Mirrors have saved my ass. They’ve shown me the large piece of kale wedged in my teeth no one bothered to tell me about, reassured me that Bloody Mary is just a boozy beverage, not a ghost, and confirmed to me that NO ONE looks good in a club bathroom (and I mean no one). And although mirrors reflect reality, they can also distort the truth; a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way.
High school was a shithole, that much I remember. An abyss of disproportionate limbs, horrifying yearbook photos, severely problematic language and clouds of Axe and Victoria’s Secret body spray wherever you went. It was a pungent, hormonal battlefield of insecure adolescents and hierarchical power trips. As an incoming freshman, was I worried? Surprisingly, no. I recently had my braces removed, hit a growth spurt which catapulted me to six feet, and could see faint signs of facial hair along my jawline. Did I mention my sister was an upperclassman? No one could touch me. Nothing could tear me down. Or so I thought. As I stumbled into the bathroom one morning, I looked in the mirror and my heart sank. Peppered across my forehead, nose and cheeks were large clusters of angry red bumps. Maybe I pissed off a family of mosquitos, I thought. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and upon closer examination, realized that wasn’t the case. The reality was I had acne. The truth? I was ugly.
"Young Man With a Flower Behind His Ear" by Paul Gauguin
The beauty industry has been, historically, a sphere for women. And let’s be candid, it's a sphere for white women to exert Western standards of beauty upon the rest. It's an industry of models, actresses, musicians, artists, all of whom have graced the covers of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and air-brushed to perfection and sculpted out of marble, confirming yet again the only beauty worth celebrating was tall, skinny, perfect skin.
Now, 2009 was a mere 12 years ago, yet as a queer Asian teen, I remember feeling shut out; excluded from the power of choice that women innately possessed. I wanted to look and feel as good as those women on the cover of magazines; to feel like people were looking at me and not my blemishes. And although the societal pressures of gender norms closed in on me, my desperation won out.
I wanted to look and feel as good as those women on the cover of magazines; to feel like people were looking at me and not my blemishes.
The “for men” section of the drugstore was useless. I knew because I tried nearly every product. From Jack Black to Bulldog, even brands like Neutrogena or Nivea, all products marketed towards men but ended up betraying me nonetheless, aggravating my acne-prone skin and chipping away at my masculinity. How the hell was men’s skin different from women’s anyway? Having nowhere else to turn, I knew it was time to venture down the women’s aisle, and I pictured how I would do it. I imagined myself confidently strutting down the aisle, carefully selecting skincare products or concealers, and purchasing them at the checkout counter without batting an eye. The reality was much different. Instead, I kept my head low and frantically scanned the shelves, the frozen faces of white women plastered on products staring at me, judging me. I snatched a St. Ive’s Apricot Scrub and Maybelline concealer and power walked to the cashier. Upon being rung up by a male employee, I felt my face turn red and beads of sweat collect at the nape of my neck as he scanned the face wash and concealer, looking from the products to me (or more importantly, my skin). He said nothing, but I heard everything.
Looking back, I realize the judgmental glances I believed to be directed towards me were, in large part, a by-product of my insecurities. But I also know they were the result of how Western thought had trained me to think. That as a man, you can’t be beautiful. To care about your looks and practice self-care was to be emasculated and feminized. And as a closeted (at the time) gay man, I was already bullied for my effeminate expression. I feared that taking care of my skin or wanting to buy makeup would expose my darkest secret and subject me to further ridicule by my male peers. I already didn’t fit in and taking measures to achieve clear skin and confidence was a high price to pay.
Looking back, I realize the judgmental glances I believed to be directed towards me were, in large part, a by-product of my insecurities.
I knew classmates in high school who had completely lost themselves in the world of Korean shows and music - K-dramas and K-pop, respectively. At the time I had no clue as to what the appeal was, that is until I started streaming shows and movies from second-rate websites when I entered college (a popular pastime amongst me and my peers). One day, a friend of mine recommended I watch Boys Over Flowers, promising I would love it. I was instantly hooked.
I quickly binged the whole show and moved onto iconic dramas like Coffee Prince, Goblin, Weightlifting Fairy, Dream High, all centered around swoon-worthy romance, starring beautiful women and, to my surprise, equally beautiful men. It wasn’t the typical rugged, hypermasculine American stud I was prone to seeing (and consequently compared myself to) but there was a familiarity and softness in their looks and performances. Perhaps it was a form of self-identification, jealousy, or outright lust, but I was drawn to it; a form of entertainment where Asian men were the stars and femininity and masculinity could coexist without diminishing a man’s attractiveness. I saw similar trends in the K-pop industry as well. I was stunned to see the massive social media following and influence K-pop male idols had on Korean culture. Not merely the songs and elaborate music video productions, but their curated, refined style and the normalization of wearing makeup and taking care of their skin. It was confirmed. In Korea, and much of Asia, men could look and feel beautiful. It was comforting and affirming for me to see.
Perhaps it was a form of self-identification, jealousy, or outright lust, but I was drawn to it; a form of entertainment where Asian men were the stars and femininity and masculinity could coexist without diminishing a man’s attractiveness.
Now, things have shifted in our culture. The beauty industry has been destabilized and reshaped by trailblazing principles like body positivity, racial inclusivity, nonbinary expression, normalization of non-invasive cosmetic surgeries, take your pick. You have male ambassadors for beauty conglomerates and gender-bending fashion statements by white men. On top of that, Asian representation in Hollywood has taken root, with cinematic releases like Crazy Rich Asians, Spa Night, Gook, Minding the Gap, the popularization and idolization of K-pop groups like BTS, SuperM, and BIGBANG, the Netflix Original K-dramas like Crash Landing On You and It’s Okay Not To Be Okay, and Hollywood heartthrobs like Dev Patel, Harry Shum Jr., Steven Yeun, Daniel Henney, Riz Ahmed, and Hasan Minhaj. To be both an Asian man and a desirable love interest is now no longer mutually exclusive. Soft-masculinity is now exalted and skincare routines are encouraged.
Today, as a 25-year-old with now clear skin and a secure sense of self, this change hits me with a pang of sadness. I wish I could go back in time and comfort myself with these stories: that being Asian and gay doesn’t make you any less of a man, that you don’t need to lie to your parents about why you’re going to the drugstore again or feel the need to defend your choices to a cashier, that you will see more Asian men in movies, magazines, and social media than ever before, and you’ll be proud. And I am proud. I’m grateful to live during a time and in a country where queerness is oftentimes celebrated not persecuted and the ways in which you embody and perform masculinity are entirely up to you. It took an immense amount of humility, introspection, and life experience, but I’ve finally repaired the relationship with myself. Now when I wake up and get ready, the reality might be I have acne, for no one is perfect. But I know my truth now and no damn mirror can tell me any different.