When I was a child, I used to watch my mother transform herself in front of the mirror, accentuating her bright blue eyes with mascara and applying a lovely mauve color to her lips. I waited for the moment when she would turn to me and let me put on a bit of makeup. I felt so grown-up and glamorous! But little did I know that mauve, while perfect for my mother’s fair Irish-German complexion, was all wrong for the pale yellow-green undertones of my Asian skin.
Like many Asian women, I look back on the beauty ritual of my youth with dread and amusement. Back in high school, I remember how the Caucasian girls would waltz into class wearing perfect shades of lipstick and blush, their hair styled in the newest trend. They knew just what to do because Seventeen magazine was there to guide them. But those of us who were Asian—and particularly those of us raised in white adoptive families—had to figure it out on our own. We had no beauty role models to show us how to fit the American standards of beauty. Instead, we could either set our alarms an hour early, curl our pin-straight hair into submission, and pretend that purple eye shadow made our eyes look bigger; or get some extra shut-eye, skip the eye shadow, and pull our long cascade of hair into a hasty ponytail.
It’s hard to say why many of us avoided makeup back then, but I think somehow we knew that all those peaches-and-cream colors only exaggerated our differences; they hardly made us the beauties we so desperately wanted to be. I also knew that applying “a little color” to my face would barely help in the social department. A Caucasian male friend made this perfectly clear when he said, “I think Asian women are beautiful, but I would never date one.”
During my twenties, I continued to avoid makeup, as it felt like a mask—a cover-up for my true, yet conflicted, inner self. But then one day, in my late twenties, an unexpected thing happened. Some adoptive mothers whom I knew asked me and a group of adult Korean adoptees to host a “glamour girl” party. We were to serve as role models for their preteen Asian girls, teaching them about makeup and beauty.
But what was meant to be a self-esteem-building party for the young girls turned out to be a revelation for us “big girls.” As we took some time to gaze into the mirror, we looked at our own features, noticing the differences among us. (For too long, we were told—and believed—that all Asians look alike!) We spoke of our insecurities and what we thought were our flaws, even joking about our angst. Most importantly, we expressed our desire to believe that we were beautiful; and standing there together as Asian women, we slowly began to gain confidence.
Self-acceptance takes time, and, as I’ve learned, more than a little makeup. In the years since that party, I’ve remained friends with these women, and become a mother myself. I see now that our inner qualities are what make us people of grace, and that sometimes we need to try on a number of masks before we shed them to reveal our true selves. For me, this revelation has been a gift.
“I regularly get honked at by men when I’m taking walks or driving my car. I have had men walk by me and say, “Oooh, China doll.” They have asked me if I’m [actress] Lucy Liu, even though I look nothing like her.”
—Jennifer, age 27
“Sometimes I feel like my eyes are too narrow, but it’s fine. That’s just the way I am.”
—Mei Mei, age 14
“I feel good about myself because I’m good at baseball. I also have a lot of friends who are good to me.”
—Jin Jin, age 15
“I like that I’m from Asia and from a different culture. I think that’s cool!”
—Eleni, age 9