Growing Up With Conflicting Cultural Beauty Standards

*In technical terms, sociologists define ethnicity as a “shared culture” or the culture you grow up in even if you are not of the native race of that culture. However, in this article, we will be using ethnicity in reference to race, much like how it’s used in common conversation.

“What are you?” “What’s your ethnicity?” These are questions I grew up answering. To set the record straight, I am never bothered by these questions, I view it as a learning opportunity for me and the other person. I’m half Chinese mixed with English, German, and French; however, I look more like the latter. As I’ve gotten older, I have started to look more Asian. While at first glance I don’t look “apparently” Asian or “apparently” White, it never stopped me from embracing my Eastern and Western cultures, celebrating Chinese New Year’s and such.

As the world of social media often does, I found other mixed teens of many races and cultures. As I began to talk to many of them I found a running theme: We’re proud of all of our ethnicities, but we are often confused by the conflicting beauty standards of our differing cultures. For instance, many Eastern Asian cultures favor the appearance of pale skin and wider eyes. On the flip side, most Western cultures see the beauty in a tan complexion and pearly white teeth. And while beauty comes from within and standards are purely subjective, we are not immune to age-old beauty standards and the projections of our cultures’ standards via pop culture. Many of the people I saw and talked to often said they have at one point thought they were “too Western-looking” or “too Eastern-looking” to fit into their environments. America tends to be more open to different appearances and backgrounds, however the same cannot be said about other countries. Skin bleaching, rhinoplasty, and plastic surgery are being pushed onto the horizons of many young women and men, with many of the procedures being performed on 19-24yr olds. Although the pressure is coming from the older generations, who most likely faced more discrimination and had less freedom, we have to remember that the older generations were taught to conform and not to break the mold society had put upon them.

Where does this obsession for looking like another ethnicity come from? It varies when you talk to different individuals, but pop culture is usually the culprit. Ask yourself this: how many articles, books, or videos did you see/read as a child or young teen about how to embrace yourself? I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t list a single one that wasn’t created before self-confidence and embracing yourself became a “thing.” Pop culture plays a tremendous part in our lives, whether we realize it or not. We can see this effect clear as day in our society’s beauty standards. Pop culture tells us what is and isn’t beauty, and we try to reach this standard without realizing the potential harm and cost. Is it bad to try to look like your favorite actress? It depends on how far you go with it. If all you do is maybe try their diet and exercise routine, then I would say it's fine unless it involves rigorous exercise and restricting your caloric intake of course. But if you begin to think that they are the ideal image of beauty and you are not beautiful unless you try to look like them, we have a problem, Houston.

Would I be lying if I said I’ve never thought of undergoing cosmetic surgery to look more white or Asian? 100% yes. Fortunately, I have a very loving (and mixed) family so I don’t feel any pressure from Great Aunties or Grandmothers to look one way or another. Although the thought of whether or not I look like my ethnicity doesn’t cross my mind too often, I have come to realize that even if I didn’t look even a bit Chinese or Caucasian, I am still very much French, Chinese, German, and English.

I’ve come to embrace the odd looks I receive when I’m celebrating Chinese customs or just strolling through the Asian market. After all, I’d rather leave a lasting impression on people based on my actions rather than my appearance, although I wouldn’t mind the latter as well.