t seem to think it’s important to make foundation for dark-skinned people.
In the past few years, I’ve been learning more about the black and African-American experience with the issue of not being represented in the social definition of beauty. One area that makes me especially sick to my stomach is the issue of white and non-black people feeling the need to invade the personal space of black women by touching their hair without consent under the pretense of a compliment.
The fact that people feel so okay with touching and examining black women’s hair tells me two things: people who do things like this feel like they don’t require a black person’s permission to touch their hair and that people see beautiful black hair as something unusual or novel, like a limited-edition pair of sneakers, because they have been taught that it is not the norm to be black and be beautiful.
The insidious, malicious idea that people of color cannot be beautiful was born from the racism of the American past, planted into our minds through screens and pictures. And the more that idea grew, the more pain it caused until it became normal.
But this fashion show with all Asian models, at least for me, was a sign that people are waking up. It symbolizes that people crave diversity and that as graceful and magnetic as the white women in those magazines were, women of color are equally as graceful and magnetic. We are starting to realize that beauty has so many different forms, and that variety is part of what makes beauty so… beautiful.
I remember looking at the pictures of the show on my way to class, thinking to myself, “I NEED a black designer to do this IMMEDIATELY.” But then again, if a black designer did this, would the reaction be the same? I hope there would be a positive reaction if a black designer chose to demonstrate diversity in their show in this way, but honestly? It seems very clear to me that there would be a significant double standard. You take one look at the news and you can see that when racial issues are brought to light, especially involving black communities, people become violently (literally) angry. People were so furious at Colin Kaepernick for protesting police brutality against unarmed black people that they’re really actually boycotting Nike’s whole brand.
So as much as I would hope a black designer choosing to feature all black models would receive a positive response, I really don’t think they would. And as much as Claudia Li’s show is a symbol of improvement, the idea of a double standard like that shows that there is still so much work to be done in the realm of being inclusive in the way we define beauty.
So, here’s the long answer to why Claudia Li’s show at NYFW made me cry: All the people and media companies who had shamelessly cut at me and other young women and girls of color were starting to really, truly eat their words. It was an indication that the collective hurt and self-loathing shared by generations of people, all the surgeries and creams and hair bleaching, all the hours spent in front of a mirror looking, just looking were finally, finally dying. I couldn’t wait to put it in the ground forever, until nobody remembers what it was like to sit silently while people pull their eyes at you, or touch your hair, or laugh at the very color of your skin. I saw the pictures of that show, and I thought of a little six-year-old girl I worked with, Joyce* (name changed for privacy), who is Chinese. I remember a day where I had asked her to say one good thing about herself.
“Piaoliang!” She said to me with a smile. It means “pretty.” I hope she, and all the little girls like her, Black, White, Asian, Latina, Desi, and everything in between, know that they are exactly that. Unimaginably, astoundingly, irrevocably pretty. I hope they never have to forget it. I hope they’ll just know it, the same way they know how to tie their shoes.