Updated: Feb 18
Last year, I made the decision to stop using skincare products for whitening purposes. After a couple of months, my complexion grew the tiniest bit darker, back to the natural shade I had been born with. The products I had been purchasing from the Korean beauty supply store never altered my appearance much after all. It was a small change that was barely noticeable to anyone except me.
When I first bought these products, I felt kinda silly. I had always been darker-skinned, with a more yellowish/olive undertone, and I knew that there was no way I could become the porcelain-skinned beauty standard in East Asian culture. There was never a way for me to become as fair and as translucent as those idolized Korean celebrities or Chinese models. I understood this fact, knew it well, and yet I still decided to buy these products. Maybe it was the model on the label staring back at me, or the advertising on the packaging that promised snow-white results, but at that moment I felt there was something wrong with me for wanting to stay the way I was. It was wrong for me not to chase after that white, clean, and perfect skin everyone seemed so obsessed with. So I bought it and continued buying it for the next three years.
It’s no secret that in Asia, the fair was more beautiful. Colorism was and still is still an issue that plagued many, and advertising often targeted these societal standards in every country. Billboards and magazines featured many thin models, all with clear milky white skin, drawing a huge divide between South and Southeast Asian populations with generally darker complexions. I had an endless amount of aunts, cousins, and family friends who subscribed to it, constantly wanting to look like what they deemed perfection. It was hard to not be in that environment and not feel worse about my natural skin tone and by that relation my identity.
After I stopped using the product, it bothered me how much the slight difference was affecting me. Logically, I knew that I had not even changed a complete shade in my old skincare routine even after using it for so long. Yet, every morning as I got ready, I couldn’t stop thinking about it whenever I passed by a mirror. You look a bit darker today. At night whenever I was watching some Chinese soap opera or some Korean drama, I couldn’t help but stare at the backs of my hands, thinking about the color of my skin. Why can’t I look like that? What is wrong with me? I was angry at myself for being so shallow, for feeling so distraught. Is this really something I care about? I was unsure of why I had let these thoughts bubble inside for so long or even what exactly I was dealing with inside. Then, one night as I stood in front of my vanity, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
‘Oh,’ I thought to myself. ‘I feel dirtier.’
And then, almost instantaneously something I had always subconsciously disliked about myself, became something I actively hated. And then, I felt uncomfortable in my skin.
It was so ironic to me, feeling this burning insecurity because when I was younger I had loved being darker. I grew up in sunny Florida, never more than two hours away from the beach. In a smaller town, my social circle had mostly consisted of white girls, who were obsessed with getting that golden tan. Some even told me I was lucky to be the shade I was naturally, and being envied in this aspect made me happy. It wasn’t until in high school, I started noticing the difference between their beauty standards and the ones I saw assets for my race, that I began questioning what to follow. I wasn’t pretty in America, and I knew this. Pretty American girls were white and blonde, they had big blue eyes with no mono lids, and I was… just different. But as I began to consume more media, I realized how far I was from the Asian beauty standard, neither thin enough nor not pale enough to even be considered close to want-able. For a while, I told myself that this was okay, accepting the fact. Despite being second-rate, being less in both of these areas my life wasn’t just this. I probably have some worth outside my looks, right? I can be smart, I have goals. I buried these thoughts for years under excuses and distractions.
Still, insecurity started to consume me slowly. Whenever a family member made a comment on how dark I had gotten, subtly it pooled around my ankles. When I tried using a foundation a tad lighter, it had reached my waist. When I had started to use those skin products, it stopped under my chin, but at least I could breathe. Standing in front of the mirror that night, thinking about how I was never going to be enough, I was drowning. It engulfed me, swallowed me, into nothingness, and I had never felt so ugly, so gross, so flawed. So dirty and worthless. Even acknowledging how much I cared about something so trivial, made me feel stupid. I went to bed hoping to wake up as someone else, someone better, someone that liked themselves, and when I didn’t, I couldn’t help crying my eyes out.
So pathetic, I thought bitterly.
I wish I could say that there was some life-altering moment that made me feel better, that taught me to appreciate and accept myself for who I was, but there wasn’t. Life doesn’t work so easily like that, and time is the only thing that can heal the mind. I didn’t feel better the next day or in the next week or next month, but found solace in distractions and tried to rebuild my self-confidence in the form of small affirmations. I wrote and journaled constantly, pouring out pages and pages of feelings and emotions. It made me feel good, and I was still insecure, but I could handle it better.
Scrolling through social media one night, I saw a post with the quote “My skin color is my identity”. I thought about this idea for a while. The phrase rattled my mind for hours on end. I have never been ashamed of my heritage as a Vietnamese American, but I have seen so many friends and family discount their skin color as something they can and should change in order to fit into the desired beauty standard. So many of us associated darker skin with ugliness and poverty, idealizing the looks of East Asians over those of the South East. Why do we subject ourselves to so much self-hate and criticism? It was frustrating to think about how we have been brainwashed to think of ourselves as second-class, second-rate Asians. The more I pondered this absurd scenario we have placed ourselves in, the more I understand how skin color, personal identity, and perceived identity are interrelated.
To the world, your skin determines your perceived identity; it becomes a space for judgment based on appearance, superficial. However, your personal identity (how you see yourself) determines how you see your own skin color. You have control over how you perceive yourself, and you can choose to love your skin rather than hate it. This power is something that an outside influence, whether that be other people, societal standards, or the media, can never take away from you.
Your skin is a part of your identity and you can view it in whatever way you want.
The small conclusion lifted a huge weight off my shoulders and gave me some sort of empowerment. I won’t say that everything is completely fixed, there are times where I slip and find myself wishing I was just different in some way or another. I had to jump several mental hoops to even get to this thought process after all. I certainly don’t feel good all the time, but it’s never unbearable, and sometimes I even remember to appreciate myself. Still, the battle is only uphill. It takes an everyday effort to build confidence and self-love. It takes daily practice to appreciate my own unique hue and shade. And in this world, it can take some self-actualization to be comfortable in your own skin.
In the midst of the #StopAsianHate Movement, amplifying our voices has become important now more than ever. The rise in Asian hate crimes and xenophobia has made me and so many more anxious regarding our identity. I have definitely felt more self-conscious reading hate speech online and watching the news every day. Even as I start the exciting process of beginning a new life in a bustling city, the concerns for my safety almost made me reconsider not going to my dream school. I hope that in sharing my story, I can inspire others to do the same, and help everyone to feel a bit more comfortable in their skin.
- Yvon Lu
This piece took a lot out of me to write. I’ve always felt insecure about my image, specifically my skin tone. Airing it all out while writing, however, helped me to define my emotions and work through them. I wanted to share this piece in hopes that it could do the same for anyone going through the same struggle. In light of #StopAsianHate I think a lot of us need to appreciate our inherent beauty more, so please read this and remember that your skin is beautiful.
Yvon Lu (She/her) is an aspiring Vietnamese American writer and researcher from Florida, set to attend Columbia University in New York City this coming fall. She loves economics, data science, activism, and story telling. She also enjoys art, cooking, and anime! Follow her on Instagram to see more of her writing @yvon.lu or to message her! She would love to chat you on any variety of interesting topics and would love to become friends!
Instagram: @yvon.lu Medium: yvon-lu0711
Cover Photo Source: https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/article/3080423/skin-whitening-prejudice-against-dark-skin-and-how-class