In this three-part series done in partnership with The Dove Self-Esteem Project, we asked three youth leaders to have honest, candid dialogues with their mothers about what it’s like to grow up with social media, how it can damage self-esteem and lead to toxic beauty practices, and what they’ve done to rebuild their confidence. In the second installment, body-positive model and PhD student Han Na Shin speaks with her mother Ae Jin Shin about growing up in an immigrant household, the emotional toll of dealing with cyberbullies, and how she reclaimed her confidence by creating her own community. Read (and listen to) their moving dialogue, below.
The American Dream & Self-Esteem
Han Na: I grew up as a pretty chunky kid. Weight was a big thing my entire life, and growing up in a Korean American household, I was very influenced by Korean culture. Body image is a big deal in East Asian culture, like being pale, having big eyes, and a sharp jaw. A lot of people, even my close friends, get procedures done for high school graduations to look a certain way — more like Western beauty standards.
Ae Jin: America and Korea are so different. We immigrated to the states when you were three, when your dad was in the military and I was a nurse. The whole notion of the “American Dream” really sticks with you as an immigrant, and for me, it was all about choosing a better life for you.
Han Na: I know you always meant the best for me and wanted me to be the best version of myself. I remember how you would make all these home-cooked, plant-based Korean meals. We never openly talked about body image growing up — if anything, you would criticize me about my weight, but I know your comments about how I look weren't meant to be derogatory. I knew in the back of my mind you just wanted me to feel a certain way.
Ae Jin: I’m very grateful that you are the person you are now. It’s been a tough 20-odd years living in the states as an immigrant, but I think you’ve done a good job.
Han Na: I think in the last few years specifically, I’ve gained control of my self-image and have become okay with who I am. Social media, Instagram, and the community I created online really helped me achieve that.
The Perks & Pitfalls Of The Early Internet
Han Na: Back in elementary school, dad and I found one of those big block PCs thrown out on the curb and I thought, We need to take this home. It was obviously broken, but I remember seeing a blank screen and just typing random numbers and letters.
As an only child, with you and dad working full-time, the internet was like my best friend. Certain information I couldn’t talk to you or dad about, I could learn online — like the birds and the bees. What does sex look like? What is porn? I could look up information that I would feel uncomfortable asking. With immigrant parents especially, I think a lot of us first gens hold back secrets and how we behave.
Ae Jin: I never thought to limit your access to the internet. I knew you could handle your own limit and wouldn’t lose sleep staying up all night online.
Han Na: I remember when AIM [AOL Instant Messenger] came out in middle school and became the new mode of communicating with friends. In sixth grade, we were all going through puberty, and two girls — who at the time I thought were my friends — would make fun of me online and say, “You’re fat.” That took a really big toll on me emotionally.
Ae Jin: I remember that, yes.
Han Na: That was the first time I ever experienced depression and anxiety. And then the next year, I ended up transferring schools because it got that bad. I remember it was really hard in seventh grade trying to make new friends, because I was worried that that type of situation might happen again. It took a while to regain trust.
Reclaiming Confidence & Creating Community
Han Na: Instagram became a entry point for me [in turning social media into something more positive]. It's so embarrassing — I hate talking about modeling — but it all happened two or three years ago, when a creative director for a brand reached out [for a shoot]. I was like, "Yeah, I'll do it for money. I'm 22 and broke."
After that, a bunch of young Asian American women followed me and thanked me for posting this picture of myself or for working with that brand. I realized that I can be a positive influence on young Asian American women. It gave me more confidence to post my full self online, without feeling like I have to take 50 pictures and pick the best one. Now, I just take one shot and post it.
Ae Jin: If we had money growing up, I definitely would have sent you to art school, since you were always so creative growing up. That is something I regret, not being able to help you pursue your interest in the arts. But, as an immigrant, I wanted you to get a licensed job — say, a doctor or a lawyer — to make money. I still think of modeling as an internship or part-time job for you, not a full-time career, since I’m not a big fan of you having to wait for others to hire you. But, I’m excited that you’re able to take part in it, because it's something that you want to do.
Han Na: You’re being a tough mother right now, but I know you’re proud [laughs]. Really though, these past couple years have been the best of my life. I had never been to L.A. before, then all of the sudden, I would be in L.A. for a job. And the money compared to my graduate school stipend is out of this world. To some extent, I’m able to support my parents. In East Asian cultures, you gift your first job stipend to your parents — and that’s what I did after my first modeling gig. It’s a way of me being able to give something back.
Modeling has been really good for my confidence in many ways. I would've never imagined making friends or finding a sense of community in this industry — specifically for Asian American woman who look like me and have similar body types as I do.
Recognizing What's Real
Han Na: If there was one thing I wish you knew about social media, mom, it’s that everything you see online isn't really real. Most of the time, it's masked to some extent to please your audience.
Ae Jin: I don’t know what's real and what is fake online, which is why I don’t use social media. Everything seems kind of played or thought-out when you post something. There's too much misinformation online, so I don’t really trust anything I see. If I see an ad on a YouTube video or get any kind of notification, I just ignore it. (Editor’s note: For parents who want to talk to their children about the pressures of social media, but don't know where to start, download the Confidence Kit from The Dove Self-Esteem Project here.)
*Some of the dialogue is spoken in Korean.
Han Na: Ever since I started graduate school, social media has become more work-driven for me. I think of it more as a job, with different purposes across different platforms. I use Instagram mainly for modeling opportunities, whereas I use Twitter for research and tech job opportunities. I’ll leverage each platform to get the most opportunities I can gain out of them — without losing my own identity.
I really respect my privacy, so I’m very thoughtful about what information I put out there. Even this conversation right now is something that is very new and vulnerable for me to do. But it’s something I believe is important to do.
Ae Jin: Is there any advice you have for young girls growing up on social media right now?
Han Na: I really want the best for people online, specifically when it comes to online harassment, as someone who was cyberbullied herself. I suppose, be careful of what channels you use and who you communicate with. Take everything with a grain of salt. Because, like we said before, everything you see online is not real. Try not to compare yourself to other women you see online living a “better life” — because that might not be the case. Basically, stay safe, enjoy social media in a way that makes you happy, and find a community if you can, because that, for me, has been the best part about it all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.