Stop Telling Me What Asian Girls Should Look Like

In the weeks before graduation, my university threw a senior formal. At the dance, while squeezing my way through a crowd of males, I saw one gesture to a girl sitting across the bar and say, "She's cute... for an Asian."
I'd heard those last three words uttered so many times before — sometimes directed at me, sometimes directed at others. But something about this moment, on the cusp of entering adulthood, particularly struck me. A wave of backhanded compliments washed over me. “You have big eyes… for an Asian”; “You have a nice nose… for an Asian”; “You’re curvy... for an Asian."
As I stood there listening to two drunk fraternity guys reduce a girl to her “Asianness,” I’m ashamed of my response: I sheepishly forced my way to the front of the bar, ordered a drink, and moved on without saying a word.
Now, I don’t let others define me through a one-dimensional lens. Asians don't all look and act the same. Our experience is nuanced and beautifully complex — and one that should be celebrated, not reduced to a stereotype. Ahead, five women — who all identify as East or Southeast Asian in some way — explain what it’s really like growing up in America, and how they’re breaking down the assumptions that come with it.
Photographed by Erin Yamagata
Kaguya, 28, Photographer
Back in the '90s, my mum gave me a fucking perm. I had a fringe and a permed bob, like a five-year-old Korean Shirley Temple. Growing up, I tried so hard to fit in with the white crowd, but I was bullied for being Asian. People would say cheesy things to me like, "Hi, Ching Chong," or, "What do you use to cover your eyes? Tooth floss?" I never really fit in.
Later, I went to school for photography and started working high fashion and editorial shoots. Near the end of 2016, I realised I didn't like the treatment method I was doing to my photos, like over-photoshopping, erasing pores, and making skinny girls even skinnier because clients wanted me to. That really affected me, because people have always made remarks about my body. They'll ask, "Why don't you look like other Korean girls [who are skinny]?" or, "Why don't you get plastic surgery?"
I've put my body through so many diets and ridiculous treatments just because I believed I wasn't good enough. But last year something clicked, and I thought to myself, I only have three more years until I'm 30. Do I really want to be like this? I realised that I've spent more than 70% of my life just worrying about what other people think about me. I hate that shit, so I decided to take a break.
I went to Florida for a month on vacation and, while I was there, I linked up with a photographer I met on social media who wanted to photograph me. It was the first time I was ever shot in a bikini, but I felt something. That's when I realised I wanted to make body positivity my career.
Who I Am:
I'm a thick Asian queen. I'm just doing my own thing.
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Sasha Sabater, 23, Studio Assistant
My mum is Filipino and my dad is Black and Puerto Rican. I've always felt really secure in my identity, but people have always felt entitled to my body because they don't know what I am. It's like an obsession. I'm like this object they can't figure out.
I lived in the Philippines until I was eight. But when I moved here and started attending a predominantly white school, I started wondering why I didn't look like the other kids. I have such non-Western beauty features like my nose, my eyes, my lips, even my huge cheeks. People would always comment on my cheeks and try to squeeze them, or touch my hair. To them, I'm this exotic Blasian.
When it comes to dating, I've been so fetishised by some of the white women I've dated. I've seen a few that make it very obvious that they only date "ethnic" girls. Sometimes I'll ask up front: "So, do you feel like you're fetishising me?" They're always so taken aback. They can't admit it.
There's a stereotype that Black people are homogenous — or that mixed people are all Black and white or that Black people don't have a wide array of ethnic identities. People think if you're not white, you must be Black. Me? I identify as both Black and Filipino.
Who I Am:
I'm still trying to figure out what to do with myself.
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Joy Taira, 21, Student
I was born and raised in Taiwan, but I'm Taiwanese, Japanese, and Eastern European. I get a lot of unsolicited comments about my ethnicity and background. People will tell me I don't look Taiwanese and ask me what I am. Others will look at me and assume that because I'm Asian, I'm studying math or going to be a doctor. If I was white, they'd just ask: "What are you studying in school?"
One thing in particular that I get a lot is, "You're thick for an Asian girl" or, "You have big breasts for an Asian girl" or, "Why aren't you stick thin?" It's always about my body. For a long time I wondered why I wasn't skinny. I'd tell myself that I'm so fat, that I'm not fit for an Asian girl. There's a different standard for Asian women.
In high school, I dyed my hair brown so that my ethnicity was more ambiguous. I thought if my hair was brown, people wouldn't think I was Asian and maybe that's why I'm not skinny. I gave up on being "pretty for an Asian girl." So many people don't understand how threatening it can be to feel like by literally just sitting there, you're a target for inappropriate comments. Now that I'm older, I never let anyone make me feel less than.
Who I Am:
I am a sister, a “mom” to my friends, and a work in progress.
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Melody To, 20, Student
My relatives call me "ABC," or American-born Chinese — there's this stigma that you aren't fully Asian, but at the same time you're not considered American either.
I feel like I've been the target of so many micro-aggressions growing up. It started with the standard ones, but as I got older, that's when the cat calling started. Random guys will yell "ni hao" [hello] to me on the street. It's so dehumanising, like they're over-sexualising me because of how I look.
I'm Malaysian, Indonesian, and Chinese — but I only just found out about my Indonesian heritage. I'm a freelance model, and I've been trying to find an agency for the past few years. I feel like a lot of things in the industry have changed, but when it comes to facial features, the beauty standard is still very Euro-centric. I haven't seen a lot of Asian models with noses like mine — all of them have noses that are pointy and small. When I was younger, I didn't understand my culture. Now, I'm so proud of being Asian, but I still have to fight for myself.
Who I Am:
I am an activist, artist, and intersectional feminist. I am empowered yet silenced as a queer woman of colour.
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Emmy Liu, 23, Writer & Filmmaker
I am Chinese-American, but all my friends growing up were white. Even though they were my friends, my "otherness" was pointed out so often. They'd call me names like Ching Chong or point out my eyes. I'd watch them exaggerate their own eyes to make them look more Asian. Kids are really mean.
I feel ‘othered” in China, too. I'm an ABC and people are always surprised by me because I'm thicker, and thicker Asians are definitely underrepresented. There's this stereotype that Asian women are small, skinny, and flat-chested. This stereotype made me feel like shit for so long. Body dysmorphia was such a huge part of my life. In Chinese culture, people have no problem telling you you look fat. It made me very self-conscious because I felt like my body was not mine.
Once this guy told me his "type" was "thick Asians." It made me realise that when you date, people can boil you down to what you look like. It's less about me as a person and more about the fact that I'm curvy and Asian. As I got older, I realised that I'm not this hideous monster. It took a lot of work but I'm finally at peace with myself. Now, being Asian American means trying to find the best place for myself. I don't really know where I feel most at home right now — that's something I'm still searching for.
Who I Am:
I'm a filmmaker and I'm very lucky to be part of both Chinese and American culture.
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