"I do not feel represented in these campaigns. I feel used."

Jennifer Li
Feb 12, 2021 @ 11:50 am
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Credit: Getty Images

The world we live in shapes how we view ourselves—and how others view us. But what happens when there's a mismatch between cultural narratives and individual identities? In our monthly series The Blend, writers from multicultural backgrounds discuss the moment that made them think differently about these dominant narratives—and how that affects their lives.

I was in fourth grade when I realized I was one of the only children in my class who celebrated a second New Year. My white classmates were baffled by why I would celebrate a second new year when there was clearly only one new year. As soon I mentioned home-cooked Chinese food and red pockets (a traditional gift for children filled with lucky money), they all squawked with excitement. However, when I would try to explain how my family would make baked glutinous rice cakes with red bean paste, exactly four sweet glutinous rice balls for luck, and traditional kowtowing, all my classmates could focus on was lo-mein, crab rangoon, and money. But the Lunar New Year was more than just about food and money. It was an opportunity for my Chinese immigrant parents to gather with nearby Chinese families and communally celebrate their heritage with their children. 

It was the dads working at the dumpling station, while the mothers eschewed the tradition of the adults eating first, so the children could get the best and juiciest pieces of the New Year's feast. It was playing Super Smash Bros. for hours with the other Chinese kids. It was a glimpse into the thousands of years of Chinese heritage I had but struggled to access. The Lunar New Year was a way to connect to my family's culture. That was until I started seeing Lunar New Year releases from brands everywhere I looked.

The Lunar New Year has provided a convenient marketing opportunity for fashion and beauty brands to appeal to the Asian market. Special Lunar New Year editions of their products are released or repackaged with a distinctly East Asian aesthetic: cinnabar red; emperor's gold; the yearly animal, paper-cutting-styled patterns, and peonies. You could even get a value set of lipsticks, aptly named after an easily recognizable Chinese (specifically Chinese) tradition—think Lion's Dance or Red Lantern. As a Chinese-American who throws a lot of money at the beauty industry every year, it's a little baffling to spend 11 months out of the year resenting how infrequently I see an Asian model in any fashion or beauty campaign until it's the Lunar New Year. During this time, everywhere I go, I can't escape vermillion-color palettes, koi-fish-patterned Air Jordans, and ingot-gold highlighter.

For one holiday in the year, it seems like every marketing firm budgets out an East Asian aesthetic campaign in honor of the biggest holiday for Asian-Americans like me. But I do not feel represented in these campaigns. I feel used.

Like with other minorities, Asian-Americans have been ignored and unrepresented by the beauty industry. When I look back at my childhood and adolescence, the longing and resentment that sat in my throat whenever I saw an eyeshadow advertisement with solely white models could have choked me. The rare inclusion of an Asian model felt tokenistic and contrived, almost like I was being thrown a bone for the sake of diversity. It didn't help that the models all had the features stereotyped with Asians: natural fox eyes, monolids, waifish figures, fair skin, and long straight hair. These models were beautiful, but they didn't represent the full spectrum of Asian-American women in my tiny community. These models didn't represent the steady, strong hands of immigrant mothers or their sun-tanned children. It only reinforced the idea that beauty brands only saw one kind of Asian women—the mysteriously exotic kind.

The Chinese-American mothers who acted as my mother's community were not mysteriously exotic models, but beautiful women who bridged the gap between Chinese culture and their bi-cultural children. When the Lunar New Year came around, they gathered forces to stuff all of the kids full of homemade goodies: one mother came with homemade steamed buns, another would come with cold spicy noodles. My mother would come with braised wheat gluten and simmered tofu skin rolls stuffed with black wood ear and shiitake mushrooms. While I watched them prepare troughs of food, it struck me how celebrations like these would normally be celebrated by a single clan coming together. But the families at our celebrations had come in smaller fragments that had to stick together to find a small piece of home in a foreign country. 

But it's not just about the exoticized underrepresentation of Asian-American women in the beauty industry that offends me—it's the way all visual storytelling industries have repeatedly appropriated Asian culture for a trend or aesthetic and ignored their outrage.

Fenty Beauty's Moroccan Spice campaign did not include a single Moroccan woman and leaned heavily on orientalist imagery (Fenty Beauty wasn't available for retail in Morocco at the time). Poppy Delevingne came to the Chinese-themed 2015 Met Gala decked out in silky poppy flowers and said that she came dressed as "opium." Last year's fox eye trend was brought to mainstream popularity by white models like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, despite how Asian-Americans had spent years being disparaged and discriminated against for their natural eye shape. Sex educator Kim Anami appropriated pretty much every orientalist stereotype she could find for her music video Vagina Kung Fu, so she could promote her yoni egg class. These unfortunately common incidents faced two outcomes: the brand would either apologize before going on to further perpetuate racism, or the protests of Asian-Americans were ignored. As an Asian-American, I'm used to either one of these things happening without much fanfare, and I am thoroughly sick of that narrative.

So, I say to all brands: to have Lunar New Year memories and customs reduced to just a seasonal aesthetic for brands to make a quick buck off of isn't just frustrating, but hurtful. It's like the offensive cherry on top of years of underrepresentation, repeated appropriation, and monolithic ideas of Asian-Americans. If you want to show us that you love us and you hear us, represent all of us more in your campaigns—Prabal Gurung's 2018 "Stronger in Color'' campaign was a celebration of Asian diversity. Understand that Asian-American means more than just being Chinese, it's Taiwanese, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Thai, Malaysian, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese—and more! And definitely don't just pigeonhole us to one part of the year. For beauty corporations, the Lunar New Year might just be a convenient money grab, but for Chinese-Americans, it's a celebration of history, culture, heritage, and family. 2021 is the year of the metal ox, which is characterized as sensitive, honest, and unprejudiced: in the spirit of this year's zodiac, please do better.