Not Your Token Asian logo

It’s Time To Own Our Beauty: Meet Michelle Lee, Not Your Token Asian‘s Guest Editor

At 19, I was a green and eager intern at the local alt-weekly newspaper near my college in Florida. My main duties consisted of collecting faxes from the local movie theaters and retyping them for the upcoming issue’s movie listings (talk about obsolete jobs). A few months into it, I was feeling extra ambitious and decided to write a totally unsolicited op-ed, printed it up, and slipped it under the editor-in-chief’s door at night (because that’s what we did in the ‘90s, kids). 
Without a single note, she ran it. It was my first published story ever and it was about a topic that I wouldn’t write about again for another two decades: racism against Asians. 
Looking back at the early parts of my editorial career, I feel some pangs of embarrassment and regret that I tried to ignore my own Asianness for so long. Some of it was rooted in a deep childhood pain that I was able to untangle in therapy — we’ll talk about that another time. But the rest of it was just…that was life. This might sound silly by today’s standards but as a junior editor at major magazines in the late 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t even think it was possible to center myself or my culture in stories. It’s like that saying, you can’t be what you can’t see. In my first decade as an editor, I maybe saw three other Asians. Three. Can you even imagine? I didn’t see it and definitely didn’t think I could be it.

"We are in a new wave of coming into our power…and owning our beauty. "

When I became Editor-in-Chief of Allure in 2015, I made a real effort to center underrepresented voices, including Asian American Pacific Islander stories (for the 28 years before me, there had only been two AAPI Allure cover stars; during my six-year tenure, we added another 10). Out of everything in my career, one of my proudest accomplishments is that I’ve been able to shine a light on our awesome community.
So when Refinery 29 Beauty Director Sara Tan asked me to guest-edit this special first-ever beauty-themed Not Your Token Asian, I was so honored and excited — I’ve been a fan of this series ever since it started in 2018 for its fresh, thought-provoking take on AAPI stories. 
As a community, we have so many stories that have been tucked away just below the surface of the mainstream for so long. The more we share, the more we have the opportunity to be fascinated by how different we are, but also how much we might have in common. When I read Refinery29 Entertainment Director’s Melissah Yang’s essay about her complicated relationship with winged eyeliner, I was struck by the similarity in our stories. Like Melissah, I also — finally! — learned how to do makeup on my monolids late in life from YouTuber Jen Chae, founder of From Head to Toe, who doesn’t get enough praise as a trailblazer. 
Yes, our community has struggled with lack of visibility in the past but AAPI founders, influencers, artists and others make up a powerful bloc in the beauty industry. (We also happen to be the highest spending group of beauty consumers, according to NielsenIQ.) While we’re still treated like minorities in the U.S., we are the global majority: Asians make up about 60 percent of the world’s population.
We are in a new wave of coming into our power…and owning our beauty.  We’ll be rolling out more stories over the course of this month, from the Asian nail artists leading the industry to debunking the myth that all Asian hair looks the same — but will continue to prioritize AAPI stories year round. 
I can see it so clearly now. Can you?

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series