Real Beauty: Feeling Beautiful and the Asian American Identity


By Joy Yun

After seeing Dove’s most recent “Real Beauty” Campaign video, I was inspired to write this. I generally found the piece uplifting and agree with its message. There is truth in what they are saying: when it comes to self image, as women we are our own worst critic. It’s all true. I think if I were the typical all-American girl, my thoughts would end there. “Great. Moving. Going to share on FB! We, as women, need to see the beauty that others see in us!” However, I didn’t grow up us as a typical all-American girl and because of my experiences as a Korean American, while watching the video, there were certain nagging questions I had ringing in my mind. While I just wanted to be moved by the message, like a boiling kettle, the more moved I was supposed to be, the louder the questions became.

What if we ourselves are not the worst critic, but others are the ones causing harm to our self image? What are young girls, especially Asian American girls, supposed to think when others, a predominantly white community, tell them they are ugly?

When I lived in upstate New York, there was a decent amount of diversity in the school I attended. I never felt looked down upon for being Asian. I also had a pretty good self image. I never wished I looked like anyone other than myself….

…Until I moved to New Jersey.

Though New Jersey itself is a relatively diverse state filled with Asians and many other races, ethnic groups, and cultures, the particular town where my family relocated to was mostly Caucasian (like 99.9%!). On my first day of school, the teachers sent down a Chinese girl (the one other Asian) to translate lessons for me because they assumed that I couldn’t speak English. That was a bad sign. Day in and day out of my middle school career I was trying to navigate my way through a hailstorm of racist, ignorant, hurtful remarks.

I remember many times in 6th grade girls would tap me on the shoulder, look me in the eye and snidely say, “Joy, you are ugly.”

Those words are etched in my memory.

I remember their faces, their expressions, but more importantly I remember how it made me feel.

I knew they were just being hurtful because I looked different. I was alone. They hurt me because they could. I knew it wasn’t true: I wasn’t ugly. After all, years prior to those moments, others, like my mother, teachers, and friends had told me otherwise. Yet it’s funny how a few choice words, a few girls, can shake the foundations of your self esteem and destroy in one fell swoop what took years to shape and build.

Over time their words, like water on sandstone, eroded my self image. I was no longer happy with the way I looked. I remember thinking about my eyes and agreeing, “Wow, they really are small.”

“Joy, you are ugly.”

It took a long time to build back what was lost and it has been an arduous internalized journey for me to accept and love who I am as a Korean American.

Fortunately I am blessed to have a supportive family and a community of people around me to help counter the hurtful words of those middle school girls. Ultimately, through that pain, I learned how to define who I am independent from what other people thought. For me, through my faith in God, I was able to ground my self image. Because I knew God loved me, thought I was beautiful, and created me for a purpose, over time it didn’t matter what people said about me.

Over time, I learned to feel beautiful about my Asian American identity. As a Korean American woman, “Real Beauty” meant something more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR. I am a 31 year old mother of two young children. I was raised as an east coast Jersey girl but God had other plans and we are now living in Honolulu Hawaii. My blog documents  humorously and sarcastically at times, the craziness of being a mother to young children while living in Paradise. It is called Daechoong Manma because daechoong in Korean means to do things in a way that get things done while often forsaking the details. I was raised this way and as a parent I am seeing my mother in me more and more. My daechoong ways have lead me to lead an adventurous life as person and now as a wife and a mother.

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