My Asian American Body Image Story
How I fell in love with fashion, and how I came to terms with my body size.
Growing up in old Katy and being the only Asian in my elementary school meant that I was a needle in a haystack. Extremely different, but able to blend in anyways - it was primary school after all, no fifth grader is going to sit around analyzing racial differences. The celebrities and pop idols we modeled ourselves after were, naturally, Caucasian. I never thought about the fact that I was literally of another ethnicity, and that it would be impossible to eventually look exactly like Hillary Duff. All I knew was that once I got my period, I would start looking like all of those TV celebrities (remember, non-Asian TV celebrities): tall, tan and blonde.
My junior high was a whole other world, as Asians were the majority minority. I had never seen so many Asian students in my life, and I honestly didn't know they existed in suburbia Katy! There were girls here who looked similar to me! Or at least, were supposed to look similar to me, as we were all Asian, right? And yet, I still took pride in the fact that my hair was lighter (reddish brown instead of black) and my eyes were larger (the contrast between slit eyes and round eyes were much more noticeable once I was around East Asians.) Even my skin was a little tanner. I looked more 'American' than my Asian friends.
Aside from facial and skin features, body weight was another issue. I had always been chubbier than my cousins, and also my Caucasian friends. I chalked it up to baby fat, and figured I'd start looking thin and pretty as soon as I hit puberty. In the meantime, I'd try to hide my chubbiness under clothes. Our schools didn't have uniforms but I enforced one on myself in the sixth grade, wearing only button downs and khakis/jeans. It was in stark contrast to the body fitting Abercrombie shirts, and for good reason. Button downs were loose and the look was just easy, no need to worry about the brand or having multiple shirts.
(sweater: Gap skirt: Banana Republic)
photography in this project done by Cindy Nguyen
By seventh grade, I started slimming down somehow (thanks P.E.!) and began to buy into the Abercrombie trend. At the time, the A&Fitch image was that of a beach blond, bikini and short shorts clad, almost stick-skinny chick. Throughout junior high and the ninth grade, I became more and more frustrated: my legs were too short, my shoulders too wide, my nose too tomato-like, and no matter how long I waited for puberty to work its magic, nothing was changing.
In high school, I got into the Korean pop scene. My new standard of beauty became the Korean ulzzang ("pretty face") models. Small faces, thin noses, stick skinny legs, pale pale skin. Once again, none of which I had. It wasn't until I saw an online competition to find "the next best ulzzang" as voted by the international forum, that I became enlightened. There were girls and guys of all skin colors and face shapes entering the competition, and it made me wonder: How is it possible to even pick the prettiest out of all of these people? By what exact standard are we going by? Why are we trying to apply East Asian beauty ideals to a girl from Ukraine? A boy from Chile?
This was all ridiculous, and so I left that tumblr community. I realized that all I needed to do was stay fit and dress according to my body type.
From my kpop era, I learned of Korean clothing brands and models, and got into the k-fashion industry, all through Tumblr. At the time, fashion was something that I only associated with France and New York - something very Western, not Eastern. Through Korean fashion, I realized that trends actually come from East Asia (I'll say it again: Korea did bucket hats first, DKNY) and that the style scene in Asia is much more diverse than just Harajuku. My obsession with design, specifically website/Tumblr layouts, turned into an obsession with clothing design. I appreciated clean lines and color blocks, over sized fits and androgynous cuts. Not only were they all aesthetically pleasing, but I could make these clothing styles fit with my body size.
I found out about Asian designers, followed Asian models, then eventually found the Asian-American fashion circle! From models like Soo Joo to designers like Calvin Tran, from jewelry makers like Brandy Pham to fashion bloggers like Jenn Im, I was amazed at the number of Asian-Americans in the fashion industry. Not only did these people become role models as artists and entrepreneurs, but they also became sources inspiration to be unapologetically fashionable (I'd like to think I am anyways), even with my non-runway-model body. And my Vietnamese look? Became something I learned to appreciate thanks to bloggers like Wendy Nguyen (Wendy's Look Book) and Anh (9to5 Chic.)
If you are still reading, you must be pretty bored, but thank you anyways for following my story. My hope is to one day become another fashion icon who does not look like the standard runway model or kpop idol, and help girls embrace their features. The world was made with unique individuals, all beautiful and none the ideal.
(shirt: my Dad's, how vintage of me)