’ Word-of-mouth spreads quickly, and it becomes something of a joke within my friends – to be an “aesthetically pleasing Asian.” To us, Asian girls who had slept at each other’s houses with smudged makeup, thrown up after parties, compared pimples – the title was bewildering.
When I finally scrolled through the page, I was surprised at the large following. A few of my friends, some Asian, some not – had liked a few photos. Other Facebook sites were soon recommended to me: Creamy Asian Girls, Asian Girls for Depressed Citizens, Asian Girls Saved Me From Depression. The majority of the sites were run by men – both Asian and White. Some claimed that their exaggerated worship of Asian women was a joke, ‘shitposting’ it was called. But the comments provided a chorus of male opinions – most free of any kind of irony. “Very pleasing indeed” “Gorgeous” “Beautiful” “This post singlehandedly made my day better” – sifting through the photos, I identified and logged away what parts of the ‘Asian Girl’ were deemed the most desirable. What parts of myself made the cut. What parts of myself needed more work. The title ‘Aesthetically Pleasing’ suddenly felt less satirical – more aspirational.
Growing up online, I have become desensitised to the Asian body being used as set dressing.
Growing up online, I have become desensitised to the Asian body being used as set dressing. “Asian Girls Near You” or “Webcam Sexy Asians” has become an accepted fact of online spaces. Entire porn sites, game advertisements, clickbait photos – advertise the viewer with an avatar of the Asian Woman. She is almost always pale, with a small face, doe eyes, full breasts and a tiny waist. She can be Dragon Lady or school girl – but the physical make-up rarely deviates.
The online “Asian Woman” is less person, and more product. Specifically, a product for aesthetic pleasure – “sense perception”, as The Interaction Design Foundation describes it, where “good aesthetics leads to a better usability and user experience.” I know that a cat-eye is better for my slanted double eye-lids. I know that contouring my nose bridge makes it appear higher. I have always been told by the women in my family that I’m “lucky” to be so pale. I wonder since when I learned to tailor my aesthetics for better usability.
The more I try to identify the reason why ‘Aesthetically Pleasing’ has become an ideal for the Asian woman’s body – the more it eludes me. Arguments are made that Western influence on Asian beauty is minimal, that pale skin and double eye-lids have always been a desired trait in Asian women.
But Western influence is also pervasive. W.H Millard, a U.S Marine surgeon, was the first to perform double eye-lid surgery on a Korean patient. In an academic paper, he states: “The plastic surgeon may be called upon to help [Asians abroad] blend in with their surroundings.” Interestingly, the first patient of Millard’s double eye-lid surgery was a male Korean translator. He underwent the surgery to appeal to American diplomats. Again, ‘better’ aesthetics equals better ‘user experience’.
Beauty, or at least the toning down of overtly ‘Asian’ features, has always created a fantasy of acceptance – of proximity to power.
Beauty, or at least the toning down of overtly ‘Asian’ features, has always created a fantasy of acceptance – of proximity to power. You are beautiful; therefore, you can sit at the table, therefore, you are one of us. And it perpetuates a lie that beauty is always pale, and as close to whiteness as you can get. But only if you get there by ‘natural’ means.
A few years ago, a controversial photo of the women in the South Korean beauty pageant goes viral. Any of the women in the photos could be considered ‘Aesthetically Pleasing.’ Small faces, pale skin, double eye-lids. ‘Plastic surgery blamed’ headlines Gawker, ‘Pageant Contestants Who Look Insanely Similar’ prints Buzzfeed. “How could they do this to themselves?” becomes the pervading question. The Aesthetically Pleasing Asian Girl, finally achieving ‘beauty’ is now seen as ‘plastic.’ She becomes style over substance. It’s a zero-sum game. Why even try?
The truth is, I still feel surprise at seeing a face that looks like mine on a movie poster. My initial reaction to South Korea’s Best Picture Win for ‘Parasite’ was not celebration, but disbelief. I understand the power of being looked at. To be affirmed. It is a novelty that I still crave.
An interview from Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress and the star of Netflix rom-com ‘To All the Boy I’ve Loved Before’ strikes me: “There’s a scene where Lara Jean is in this beautiful, almost Cinderella gown… it hit me all at once how special that moment once… As a young girl, I never got to see a Cinderella moment where the girl looked like me.”
And isn’t that it? A fairytale that fulfils the ultimate fantasy of being seen. A girl, plucked from invisibility – becomes the centre of our attention – she is beautiful, she is envied, she is loved. I understand, perhaps too painfully, why any Asian woman would even try.
Gina Song is a freelance writer and the winner of a New York Times essay writing competition on immigration. Follow her on Twitter here.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter here.