“Barbie (with pearl necklace)” by South African artist Marlene Dumas – 1997


There is a beautiful woman I see nearly every morning during my walk. Her hair is the shade of honey-infused lemon and I haven’t been able to discern the color of her eyes, but I’m guessing they’re blue. Slim, with delicate, symmetrical facial features and perfectly shiny, unfrizzy hair (I’m a bit obsessed with shiny, unfrizzy hair, if you haven’t noticed – my own tresses are channeling Einstein’s), she looks like an aristocratic, polished Barbie. I’ve never seen her smile, but I’d bet my mother’s prized costume jewelry collection that her teeth are blindingly white. She’s probably in her mid-twenties, give or take a few and puts a lot of effort into her appearance, you can tell. And she’s good at it. I love the crimson coat she sometimes pairs with her pretty black scuff-less boots — it’s a bold color that suits her. The chilly morning air flatteringly reddens her cheeks to almost match her coat and I can easily imagine her riding a thoroughbred amid some manicured estate with her handsome beau.

Then I catch myself. I assume so much in just the thirty seconds it takes for us to pass each other. I create an entire lifestyle for her, even a past and a future. Most notably, I assume that because she’s beautiful, she must be happy. Maybe she is. After all, there are plenty of research studies to uphold the theory that attractive people are happier. And of course, there are plenty of research studies that confirm the opposite.

It doesn’t really matter either way since this woman has no direct impact on my life, but I’m amused by my tendency to create stories for people, particularly for the ones who fall into the societal definition of gorgeous. It’s a fun pastime as long as it doesn’t become a self-defeating comparison game. There’s always the danger of comparing my insides to others’ outsides, as the saying goes.


Times have changed. Back when I was a tween, I scoured magazines searching for girls that looked like me. Diversity amounted to including a brunette white girl amid a sea of blondes — the kinds strikingly similar to the woman I see in the morning — and I remember feeling sad about the shape of my eyes, the yellow tint of my skin. In time, a fetishized, “exotic” set of Asian models emerged on the runways, but they were even harder to relate to. All this was pre-internet, though I actually think the spawn of instant access to the glut of information and images might be more harmful for girls these days.

K attends a school where being bi-racial is practically the norm. I’m biased of course, but I think these mixed kids are beautiful on a whole new level, their identities complex and multi-layered. K likes to say she’s half-Japanese, half-Indiana. This is a cool portrait project featuring multi-racial families, created by Sweet Fine Day.


Last year I read a YA science fiction novel called Uglies that kept me up all night. It was set in the future, naturally, in a time when all children are born “ugly” and they live in anticipation of their sixteenth birthday when they can become “pretty” via massive cosmetic and genetic reconstruction. Their so-called re-birth culminates in cohabitation with all the other pretties across town. Uglies spend vast amounts of time planning their hair color, face shape and other physical attributes. The book made me think of the proliferation of cosmetic surgery in Korea and Brazil and my hometown Los Angeles. Korea, in particular, came to mind where cosmetic surgery is taken to extremes through a popular procedure that involves restructuring the jaw bone. I have to admit that the themes of conformity and the overemphasis on superficiality felt unsettlingly prescient. But it’s also an addictive read with a relatable heroine who bucks the norm.

I’m not sure why I decided to write about that, but I’m clearly avoiding sewing my Ginger skinny jeans. Maybe I’ll make better progress next week. Fingers crossed.

P.S. The image above is actually a postcard/birthday card that was part of a gift I received one year from two friends who also have multi-racial kids. It plopped out of a box I happened to open right after I finished writing this post, and seemed like kismet.

16 thoughts on “Beauty

  1. I looked at the Uglies novel in a bookstore and I decided not to read it. It seemed somewhat disturbingly realistic. Anyways, I am sure the woman you saw is very happy and beautiful. Maybe you will talk to her one day and get back to us on that. She probably cannot ride her thoroughbred to work, though I am sure she has one.

    I am Asian too and I grew up thinking similar things as those things you mention. When all the criteria for beauty are presented in a checklist like that – blond hair, white skin, etc. I felt kind of unattractive. I decided to be the smart one instead. Ha ha! I have also heard of a study that asserted that attractive people are smarter. Whenever I mention this to others, most people are rather scornful of this theory, but no one wants to mention as examples ugly people who are smart or vice versa. As if thT would prove anything. Ah these studies! Kind of like those quizzes in the magazines.

    Anyways, I am not sure I have really come to terms with my slanty eyes. These ideals of beauty which were so prevalent during my formative years have really had a lasting effect.

    1. The Uglies series is disturbingly realistic! At least the underlying concepts are…

      And ha, it would be so funny if the woman rode up on her thoroughbred! I’d nod knowingly.

      I have a feeling that regardless of ethnic background, most girls felt and currently feel some sort of dissonance between the beauty ideal presented at large and their own sense of self. I think there’s more “diversity” represented these days, but is it just me, or do they still all look sort of the same?

  2. I enjoyed this “mediatation” on Beauty. I am Chinese and immigrated to Canada as a child. I grew up often as the only Chinese at school (besides my little brother). On top of the weirdness I was always tall, very tall. As an adult I am almost 6 feet so I grew up as a double freak of nature.! The definition of beauty then was definitely of the blue-eyed variety. But even if I was to compare myself to the “typical” Chinese beauty then (small Susie Wong type) I did not fit.

    We do tend to create stories for other people. I can think of the stories people imagined of me, then told me after they got to know me that they were surprised I was so different than their stories! 😉

    I think while the fact that diversity in beauty is celebrated now, I am dismayed at how society seems to worship beauty before anything else.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Melissa! My brother and I were often the only Asian student at the many elementary schools we attended so I can relate! And at almost six feet, you must have been striking! I so agree with your last statement. I do think there’s this obsession with external beauty at the cost of developing character that gets my goat (wait, is that the right cliche?). Wise woman you are, Melissa!

      1. Sanae, when kids are growing up I think they just all want to belong and not be singled out. For me I suppose being called ‘the jolly green giant’ was better than being called a ‘chink’! The “luck” of being tall and slim did not dawn on me till I graduated from college and got a real job and could buy clothes and realized I was born to wear all these lovely things. lol! I wrote a post about my return to sewing that looks back at my past as well.

        I really enjoy visiting your blog. I agree that mixed race kids are quite beautiful. I am biased too as my son is half German. Your daughter, I can tell, is a beauty!

        Enjoy your day, rain or shine!

        1. Thank you, Melissa, I so enjoyed reading your post and congrats on early retirement! And you’re so right — the desire to belong is universal, for kids and beyond, I think. I also agree that clothes are emotional and expressive. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forevermore: clothes have great power. I truly believe this.:-) I hope you’re enjoying your day as well!

  3. as a young girl, i was an avid babysitter’s club reader. to me, ann m. martin’s description of claudia (her almond-shaped eyes and fab sense of day-glo style) impressed upon my little white girl living in the suburbs self that asian girls were absoultely beautiful! i’m sorry you (and your two commenters above) didn’t feel that for yourselves because i was always jealous that i didn’t have more “exoticism” to my own look. haha.

    i’ve never felt like the type of girl/woman that is ever totally “put together” (my shoes are always scuffed, my hair is always messy) either. i would hear about classmates in high school waking up at 4:30 to get ready in the morning and thought to myself – NO WAY. i would rather sleep, throw on some jeans and flip flops, and go to school. i do want to see what happens if you ever, by chance, talk to this gal you see though. will she be self-obsessed and insufferable? will she be super sweet? i want to know!

    1. Oh how ironic, Kristin! I need to check out this Babysitter’s Club Reader – I want K to read it! And yikes, 4:30am???? Now that’s commitment. I once shared a room at a conference with a sweet woman, and she showed me how to apply make-up so that it doesn’t look like she’s wearing any at all. It took her hours! I didn’t have the stamina or motivation to look “naturally” beautiful and stuck to my lip gloss and badly and obviously applied concealer routine. 😉

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for your link to the interesting photo project. Being Korean and married to a Caucasian I am hyper sensitive to my daughters’ biracial ethnicity. I won’t ever forget trying to help my 8 year old navigate a “check which box applies” form for her ethnicity. I tried to help her choose the correct box but she had me beat and said hurriedly, “I already know, mommy. I’m half Kotean and half Fort Wayne (Indiana)!”

    1. Oh, that’s great Clista! My husband’s mother is from Fort Wayne, and I’ve visited before! I’m so glad you found this post interesting – thank you so much for your comment. 🙂

  5. I do the same “making up a life” or summing a judgement about people. Then I attended a formation retreat at my job where on the first day we wrote down in a journal the most powerful thing (negative or positive) that altered and shaped our lives. Wow. When we shared these (no one knew we would share in small groups) every story I had imagined was wrong so wrong. My whole perspective of each person was completely altered in the course of a year. I was ashamed that I had summed anyone up without even knowing them. I rembember that experience when I catch myself now and am thankful for your story to remind me again…..

    1. I’m so curious, Anita: what is a formation retreat? And that’s fascinating how every story was so different from the assumptions! I constantly try to question my assumptions, and I find that it makes interactions a lot easier for me when I remember to do that. I forget all the time though! 🙂

  6. I think there are very few people in this world that don’t want to change something about themselves. I grew up wanting to have blonde curly hair instead of the boring brown and straight I have. When I became older I wanted different things because my world got bigger. Now I would love to have a yellow tint to my skin or just about any other color than the really, really pale that almost goes transparent in wintertime. Ultimately I think we are all looking at each other, envying something or making up stories on how we think their life is.

    Uglies sounds like a book that gets you to think. I think I need to dig up my Kindle and start reading again 🙂 .

    Nice blog post!

    1. Thank you Gerdur! Uglies will definitely make you think…I liked the first book more than the second and third ones, but they’re all pretty well-written. And yes! The grass is always greener, isn’t it? I’m glad I’m getting older because I care less and less about the way I look, but I watch my daughter preening in front of the mirror and my heart hurts a little to know that it will be near impossible to prevent the self-consciousness and fixation on appearance that seems to be an inevitable part of adolescence (and oftentimes adulthood).

  7. Love K’s “half Japanese, half Indiana” assessment:) Love more, however, that she has fully embraced her multi-ethnicity and is not only comfortable with it, but celebrates it. I hope the same for my own adopted daughter who happens to share her life with a very Dutch looking family. It is my prayer that she fully embraces her own Asian ethnicity while also not buying into the “blonde/blue eyed” stereotype of beauty. One of the reasons I pre-ordered your book was to have literature available with strong Asian protagonists.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on beauty. I worry about what I am projecting to both my girls about what is considered “beautiful” and hoping that they know their true worth outside of their physical appearance. Easier said than done for all of us, I suspect.

    1. I’m certain that you’re an amazing role model, Lucinda and that’s the best way kids learn, in my opinion. And I’ll just have to create more books with strong Asian female characters! 😉

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