As an Asian-American woman who has dabbled in the film and television industry for some time now, I can personally attest to the multitude of challenges Asian-American women are met with on a daily basis when it comes to beauty standards. From casting calls, and cattle calls, to call backs, and actual on-screen representation, the industry’s knowledge of Asian-American actresses (and models) is, as Chinese supermodel Liu Wen told Vogue recently, “quite limited.” On both personal and professional levels, Asian-Americans are still met with racial barriers every direction we choose to go — which, of course, does wonders to our confidence and self-esteem (usually not in the best of ways).
Unfortunate as it may be, narrow opinions of beauty are still a big factor when it comes to success — particularly in the fashion and entertainment industries, where ideals of who may or may not be “beautiful” lay rigidly inside a tiny standardized box. For years now, both media-entrenched environments have faced enormous obstacles when it comes to diversifying their playing field and welcoming in people who don’t fit the “super-white” status quo — just take one look at Forbes’ list of highest paid models and you’ll see what I mean. Simply put, it’s no secret that women of color have a much more difficult time working their way to the top, and though both industries have taken great strides in breaking racial barriers in the last couple of decades, there is still a long way to go. But it also means that when women like Liu Wen break through it is much, much more than just one woman’s success story.
In her Vogue interview, Wen opens up about her journey to success, beginning with her all-too-relatable childhood in southern China, where she of all people was not considered beautiful, largely because in China they were influenced by Western standards of beauty. “People in my hometown seldom called me piao liang,” she says. “Because my smaller eyes were a far cry from the wide irises of the most beloved television actresses. Further, I was tall and awkward and tended to dress more androgynously as comfort was always my priority.” She was playfully given the nickname “Mulan,” as she blended in much more easily with her male counterparts. Yet, as she learned to “tower” over her classmates, Wen seemed to happily accept that being “outwardly ‘beautiful’ was never in [her] destiny.” But being confident was.
Her star rose from there though and in 2010, Wen became the first Asian woman to become the face of Estee Lauder’s global brand. Within theVogue piece, she shares with readers her experiences working in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the fashion industry was a lot less accepting of Wen when she first arrived onto the scene — the stereotypes of Asian women as dainty and submissive were still embedded deeply within the Western culture, and new depictions of “adventurous, assertive, career-oriented women” Asian women were difficult for some to embrace.
But what makes Wen’s rise to stardom so inspiring is that it shows we are slowly (but finally) entering a time where individuals who do not embody traditional ideals of beauty in this country, can also become as celebrated and respected as those who do. There has certainly been a change in perspective, and for Wen, her big break in the industry is so much more than just a personal accomplishment, it’s an affirmation that persistence and confidence can and should serve as reflections of our beauty.
Beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and we are happily in an era when many different perspectives are given weight. I’m happy to be working at a time when profound changes are ever-so-gradually occurring, especially in the worlds of entertainment and fashion. I’m blessed to be living in an era where a variety of cultures and heritages, as well as modern ideals such as independence and self-confidence, have become more widely accepted than ever before. We all should be, and we should strive every single day to break down every last remaining wall. Our generation can do that, I have total faith.
Pamela Chan was born and raised in sunny Los Angeles. She writes, acts, and is a recent graduate of USC Annenberg’s Arts Journalism Program. For more of her thoughts, follow her on Twitter and on her blog.
(Image , Liu Wen for Zara.)