Beauty?

“But why do I have to wear it?!  It’s ugly and uncomfortable!!!” I whined.  “It’s not fair!  Davie doesn’t have to get dressed up!!  Mommmm, the dress gives me a rash!”

My mother said nothing but gently shook her head and gave me the stern look.  It was useless.  I had to don the stockings with the poofy blue monstrosity.  I glared at my smirking brother in his pressed shorts, white dress shirt, and clip-on tie.  At least one of my mother’s children looked cute.

I hated wearing dresses.  As a tomboy growing up in the 80s, vivid nightmares of tulle and pastels haunted me.  The scratchy dresses were always paired with airtight white stockings resulting in a permanent wedgie, along with squeaky patent-leather Mary Janes—an unholy trifecta of itchiness that resulted in hours of awkward squirming.  Easters, weddings, piano recitals always began with my dress tantrums.  I still have a strong aversion to frilly things (shudder!) though my adult mind can now appreciate the theoretical relationship between effort and appearance.  At least that proportional relationship holds true for most of us not blessed with natural good looks.  Effort counts, and I didn’t learn this until after I graduated from college.

Maybe the blame falls on the insidious brainwashing of the Disney Princess upon unsuspecting young girls who don’t consciously realize that the Disney heroine is always pretty on the outside.  Ever since I was a kid, I naively thought, “True beauty lies within.”  That’s what all the stories tell us.  Unfortunately the realization that “beauty actually lies in plain sight” came to me much later than for most other girls.  I was basically an adult when I learned the truth.

My fashionable Aunt Alice would always urge me to make more of an effort in my appearance.  When I was back in Asia visiting family over the summer every two or three years, she would be very generous and take me under her wing to see her hairstylist and buy me new clothes.  She only had sons and spoiled me as a surrogate daughter.  The summer after I graduated from college, she did the usual hair and clothes routine, but then took me to another stylist for a one-on-one make-up class.  She thought it was high time I learned how to “do my face” properly.

At 22, I figured I had developed a sense of authenticity: What you see is what you get.  I had my share of boyfriends in college and most importantly, I had been following my own secret rule about finding True Love.  If beauty really lay within, then I took the formula one step further so that only one worthy of True Love would be able to see past superficial appearances into your soul to find your true inner beauty.  It was an internalized Disney fable where my shining Prince would hack his way past the thorny briars of my physical appearance to finally glimpse and appreciate my real self.

My Aunt stared at me incredulously mouth agape as I explained my theory to her.

“That’s the most naïve thing I’ve heard.  No one will ever notice you let alone see your ‘soul’ unless they find you mildly appealing on the outside first!  Appearances are important in the real world!” she exclaimed.

“And good make-up is going to help me?”

“Good make-up is a matter of decorum.  If you don’t use it, you’re being rude to the people around you.  You need to be beautiful outside and inside.”

“But this all seems fake,” I protested.

“Angela, there is no such thing as an ugly woman on Earth, only a lazy one.”

I relented and took the (very helpful) make-up lesson.  But inside, I refused to give into superficiality.  A year later, I found myself having nearly the same conversation in graduate school with Jae, a male classmate.

“You know you’re a decent-looking girl in terms of Yale Standards.  Oh and by the way, Angel-ahh, that wasn’t a compliment.”

My immediate response was first embarrassment then offense.  I felt my cheeks burn and the blood rush to the tip of my ears as I choked down the mouthful of instant udon soup noodles.  We were sitting in the dormitory kitchen eating dinner.  I didn’t think he was explicitly trying to insult me, but perhaps had a hint of undiagnosed Asperger’s.

“Why thank you, Jae.  You are also above-average in terms of the Yale Standard,” I guffawed after recovering from the errant udon noodle stuck down my windpipe.  A lie, but a weak comeback is better than no comeback.

Jae audibly verbalized exactly what he thought most of the time.  He was eccentric and skipped a lot of class.  An international student from Seoul, Jae wasn’t exactly handsome with squinty eyes hiding behind thick glasses, a receding hairline, and bad teeth.  He knew he wasn’t good-looking and he didn’t care.  We had a few classes together and became friends mostly because we lived on the same floor of Helen Hadley Hall, an ugly red brick dormitory on Temple Street that housed poor graduate students in New Haven.

After six months at Yale, I had already surveyed much of the general “talent” on campus.  There were a few archetypical preppie J. Crew model-types.  But most students—and particularly the graduate students—were largely on the geeky, freakish-looking side.  I was surprised at the high proportion of non-attractive people at Yale relative to the large west coast state school I had attended as an undergrad.  Beauty and Brains are mutually exclusive and the corollary held true.  And unfortunately for me, graduate school was supposed to be the Mecca of the dating world.

Some of us attend graduate school in search of Truth or to gain a deeper understanding of a certain subject or profession.  I went to graduate school with some of those aspirations, but I mainly went with hopes of finding Love.  Secretly, the unspoken reasons of why single people go to grad school are: 1) To take a long, justifiable sabbatical from the real world, and 2) To mingle and date fellow graduate students who have already passed the admission hurdle, and who happen to be as equally charming, attractive and intelligent as ourselves.

As a friend with zero mutual romantic attraction, I suppose Jae was trying to help me in his unique way, much like my hip Aunt Alice had tried the summer before.

“You should learn to do better make-up.  You’re spending all this money at Yale on useless academic topics.  But at your age, you should be looking for a husband.  In real life, guys are focused on how girls look!”  Jae scoffed.  “Back in Seoul, girls spend a fortune on make-up classes and plastic surgery.  But you American girls don’t even bother to wear make-up and go to class in sweats!”

He epitomized the double-standard between men and women, but continued to warn me about the perils of becoming a “Christmas Cake” that would expire after age 25.

Those poor Korean girls, I thought to myself.  Thank God I’m Chinese.  Finishing up my dinner, I tried to ignore Jae’s offensive comments, but he brought up the same points about effort that my Aunt had emphasized the summer before.  Maybe I should wear contacts and make-up more often.

Jae toned it down in conclusion.  “Yes, make-up is crucial!  But there may still be hope for you.  You’re not exactly young anymore, but you know yourself and you are funny.  There’s still time.”

That was good to know, but I still wasn’t ready to totally abandon my sweats and glasses.

*****

The Spa Day is sacrosanct to the Hong Kong woman.  After all, it’s a priority to try to repair the workweek damage done to your face from the ravages of sleep depravation, particularly as you age.  Eyebags and crows feet are no joke to the single career woman over the age of 30, particularly if she still wants to find a man.  I never understood Spa culture until I moved to Hong Kong where Saturday morning Spa-ing is a competitive national sport, along with shopping and eating.

If you look carefully at a sample of Hong Kong women, you will notice that many of them boast beautiful, flawless, milky-white skin—translucent to the extent that you cannot reasonably tell how old they are.  Why do Asian women scuttle about like insects from shade patch to shade patch armed with UV-reflecting parasols and Darth Vader-like masks?  To avoid the Sun’s evil rays, which cause unsightly freckles, liver spots, and premature wrinkling.  Growing up in the US, I never understood the Asian obsession with pale skin.  A bronzed tan seemed to be what everyone was going for in the States.

But all the Hong Kong TV and print commercials are full of facial whitening products.  I recall my high school days, when my Grandmother saw me after a summer of tennis.  She shrieked in despair when she saw me: “Aiyaaah!  What have you done?!… You look like a field coolie who’s been doing hard labor!  Why are you so daaaark?”

My best friend in Hong Kong (who has successfully attained the Asian nirvana of pale poreless skin) tried to explain the mania surrounding the “whitening skincare” trend among women in Hong Kong and throughout Asia: “There’s no guarantee that you’ll be born with a beautiful face, but having great skin is like a trump card.  You can’t hide perfect skin, it just glows.”

I was working a lot of hours and my skin was looking pretty bad.  While I wasn’t aiming for flawless milky-white skin, I was hoping to look less pimply and splotchy.  So I asked my friend to introduce me to her Spa, the Beauty Clinic.

I walked into the Spa and signed up for a number of packages and skin treatments.  Much work was needed and much money was spent.  The subsequent six Saturday mornings were booked for facials, extractions and eye treatments.  It was painful, but at the end of six weeks, my skin looked significantly better.

At the end of the treatments, I decided to try a set of eyelash extensions.  Caucasians have no idea what it’s like to have Chinese eyelashes.  We Chinese women pine for your beautiful long curvy lashes as most of us are stuck with short, straight, barely visible lashes.  Mascara and the eyelash curler help, but the result is fleeting.  Enter the eyelash extension where a skilled technician individually glues fake eyelashes (made of plastic or mink) to your natural eyelashes one by one.  The process takes about 2 hours and lasts 2 weeks.  It can cost up to $300 US dollars to apply and $150 dollars every other week to maintain the lashes.  You can’t really wash your face or blink properly until the fake lashes are chemically removed.

Beauty is pain.

After my first date with my husband, he later told me he noticed my “eyelashes.”  My Aunt and Jae were half-right: people do notice effort and appearances, but there’s much more to True Love than first impressions of beauty.  It was only after we got to know each other beyond appearances that we fell in love.

My wedding day was the last time I had eyelash extensions done and wore tulle. I’m really hoping I won’t have to wear either again. But it was also the day where all of my own personal Disney Princess fantasies came true.  But as soon as the whole thing was over, I was happy to be back in my glasses and sweats.

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