The lovely, intelligent, and kind Janel:
Two years ago, as a second year medical student, my mother proudly bestowed what felt like a blessing on me: “You’re dark and you’re Asian, but look at you now,” she said beaming. I didn’t know quite how to respond, “Ummm…thanks.” I was stunned and speechless. My mother had brought into sharp focus all the things I tried not to think about – my mixed ethnic identify, my gender, and my skin color. Her statement forced me to confront all the things that I felt embarrassed by – my mixed Asian and European heritage, my female gender and its implications of weakness and submissiveness, and my tan skin color with its implications of ugliness. She reminded me of my deep-rooted self-hatred. Despite my academic and personal accomplishments, my value was still very much based on physicality. The way I looked was something I had tried to erase rather than embrace. And this lack of self-acceptance had insidious manifestations in my own life taking the form of anxiety, self-doubt, and insecurity.
I had always wished that I had been born looking different. I envied my whiter cousins with their blond hair and light-colored eyes. I felt inferior for looking the way I did: more Asian than white. I knew that white features were not only prized, but envied and aspired to. In Asia, women still buy expensive face creams to whiten (i.e. bleach) their skin. Many still save all their money to pay for surgeries to “fix” their eyes and noses. And like many others, I too, am guilty of plastering my face with so much powder that my skin resembles an anemic white veil. The desire for a certain standard of beauty – whiteness and all the power, privilege and value it symbolized – had brainwashed an entire population of people into planting seeds of self-hatred into themselves and their children.
When my mother first met her German mother-in-law (my grandmother), she was told that her lips were too big and that her skin was too dark – “like a monkey”. My mother never forgot this. It stayed with her – like these things always do – like an unrelenting inertia from a past life, taking the form of a psychological stasis evoking a mix of anger, confusion and pity. Who can forget the moment your personhood is reduced to a pair of big lips and dark skin?
After hearing this story from my mother, I realized that this is what I was doing to myself. I was reducing myself to an object valued solely on physicality rather than the unique person I am. I had relegated myself to a stereotyped description of my ethnicity, my gender and my looks, and placed my value on that description. This insight changed the way I saw myself. My ideas on self-worth changed even more once I started working with patients as a third-year medical student. I had thought that I was ugly, but I was wrong. As I worked with patients in clinic and the hospital deal with issues relating to self-esteem and self-worth, I realized that real ugliness is all the things self-doubt and self-hate force us to do to ourselves: the degrading and self-deprecating things we tell ourselves is ugly. When I came to accept this, I started to take pride in the way I looked, not just as an Asian woman, but just as me and all the little things that made me unique physically and non-physically. It helped me progress in my journey of self-acceptance and self-love, which felt like a subversive act, in that I was going against the pressures adhere to certain gendered standards of self-worth.
I am Janel.
I love and accept myself