Blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be the carefree Aussie surfer chick with the wind in her salty hair and freckles splashed out on her cheeks. That’s what I was taught beauty, popularity and likeability looked like. I’d watch the main characters in my favourite Saturday morning TV shows with their dazzling, glittery lives and pretty, White features and wish, maddeningly, that I was one of them.
And when the screen turned blank, I was left staring into the reflection of myself. All dead black hair and slanted dark eyes, I was the antithesis of everything I was told was desirable. As a Chinese girl born in Australia, being othered and grappling with my cultural identity added another level of confusion and frustration growing up.
So, whenever anyone mistook me for being half White, or told me my eyes were wider and lighter in colour than the average Asian, or pointed out the flecks of light brown in my hair, I would bolster with pride. These insidious compliments only cemented what I already knew: that to be worthy and to be beautiful meant I had to be White.
Internalised (and external) racism chips away at you. It’s covert when kids pull at the corners of their eyes (see why we don’t like the fox eye trend?) or laugh at your sideburns. But it’s also overt when you realise that you are constantly unconsciously looking for faces like yours in the media.
I’ve only lived a couple of decades but I’m glad to say that my relationship with myself and my culture has changed completely. I’m not afraid to say that I wholeheartedly, unashamedly, unconditionally love myself. And I know that’s rare in a system that thrives off undervaluing and profiting off women.
I bloody love being Chinese. I’m so proud of who I am. It’s an act of defiance for someone who has been told, time and time again, that I’m not welcome here. My differences are what make me me and it’s what I love about myself. But it’s only from seeing other Asian-Australian women thrive that has made me actually accept who I am.
Beauty has always been political and is often weaponised against women. The rhetoric that it’s cool to ‘not be like other girls’ turns a lot of us away from make-up and fashion from a young age, for fear of seeming foolish and frivolous.
While we are all acutely aware that women can be pretty intelligent, pretty funny and pretty kind, rather than just pretty, having an interest in beauty shouldn’t be something that’s sneered at. Makeup is art. Taking the time to perfect a winged eyeliner shows patience. Creating an out-there eyeshadow look shows imagination.
Beauty, to me, is not just about appearances. It’s about the confidence behind putting together an outfit or slapping makeup on your face and feeling good about yourself. You know when you see those people strutting down the street, shoulders back, smile plastered on their face? Their energy is magnetic. That’s beauty to me.
As strange as it may sound, my face is a vessel and not just a canvas. Its purpose isn’t just to look pretty. My eyes allow me to connect deeply with another human being. My mouth is there to speak loudly and clearly about matters that are important to me. My nostrils are there to flare out when I find something funny. My ears are there to listen to others. And if a red lip helps me muster up the courage to talk, or if a lick of mascara does the trick, I’ll take it.