Growing up, I was not beautiful — not in a traditional sense. I still critique myself. One eye is slightly bigger than its sleepy twin, and my lips puff out ever so slightly, taking on a dark violet hue, especially in the summer (my ex used to say they were “smoker’s lips” and, “y’all Laotians must like to get high all the time!”). My face is a bit too big. Hell, my whole head makes me feel like I should’ve been drawn right into Bobby’s World, the way it bobbles over the rest of my leaner frame. And let’s not forget my nose: a bulbous creature with a life of its own, including a birthmark perfectly in the center drawing attention to the largest focal point on my face (like anyone needed assistance with that).
In Laos (where I’m from), as well as many other Southeast Asian countries, European standards of beauty have been adapted as our standard, too. We’re taught to value light skin, small noses and lips, round eyes (with lids, please), petite frames, and long hair. In reality, these specifications are impossible for most women who have natural, human bodies instead of those of space-bot beauty queens. But reality does not matter in an Asian household.
In my experience, Asian parents are honest as shit and have the highest expectations for all their children. Parents will ask their children, “Why are you so fat? Why are your ears so long? And why does your nose look so big? Here, squeeze it like this so it get smaller.” (Those last two sentiments are direct quotes from my father, from whom I so graciously, unceremoniously received this super smell-o-vision-compatible nose, by the way.) Kids are always capable of making their lame asses better, according to these Asian parents.
Growing up with their influence, as well as the influence of America’s obsession with beauty, made my life a pure joy from a very young age. I often felt like a shadow of myself growing up. I vividly remember one instance when a second cousin’s mother asked about my weight. I enjoyed playing with my cousins at this household, but I also dreaded visiting because I was always asked about my size. Once I even asked my mom before a visit if she could say something — anything — to stand up for me should a family member make a comment. I sat next to her in my cousin's living room soon after as the subject of my weight was openly discussed, again. Situations like these, where my physicality was picked apart, made me feel invisible. This happened with family and friends alike, and I began to understand myself as the fat friend, the one boys never noticed.
It didn’t occur to me that I could actually feel pretty until my late twenties. I realized that, unfortunately, there are a lot of shallow people who only care how others look — especially in a romantic context. So many people allow their physical attractions to dominate the relationships they pursue without first seeing themselves, without knowing and accepting who they are. Then they wonder why these relationships fail.
I personally realized this after falling for someone who saw me only as a trophy — a pretty girl to hang off his arm and show off. Our relationship was tumultuous because I never previously thought of myself as beautiful and could never quite live up to his fantastical ideal. I eventually realized I had to be enough for myself before I could focus on being with someone else.
Now I would not change a thing on this face or body because these oh-so-beautiful features represent so much more than my physical presence. They represent my parents, their parents, and so on. How cool is it to know that you carry on the legacy of someone no longer physically present through your physical traits? I only met my grandmother once, but my aunties back in Laos say we share physical traits. My sister and I both have big, pouty lips; I got my momma’s big long ears and my father’s nose (and, like him, I have an ability to smell bullshit a mile away). My appearance represents my people, my culture, and the genetic makeup that could’ve only made me. For that, I will never feel unpretty, will never be unproud.
Of course I have my unpretty days. Just waking up is often an unpretty experience for me. My skin is too oily, I have thick bifocals, and my thick, unruly hair seems to grow overnight. But I no longer let these moments define me. I’ve finally placed value in learning about who I am internally and how I treat others. There’s really no shame in my unprettiness because I am still beautiful in a unique sense: I am like no other, and history beyond my own being lies within that. And that is a kind of gorgeous no other can touch.
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