Updated: April 12, 2023 Published: April 12, 2023
For a long time, I was a devout follower of what the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls the “prophets” of beauty — those who determine and enforce what is pleasing to the eye. I grew up in a small suburb near Houston, and until I was 7, I could count on one hand the number of people I saw who looked like me. So I supplicated at the mirror, hands clasped to my face, applying creams and, later, toners and acids to tame the Chinese features that kept me from belonging.
I didn’t yet know that other words for “tame” are “subjugate” and “oppress.” It would be decades before I learned that everything I did to belong was an act of self-erasure, and that it estranged me from myself and the deeper connections I had to my family and culture.
My parents, working hard to support our still-new American life, couldn’t afford child care. Thus, my caretakers became the TV and the community pool, where I spent my summers and after-school hours. Both were instrumental in teaching me the “truth” of what was beautiful.
Catwoman and Harley Quinn were blond, as were Angelica Pickles and the dimpled Lizzie McGuire. The lifeguards at the pool were blond, as were most of the kids I tried to play with and the parents who dropped them off. I was not. The pool had the shocking effect of making blond people even more so, while I stayed the same. The sun confirmed my worst fears by consecrating their beauty.
So I doused my hair with lemon juice and a lightener called Sun In, which I’d saved up to buy. This did nothing. I dipped a pair of chopsticks in vinegar and held them to my cheeks for an hour a day, believing this would give me dimples. It did not. Besides violin practice for four to six hours a day, most of my interests hinged on finding other such means of beautifying myself.
When I think about this now, I mainly regret the wasted time.
In middle school, I came to understand that my nose was my biggest problem. “If only she had a different nose, she would be much better looking,” relatives and family friends said. “Don’t smile — your nose broadens in a way that makes it worse!” When my parents rented a video of “Little Women,” I found a kindred spirit: Amy March, who used a clothespin to reshape her nose while she slept. I tried the Amy method, but what I really took away from her character was the idea that beauty and class mobility were related. By the time she was 16, Amy was “the flower of the family,” lovely and artistic and marriageable. By reshaping your nose, in other words, you could reshape yourself and the future available to you.
I carried these lessons into young adulthood. My first job after moving to New York was at a natural beauty and wellness store — a meticulously curated workplace where I used a gold-colored spoon to dish out organic ingredients for health tonics and sold $400 water filters to influencers and actresses and trustees of the Whitney. I was finally surrounded by all the tools I needed to further my assimilation.
At work one day, I received a call from my parents, telling me my beloved great-uncle had died. I left my immaculate workplace early and thought as I walked home about the last time I had seen him: in China, on a trip with my parents before college. I didn’t remember much of that trip, largely because of the severe eating disorder I had at the time. But now a memory resurfaced, loosened by grief.
The memory was of my parents and me having tea with family: Through the humidity of the Beijing summer and the steam wafting thickly from my cup, I glimpsed a nose exactly like mine. It belonged to my great-uncle, who was sitting across from me. He was a kind and intelligent man, thoughtful and playful. I watched as he smiled and laughed unashamedly, something I had forbidden myself to do because of how it stretched my nose.
Though I had not seen my great-uncle for 12 years, this memory released others, and I recalled more of the time we spent together. Hot afternoons at the zoo and mornings when he bought me soy milk and deep-fried wheat dough for breakfast. How we made each other laugh.
In this moment, I understood the word family for what seemed like the first time. My desire for assimilation had come from seeing only how I was different. Now, I began to search for inherited likenesses instead. My mother reaching to pour another cup of tea, with my arms. My dad looking at me, with my eyes. Here was proof of belonging.
I don’t have to graft the values of others onto my own. I don’t need to tread their paths or dream their dreams.
There is something freeing about the persistence of our bodies. No matter how much I try to tame or oppress my physical reality and its cultural giveaways, it will continue to follow the blueprint it inherited — the one written by my predecessors. When I miss my great-uncle now, I look in the mirror. There, I can see his smile. When I laugh, I can hear his laughter. It starts deep in my body and erupts from my throat — a living, breathing heirloom.
Ling Ling Huang is a writer and violinist. Her debut novel is “Natural Beauty.”
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