There isn’t a single moment I can remember when I didn’t have to confront what I saw in my mirror’s reflection. After all, I was the sole Asian-American growing up in rural Colorado Springs, a mostly caucasian city. And if I hadn't been aware, my peers egregiously let it be known just how different I was. Those almond eyes! That thick, jet-black hair! That yellow skin! "Where are you from," they’d ask. "Colorado!" I'd say. "No, where are you really from?" They’d ask again. "My mama’s womb," I’d answer. Needless to say, school was a confusing time. But it was only through beauty that I was able to come to terms with my own identity and self-acceptance as a Korean-American man. Beauty, from a Western vantage point, wasn’t something that boys were supposed to even look at. It was only for girls. It was emasculating, it made you gay. For Koreans, it’s quite the opposite. In the Eastern spheres, it’s believed that taking care of your skin and your appearance builds inner confidence, which then leads to future success. It makes sense: If you own who you are from the inside out, it can help you take control of your life, propel you where you want to go.
I think that now more than ever, it’s so important to have empowering places for men and women to celebrate who they are and want to become.
It’s funny, then, that this message of men’s beauty has finally trickled over to the West, almost two decades later. There’s the YouTube Beauty Boys who have courageously — and beautifully — taken the internet by storm. CoverGirl’s first CoverBoy James Charles is paving a way for boys and girls and everyone in between to express themselves however they’d like. And there’s also my website, Very Good Light, one of the first sites dedicated to men’s beauty. After years of being an editor at various publications, I decided to go out on my own last October and launch a new hub to empower a new generation of men. Through beauty, I believe, you can achieve that self-confidence. It worked for me.
It’s the exact mantra my Tiger Mother inculcated into my head every day. While the provincial world of Colorado might have been a harsh place, it was in no way a comparison to my strong Korean mother who sloughed any sense of weakness out of me. Literally.
The process I’m referring to is one every Korean child has endured, to varying degrees of pain — one that involves an exfoliating mitt that’s dragged up and down your body after you've soaked in a tub of very hot water, until your skin turns a rosy steamed-lobster red. While Korean spas are now an attraction in every major city across the world (New York City, for one, has dozens), this treatment was a normal weekly ritual in my household. In a Korean mother’s ongoing quest to help her offspring build thick, tough skin (both figuratively and literally), scrubbing, though painful, depleted the body of any dead cells too feeble for the real world, revealing a supple, glowing complexion. Beauty didn’t end with scrubbing, though. Every other day after school, Tiger Mother instructed me to lay on my back while she massaged every last pore on my face with thick layers of foreign creams, primping and pampering every millimeter until I radiated to perfection. Being an overachiever, it didn’t end with face masks. Oh, no! My mother also adhered to a strict daily regimen my sister and I were required to abide by. In the mornings, we’d wash our faces followed by applying three dollops of “essence,” (in the Western world we know them as serums), to open our pores. Then came moisturizer, which we’d pat into our skin until we couldn’t see it on the surface any longer. No morning was complete without painting our faces white with Shiseido SPF 50, the final step in the 15-minute process. My mother would even do a quick rearview mirror check in the car to see if our faces were completely slathered before giving us the okay to leave for school.
In retrospect, having that sacred time to myself every day became my method of self-preservation. School was tough, and being an adolescent — especially one who didn’t blend in — was brutal. But being able to feel confident in your own skin was my mother’s greatest lesson all along. With every taunt and jab my peers would throw my way, I’d simply splash it away later that night with some Laneige Balancing Emulsion toner. With every “Ching chong chang!” “Chink!” “Go back to your country!” there was a gooey botanical night cream from AmorePacific that made me heal. In retrospect, this entire process of skin care was never about products or nightly rituals with various creams. What my Tiger Mom was teaching me all along was being disciplined in practicing self-care and love on the daily. As a grown man inching toward 30, who’s been discriminated against in more ways than one, I’m constantly reminding myself of the power my mother’s traditions gave me.
My own Tiger Mother was the youngest of seven children who grew up in poverty-stricken Yeoju, a small farm town outside of Seoul. Having barely graduated high school (after yelling and pleading for her family to send her), she grew up without the means for skin care I had. There was no access to silly things like SPF when you could barely find your next meal. Because of that, my mother developed more freckles and sunspots than she is comfortable with, the harsh Korean sun searing her complexion. Now nearing her 60s, she’s saddened by the wrinkles that are developing on her porcelain face. “If only I could have afforded skin care,” she’d lament. “That’s why you can’t be like me! Put on that night cream!”
Today, I’m fortunate enough that I’m secure in my own skin and I know exactly who I am. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for hundreds of thousands of young men out there. It’s obvious there’s a disconnect between societal pressures on young men with issues of fraught masculinity. (An astonishing 79% of teen deaths by suicide are boys.) Which is why I hope my website, Very Good Light, can be a safe space for young men to learn about practicing self-care and love, lessons my mother instilled in me. It’s this belief that beauty is more than skin deep that inspires me every day to educate through daily posts on the website.
I think that now more than ever, it’s so important to have empowering places for men and women to celebrate who they are and want to become. In President Trump era, bullies, like the ones from my childhood, are rampant. The racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-semitism that we’ve witnessed is as horrifying as it is heartbreaking. At uncertain times like these, I can’t help but conjure my Tiger Mother and her early lessons. It’s funny to think about it now, but it’s almost as if my mother prepared me all of my life for Trump’s win, a moment of time where I really did need to channel my inner strength, that very good light. So I slough the pain that’s thrown at me through spiteful rhetoric, sometimes with a Tom Ford exfoliator or with the exfoliating mitt from childhood. I’ll nourish my raw tear-soaked face with a Sulwhasoo night cream, to soothe me through the process. I’ll confront who I am in that mirror, like I did as an adolescent, growing up not quite fully knowing what was ahead. And I’ll realize that I’m still me. Still the same guy with the thick, straight, jet-black hair; that yellow skin; those deep, almond-shaped eyes. Only this time, resilient, ready to get my hands — and face — dirty. I’m ready to work. For more ways to live magically this year, read this essay about setting aside fear and finally making changes, or Stacy London's inspiring vow to give her safe permission to take the space she needs.