It happened in the sixth grade, during a conversation typical of the ones that sixth-graders have—nervous giggling and excited chatter about which classmates were cute, which ones would make good couples. The conversation had happened many times before, and yet we could never quite exhaust the topic.
“Okay, my turn,” I said. “Who would I be cute with?”
An awkward silence hung thick in the air as the group exchanged glances. Slight hesitation, and then: “I don’t really know anyone that you would be cute with.”
“Okay,” I said, bravely hiding my disappointment in that way only a sixth-grader could. “What about, like, Sam?”
The group repeated their routine—more furtive glances, another heavy silence. This time: “But Sam is really cute.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I mean, not that you aren’t. But you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, you would be really pretty if you weren’t Asian,” a boy chimed in.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
You would be really pretty if you weren’t Asian. Really pretty if you weren’t Asian. It has been about six years since that sixth-grade conversation, but the words of that boy ring as clearly today as the day that they first settled in my brain.
The words reminded me that, when it came to beauty, my goal was to look as un-Asian as possible. Attractiveness felt like a complex concept that existed within an inversely proportional relationship—as if the less Asian I looked, the more beautiful I was. I remember the twinge of satisfaction that shot through me when a friend jokingly remarked that I looked “super white” in a picture I posted from an event: I don’t know what it is, but you don’t look Asian. Like, you look super white.
That picture felt like a tiny victory against myself—I had finally become beautiful, because I didn’t look Asian.
But these victories were few and far in between. As I moved into high school, remarks along the same lines of the ones from sixth grade were not rare occurrences. I attend school in a small suburb whose racial makeup is 96.2% white, so these comments were to be expected. Years of little jabs here and there had thickened my skin, after all—and I didn’t want to appear overly sensitive, the kind of catty Asian girl ready to fly into a rage over an innocuous comment. But beneath the facade of “I’m used to it,” the words still hurt.
Because they were inescapable. Even in a half-joking conversation with an acquaintance who had promised to set me up with someone, I was reminded of differences:
“So I talked to him for you.”
I was excited, of course. “And?”
That familiar hesitation. Sixth grade all over again. “I don’t really know.”
“Dude. You can say it.”
A sigh. “Well. He pretty much said that he doesn’t want to get with an Asian chick.”
“Okay,” I said. “Is that, like, the only reason why? Or is there something else? Because I can—”
“He just laughed and said he thinks Asian girls are kind of ugly. Personal preference, you know?” He shrugged, pressing his fingers to the corners of his eyes and pulling them taut into tiny slits—that juvenile gesture that I was so sure had been left in elementary school.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
And then there was Instagram. With lips parted in a brilliant smile and eyes closed, a girl had captioned her selfie “Chinky.” Another picture, this time of two friends laughing together, was accompanied by a “Glad we both look Chinese here!!” There was one of a boy squinting into the sun, captioned “I look like I don’t have eyes but lol.” Beneath it, a friend had commented, “Bro hahaha you look so Asian.”
Once, I overheard a group of girls taking a picture at a school dance. “Oh my God, please don’t put that on Instagram. I look so Asian in it.” They all laughed.
I was starting to notice the trends: when people smiled or laughed and their eyes looked somewhat squinty, they looked Chinese—and they didn’t like it. I understood clearly what was being said: to look Asian is to be undesirable. And so the habits began to form.
I couldn’t pose for a picture if my head wasn’t turned away from the camera or if my face wasn’t half-obscured by a lock of hair. The point, of course, was to hide my eyes, that most defining Asian feature of mine. I avoided smiling and laughing, because when I did, my eyes would look even smaller than they already were. If those girls think they look ‘chinky’ when they smile and laugh, I reasoned, then I’ll just look extra chinky if I do, too. And then I won’t be pretty.
I had begun to lament my appearance in the same way that Those Girls did: God, I look so Asian here. Which, yeah. Of course I looked Asian—I am Asian. But I was trying to diminish this status of Asian-ness from “so Asian” to “a little less Asian” in hopes of hitting “not Asian”—because only then would I achieve beauty.
For most of my life, I had struggled with my self-image. But here, there was no weight to be lost, no acne to be cleared away, no crooked nose that I wanted to straighten. The thing that I wanted to change the most was the thing that could not be changed.
I’m not going to say that one day, everything changed and I suddenly realized my self-worth. The dynamics of these things are complex, and I don’t want to simplify them with a cheery “I just learned to be myself and love me for me!”
But what I can say is that, over the course of the past year, I’ve slowly—but surely—started to embrace my physical appearance.
Which has been no small feat. But the progress can be tracked through my Instagram:
In one post from November of 2016, I stand at the MoMA in front of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. The photograph is taken from behind, and the back of my head is a hazy blur, no trace of a face to be found. In one from October of 2017, I pose in an abandoned house, eyes lowered from the camera’s daunting stare. But in a cluster of photographs from a trip to the beach—November, 2017—something changes. The first features me standing oceanside, although I’m wearing sunglasses to obscure my eyes. In another, I’m turned to the side in a swimming pool—this time, though, my profile is visible. And finally, I wade through waves at daybreak, looking unsmiling at the camera. The lighting is poor, and the shadows fall heavily on my eyes; my face is grainy, blurry, darkened. But these shadows are beginning to lighten every day, and it’s a start.
I’ve thought a lot about The Words now, and realized: he said you would be really pretty if you weren’t Asian, but, God, what would you even be if you weren’t Asian? Of course my personality does not revolve around my race, and of course I am more than just that—but my race is still one of the most significant, noticeable parts of who I am. Erasure of my Asian-ness is erasure of myself. Abandonment of such an identity is impossible; I cannot exist as a human being without that part of me. What would I even be if I weren’t Asian? I don’t think the answer is ‘pretty.’ I think the answer is just ‘not me.’
And one more thing: I’ve been posting pretty frequently on Instagram as of late.
In one picture, shared just two months ago, I sit in a restaurant. My gaze is cast sideways, but you can see all of my face, my eyes. In another, from last week, I’m sprawled across a park bench, head resting against my friend. We sit in broad daylight; there are no shadows present to hide my eyes. Finally, in one from a few days ago, I happily hug a friend at a graduation party. I look unflinchingly into the camera.
In all of the pictures, I’m smiling.
Pictured: Author. Photo by Sophia Englesburg.