When you look at me, I look like an average American: dark black hair, mono eyelids, pale skin, and a flat nose. But in Asia, society would tell me that there are features I should change. I should have a smaller face, bigger eyes, fairer skin, and a taller nose. As a first-generation Asian-American, it’s hard to ignore the nagging voice of my relatives telling me everything that’s wrong with my looks and the western beauty standards that tell me the opposite. Growing up in an Asian household, pale skin was the epitome of beauty; 75 SPF sunscreen and umbrellas were my best friend. But as I got older, I realized that my perception of beauty was different than my parents’. Years of watching mainstream American television, which showcased people from all types of ethnic backgrounds, influenced my view of what was beautiful. I saw tan skin as being sun-kissed by 100 carats of gold, mono eyelids as unique and eye-catching, and flat noses as heart-shaped and unique.
Conflicting beauty standards doesn’t only apply to Asian-Americans; they apply to all types of people. Osagu Robin Odeh, a first-generation John D. O’Bryant senior from Nigeria, said, “I feel like it’s complicated because in my culture we like thick women, but in America, we like thin and slim women.” According to Kathy Lee, a John D. O’Bryant senior and first-generation Chinese-American, different perceptions of beauty among different cultures can be detrimental. “Growing up, I was always told that I was too dark and that I would be prettier if I was lighter, and I never found it an issue,” Lee said. “Now I prefer to be more paler because of what people, specifically what my family members, tell me.”
According to first generation Somali-American John D. O’Bryant senior Sumeya Ali, conflicting beauty standards don’t just affect the way we look, but also the way we dress. “I used to wear clothes that I didn’t like or that just weren’t me because in my culture, we value a woman’s modesty and her clothing represented that modesty,” Ali said. “Because my culture believed that wearing long skirts and specific types of shirts were seen as beautiful, I had to wear it even if I didn’t really like it. As I’ve gotten older, my individual style has changed and grown and I’m not afraid to wear what I want to wear. However, I am still hesitant on wearing certain items because of my judgment from my family.”
The balance between trying to please ourselves and our family is hard, so is there a way for us to find the sweet spot? According to Jean Wang, the Asian-American author of the Boston-based fashion and beauty blog ExtraPetite, being confident and comfortable in our own skin is more important than the opinions of others. “You can never please anyone else's standards, so I wouldn't stress over balancing cultural beauty standards. You should have the freedom and fun to experiment with beauty, makeup and hair—all of which are temporary and can be either undone, washed-off, or grown back!” she said. “In the end, it's all about discovering yourself and finding the look and style that you feel most comfortable and confident in.”