This article contains mention of sexual harassment and body dysmorphia.
The first time I visited China, one of my aunts made a passing comment about my dark skin, which took after my father and was made darker as the result of spending the summers in North Carolina running around wild in our apartment complex’s cul-de-sac with no adult supervision and no sunscreen. Apparently, according to my mother, four-year-old me raised myself to my full height and said with my whole chest, proudly, “Well, my māmā says my skin is the most beautiful chocolate colour.”
For the record, my skin is not chocolate-coloured. It’s more of a wheat colour, if we’re searching for a food metaphor but I’d rather not think of myself as something to be eaten, to be consumed.
I have no memory of this encounter. Maybe I was too young, maybe it just wasn’t important. Sure, I had the vague inkling that, yes, some other little girls were supposedly prettier than others, whatever that means, but there were also trees to climb and worms to dig up and sand moats to build and a bike to ride.
Beauty has always felt like this incomprehensible, elusive thing, forever outside of my reach. Running around with a tangled mane of hair and dirt on my face, what did beauty matter?
Maybe it was just obvious to everyone other than me.
Four years later, my family moved to China and my parents enrolled me in a local elementary school. Unaccustomed to tying my hair up as required by the school rules, I opted to chop my hair short, twice, because it wasn’t short enough the first time. When the hairdresser was finished with me, my hair, which had previously ended at the middle of my back, had been cut down to the nape of my neck.
Perched on the back seat of my grandfather’s bicycle on the way to school the next Monday morning, the wind grazed my skin through the short locks. And when another classmate passed by and pointed at my head in shock, I waved extra cheerily. Happy, in my freedom.
The joy didn’t last long. I would have needed it to be shorter to be allowed to wear it down, but after the second time, my teacher thought it was so painful to watch me cut off my thick black hair that she didn’t want me to cut it a third time. She forbade me to touch my hair again, pulled out hair ties from her desk and tied my hair into two stubby little pigtails.
I had to wear pigtails, a hair style I hadn’t worn since I was five, for a year before my hair grew out long enough to be worn in a ponytail like the other girls.
I continued to be made fun of for my appearance. My tan-by-East-Asian-standards skin marked me as a descendent of farmers. My weight, which was considered normal by American standards, suddenly rendered me anything but in China. Beauty continued to confuse me. Then puberty rolled around, and to make things worse, I was being made fun of for the increasing curves. When girls went around feeling each other’s chests to see if the lumps signalling development had occurred, one of the girls had said, without even touching me, “Oh your boobs have definitely come in.” (By then, they actually hadn’t).
When my period finally came, my mother congratulated me on becoming a woman, but it took everything in me not to cry. I was still a child, I didn’t want to graduate from my girlhood. Yet what I wanted didn’t matter, not when everyone seemed to have already made up their minds for me. Girls eagerly repeated the comments boys had made about my body back to me, but I didn’t want to hear them and I didn’t want them to see me.
Some girls were starting to get confessions, had boys nervously ask them to hang out after school, or shove love letters and gifts into their desk drawers. Meanwhile, I was getting endless sexual innuendos, classmates who grabbed me and teachers who made inappropriate comments and groped my ass during outside school tutoring.
Why couldn’t I get the right kind of attention? Was it something wrong with me? I began comparing myself to the other girls and taking notes on all the ways I looked different. My height, my weight, my hair, my skin. Worse was thinking about my features, my eyes, my nose, the puff of my cheeks. Were my bones wrong?
This sort of anxiety followed me when we moved to Canada, where there were new rules to learn about beauty and how I ought to present myself. Every time I look there seems to be another thing wrong with me, that marks me as ugly.
I got braces when I was fourteen, while going to high school in what I called “suburban hell.” Suddenly conscious of how rabbit-like my front teeth were, the unsightly protruding of my upper jaw, I begged my parents to take me to get them fixed and they brought me in for a consultation. The dentists said that my teeth were crowded and could present a problem to dental health, so they strongly recommended braces. I tried to hide my glee; we could pretend I was getting braces for health reasons and not because I was vain.
They pulled four teeth out from my mouth in one sitting. I laid there on the table at the dentist’s and the cold metal of the pliers slid against my gums and grasped my teeth, yanking them out from their sockets.
I did not feel pain in that moment, only afterwards.
At the same time, I acted like I was above it all. I dismissed other girls for wearing makeup, and made snide comments about how I could see their foundation caking. For frivolously wanting to be beautiful and unabashed about it. Wasn’t it enough to be like me, privately trying to hide all my yearning for beauty?
In public, I was uncaring, cool in my apathy. In private, I harboured secret fantasies about a transformation, some summer makeover, something I could do to finally, finally start earning the respect I deserved, to be treated like a human being.
On a whim I decided to buy a curling iron and experiment with curling my hair, but I had no idea what I was doing and burnt a coin sized patch of skin on my forehead. And I was so ashamed and embarrassed of having wanted to be beautiful, of having been foolish enough to think that having different hair could bring me closer to beauty, that when people asked what had happened, why I had a bandaid on my forehead, I lied and said I fell.
Summer of grade nine I fried my hair by bleaching and dying it red, used lip liner as eyeliner or alternatively wore thick black liner that doubled the width of my eyes. But that didn’t change the fact that I still didn’t understand beauty. Even if the target changed, I always felt confused with what I had to do to earn the title “beautiful.”
Beauty was not sex, which I had learned early on. When I complained to my mother about the pain of having a large chest, how much I hate having tits, my mother told me I should be thankful for having them, that men like large boobs anyway and that she wishes her breasts were larger. I thought about the boys and men I had known, the ones who tormented and touched me like my body was a public site and wondered why in the world I should care about what they prefer. But I also couldn’t ignore nagging suspicion that they were nicer to the girls who were prettier.
Beauty taunted me in the dark. You want me, you want to be beautiful, you secretly want to be loved. Isn’t that embarrassing, you are no better than any of these fuckers. Fuck this, I hissed back. In grade ten, I cut my hair, I started to only wear men’s clothes.
The question that kept me up at night: If beauty is a necessity, seemingly integral to respectable womanhood, then what does that mean for me, someone who has gone without it?
To distract myself from the discomfort of being aware in my body, I spent all my spare time reading. I had unshakable dreams of insects, which crawled all over me, devouring my flesh and in the morning I’d wake up with red rashes all over my skin. What started as simple fascination with the great monsters of mythology and literature veered into identifying with them. I dreamt of transformation, no longer in a summer makeover sense, but of turning into something else entirely. Of becoming stronger, larger, or at least of something so awful that others had no other choice than to turn their gaze away.
Beauty was something I was supposed to innately care about, to understand. Except I didn’t. I truly felt like somehow other people have learned to emerge fully fledged, while I was doomed forever to remain a beast stuck mid transformation.
Alienated and alone, if I was not, could not be beautiful, what could I be? I felt like a part of my womanhood was missing. As if I was doing it all wrong. Anything that could draw attention to my body felt like an invitation to further ridicule. I played exclusively male roles in theatre class, and it was freeing to get more lines, bigger parts, and to go in and confuse people. Even if it meant that sometimes I had to say misogynistic lines, which made the audience chuckle at the irony, which made me feel strangely proud and disgusted at the same time. As if I could just detach myself from the category of woman, as if I wasn’t participating in the belittling of my fellow female.
Despite all my best attempts, I couldn’t escape the pressure to be beautiful by transforming into a great chimaera or a giant insect à la Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
During the pandemic, cooped up at home and freed from the gaze of other people, I started reading more feminist writing, watching films made by female directors and learning about women’s art. And once I saw and heard more of the diversity of women’s voices and experiences, women who looked nothing like the archetype of a conventionally attractive woman, who also grew up like me — feeling alienated and ugly, and wrong and monstrous — ten years of feathers and scales and dirt fell away. Suddenly, I could be at peace with becoming a woman again.
The truth is, I couldn’t escape womanhood. And I realized it isn’t something I entirely want to escape or reject anymore. Part of what allowed me to do so was coming to terms with my attraction to other people. If I could see these traits in another person and find them desirable, then maybe it might be permissible for myself to have those traits.
Beauty, on the other hand, is a much more fraught topic. I’m still somewhat cynical about the nature of beauty’s role in our society. I didn’t and don’t understand many of the practices done in the name of beauty; when things like high heels literally misshape your feet over long periods of wear, when we have a long history of people getting hurt or sick from cosmetics due to lack of regulation. The beauty industry is built upon the insecurities and shame of women, promising the solution but only creating more problems.
I’m not trying to pretend I have it all figured out. Despite all the things I know now, I still often struggle with feeling happy about my appearance. Bra shopping is a particular kind of hell that transports me back to being eleven years old again, and when I look in the mirror, a lot of the questions I have are the same ones that have plagued me since I was a child. Will I finally become beautiful if I lose another twenty pounds despite the twenty I’ve already lost? How can the things that are pleasurable (lying in the sun, running around, eating good food with my friends) also render me ugly? If conventional beauty is a means of and to power, what does it mean for me to be without it? What does it mean if I start believing that my lack of beauty is the cause of my misfortunes?
But being beautiful would not have saved me from being sexually harassed.
In a world that is so intricately confusing, this idea that we might be able to have control over our appearance and that beauty can be the solution to everything is incredibly seductive. That if we just do the right things, change in the right ways, then life will be easier. After all, it’s much easier to change ourselves than to try and change the world in all its injustice.
Beauty hides her face from me. The relationship we have is uneasy, a never-ending tug of war. But I still want to believe. I want to believe that the door is open, the rock can be unturned and I won’t die even if I scurry out into the bright sunlight. Even if I still sometimes feel like I’m could be missing out on something — love, sex, money — by not being this perfect, conventionally attractive woman. Even if I have been punished by many around me who have belittled, harassed or hurt me, for not being beautiful enough and still taking up space. And here, beauty turns into personality, and how agreeable I am, which is also not very.
There are the moments when I feel free: running, hair whipping behind me, climbing through cliffs alone in the Japanese countryside, fumbling in casual games of sports as a break from work, my limbs uncoordinated from dis-use but my earnestness making up for it. With my heart beating wildly in my chest, I can remember that I existed in a time before beauty.
All I want is possession of my body. To be in control of it and how others see me. To be recognized, to be seen, without having to be reduced to my appearance or humiliated in the process. When in motion, I can forget all the aches and eyes and pains and shame that have touched me.
My body — heaving, hurtling, moving — not just an object to be seen. My body, mine, taking me places.
This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 creative non-fiction supplement, beauty.