Staff Writer Phoebe ruminates on the meaning of Asian beauty standards through Chinese Students Club’s Breaking Beauty Event.

The summer before my first year at Columbia, I did a dumb thing: I got my earring stuck in my ear. I had to get surgery to remove it. Disgruntled in the waiting room of a plastic surgery hospital in Shanghai, I began to scan the room and saw myself surrounded by girls my age. I watched as one by one, they entered the operating room and came out with gauze over their eyes. They were getting double-eyelid surgery.

The double-eyelid surgery rose to popularity in Korea during the Korean War. The surgery was mostly performed on Korean military brides married to American soldiers so that they look more Western. Now, it’s one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries in East Asia.

To this day I still ruminate over my experience in that waiting room. What to make of the fact that so many Asian girls are changing their face to these Eurocentric standards of beauty? And how do we, as Asians, find beauty in ourselves when beauty standards require us to permanently alter our features? 

With these questions, I arrived at the Chinese Students Club’s Breaking Beauty Event. The event explored the cultural significance of Asian beauty standards through a panel discussion with makeup artist and monk Kodo Nishimura, star of Rupaul’s Drag Race Kahmora Hall, and author An Na. As Asians living in the United States, all three had once felt like they didn’t fit Western beauty standards. Their diverse career paths made me instantly intrigued to hear the different ways to approach beauty. I did hold one hesitation: though the event is dedicated to Asian beauty standards as a whole, the panel only featured East Asian faces. 

Scanning the Zoom screen, Na exclaimed, “It’s so nice to see so many Asian faces!” Growing up in a predominantly white community, Na seldom saw features like hers. On her way home, kids would pull their eyes back at her in mockery. Na indicated that she has felt this weight of being different all her life: “I haven’t felt safe growing up, a lot of times. There’s been a lot of hate language. For all my life it’s been really difficult that way. ”

In contrast, Kodo didn’t realize he was Asian until he came to the United States, where he found himself wishing that he looked more Western. He wished that he was taller, more muscular; he wished that he had bigger eyes.

Kahmora’s initial understanding of beauty was also shaped by faces that did not look like hers. Growing up gay and Asian, she struggled to see herself onscreen, where the only gay characters on TV were white men. She began to equate whiteness with attractiveness, even believing that perhaps dating a white man defined her as attractive. 

Yet despite their past struggles, the panelists now speak to CSC from a place of self-acceptance. “Even on the Zoom call right now, I can’t stop looking at myself,” Kahmora exclaims. She attributed her unlearning of self-hatred to discovering drag in college. Through drag, the parts where she used to be ashamed of, such as being Asian or being too feminine, now became something to be celebrated.

Kodo began to similarly celebrate his Asian identity when he saw Japan win Miss Universe in 2007. When he moved to America, Kodo also became more confident about showing his love for makeup. He remembered that in Japan, the staff at makeup counters would always ask him if he was shopping for his mother or girlfriend, but at Macy’s, he saw “really made-up men selling cosmetics”. He felt more comfortable shopping for himself.

While Kahmora and Kodo shared their own stories, Na explored her evolution with beauty standards through the experiences of her sister. When she immigrated to the US from Korea, her aunt offered her sister plastic surgery so that her eyes could be larger. Na remembered the shame her sister felt for her eyes. Though she couldn’t process that shame then, her sister’s experiences turned to fuel her creative work as she began writing. Na’s novel, “The Fold”, gets its title from the fold that’s produced through double eyelid surgery. Na sees “The Fold” as a dedication to her sister, who she has always seen as beautiful and who Na believes “just heard a lot of noise that made her not feel beautiful.”  She compared her sister’s struggles to the beauty standards today, where magazines now favor Asian-looking eyes (the “fox eye” trend may be a possible example). She remarked, “Beauty standards change all the time..what’s difficult is what you have to live with in the moment.” 

With Na’s story, the discussion then shifted to focus on the popular double-eyelid surgery.  Kodo admitted that in yoga classes, he used to push up his eyelid so he could create the coveted “fold.” He even consulted a doctor about getting double eyelid surgery. Ultimately, Kodo decided against it. After seeing the diverse standards of beauty in Miss Universe, he realized that just because everyone chases after one standard doesn’t mean he has to follow suit.  “Even if everybody’s listening to BTS…you don’t have to sing BTS…sing the song that suits your voice,” he analogizes. Both Kodo and Kahmora maintained that if surgery can help someone feel beautiful, they’re fully supportive of it. However, Kahmora also cautioned the audience on how getting surgery may influence younger siblings. She recalled that when her sister got plastic surgery as a teenager, it prompted her to consider the surgery too even though she was only 10 years old.

The Breaking Beauty Event resembled a conversation between friends who were attempting to decipher the complex, sometimes frustrating ways in which they each perceived beauty. I think back to that summer in the hospital waiting room now and still don’t think I can quite formulate an opinion on the phenomenon of the double-eyelid surgery. But maybe not having an opinion is okay. The one uniting message that the panelists conveyed is that beauty is an introspective process. In their own journeys to self-acceptance, all three learned to filter out the noise of societal beauty standards and instead focus on what they saw as beautiful. I had arrived at the panel searching for answers on how the girls in the waiting room defined beauty, but I left considering what beauty means to me.

Finally, the panel ended with a makeup tutorial from Kodo. As grotesque crimes against the Asian community rise across the US, I find it calming to recall the beauty in that moment as I watched Asian faces on the Zoom screen follow Kodo, tracing the outlines of their eyes.

eye via Creative Commons