How Representation In Film Affects Mental Health

It started in middle school, and I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. It’s as if my subconscious was whispering all these thoughts into my ear, like a man to his lover on a cloudy Saturday night. Except I wasn’t the lover, nor being shown love of any sorts. It was quite the opposite, really. As if I were merely an existence, staring at my body through the eyes of my soul, like I wasn’t living and pushed into some persona that embodied all characteristics that society desires of a typical woman.

I didn’t know what the problem was, except for the fact that I knew it had to do with me. I remember I had this innate drive to look more like Emma Watson or Angelina Jolie or any woman that graced the cover of Cosmopolitan for that matter. I cannot put into words how unfathomably uncomfortable I was, living in this body. My skin was too tan, my eyes too small, and my hair too dark. I didn’t exactly know why I had this sudden urge to get rid of my look; I just knew that all of it had to go immediately.

It came to a point where I asked my parents, “Why couldn’t I be born caucasian?” and to which I received a blank stare. They continuously tried to point out to me that “Asians are smart” and that the women back in the Philippines “already envied my features” as it is, yet still I wasn’t satisfied with the way I looked. All the young adult novels I read always described the female protagonist as strong and beautiful and yearned for by every other character in the book, and yet none of these characters seemed to embody the features that I had. I was both confused and startled at the same time at this revelation.

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This mindset, unfortunately, got worse from there. Every day after school I watched YouTube videos on cheap ways to make my nose slimmer, read tutorials on how to make my eyes bigger, or even shop online for tools to make my cheekbones more prominent. I ultimately asked to borrow my mom’s credit card to purchase eyelid tape online, since they seemingly didn’t sell any at local beauty stores, but when she asked what I was buying I suddenly became too timid to admit the truth. Quickly the plan faltered. I became desperate enough that as a last resort in my freshman year of high school, I used Scotch tape to tape my nose up every night before I went to bed in the hopes that I'd develop a more “elfish” look, and erasing all remnants of my dad’s ancestry.

It progressed from that moment. Suddenly I was convinced that no guy would ever like me if I didn’t embody the “southern belle” physicality with the light hair and blue eyes. As a cautious girl, I spent months trying to emotionally prepare myself for my first relationship with a boy without already realizing that I was already in a toxic relationship with my mentality, one that was slowly deteriorating the liveliness that used to stand bright within me. Now that light was replaced with an ever-creeping darkness that slowly crawled through the depths of  my mind.

Don’t get me wrong, it got better for a while. It took several months to slowly piece together the shattered pieces of my self-esteem, with many nights spent with “quiet time” in which I would just look at myself in the mirror and list things that I liked about myself. It was a slow, bitter process, though I was able to do it nonetheless.

My reasons for suddenly reminiscing these negative thoughts that I harbored for years? My brief relapse upon my arrival to college. Being surrounded by all of these bright, beautiful people was a major slap in the face. I started eating less and exercising more and obsessing over my appearance even more.

woman showing back

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However, this episode reached its finale in a shorter period of time. Lara Jean in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The entire Crazy Rich Asians cast. I started seeing myself on the big screen. Not portrayed as a typical kung-fu master or docile worker, but as a strong protagonist willing to carry the story on her own. An actress capable of making Hollywood clamor over her and her talent. No longer was my face overshadowed, but instead now being embraced by society for its unorthodox beauty.

The power of representation should never be underestimated. Those who completely disregard representation in the media are completely oblivious to the turmoil that runs through a child’s head when they don’t see themselves portrayed. They don’t see themselves as being “successful” in the real world, but rather a burden to themselves, and unimportant to society. This mindset greatly inhibits the potential that generations have to continuously help society as a whole.

When people of all different backgrounds are represented on a screen, it demolishes the stereotypes previously put into place by the racism that existed in the 1900s. Why were Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians so very successful? Because minorities are finally being represented in a way that doesn’t tarnish their character, but instead being shown as normal human beings with the capability of doing great things for this world.

Representation matters. It matters to the little black girl seeing a successful woman with four other people of color on screen. It would’ve mattered to me four years ago to see those with more ethnic features shaking the foundations of the Hollywood industry. To see people like me in the light of success probably wouldn’t have ended my obsession with erasing my heritage four years ago, although it would’ve helped me in accepting my looks and my background, as I begin this journey at college to clutch my potency, resilience and power.