I have always found the depiction of women in the media fascinating. Shampoo commercials of tall women with soft, flowing hair captivate me; pictures on Pinterest of girls posing with their cute dresses can stall me for hours. There’s something romantic about pretending to live in the world that the media pretends we live in: where all women are seen as beautiful, where we each turn heads when we walk down the street, where every piece of clothing we try on is stunning. It’s fun to pretend, even, that whenever I buy clothes or makeup, this is how I’ll feel.
Something about it is positive, I’ll admit, in a twisted way. Something about glamorizing women by putting them inside perfect sceneries and giving them expensive, air-brushed looks works to encourage an appreciation of women, while in other contexts they may be belittled. Something about portraying women as powerful individuals without the presence of a man can feel relieving and inclusive.
This is the American media’s concept of a perfect woman. In some ways, even today, it gives me hope.
More than that though, it frustrates me.
Through the years, I’ve started to see this model American woman as having more than just the physical looks women idealize. She also has the looks men idealize and use to measure and to assign value to women. She has an aura of self-assuredness that I could never even pretend to have myself. She doesn’t need to look for male validation and self-validation — but because she doesn’t and I do, I seem to want that validation more.
I’ve hated her, the American media’s “perfect woman,” because I want to be her. It’s embarrassing because I know that the media does not value me, this young, Asian American woman who grew up in a majority-white neighborhood, surrounded by girls who belong on runways with their long legs and golden hair and long eyelashes that stay curled, unlike my stubby Asian ones. But I still compare myself to the ideal of a woman they have created. I compare myself to her while fully understanding that I am simply not like her, and that’s not my fault.
It’s natural to blame the media for this — and I will.
In general, women of color are historically underrepresented in America. Even when we are represented, it’s usually because of our differences — such as the fetishization of Asians and the orientalization of white features for the ‘aesthetic’ — and further dehumanizes us while heightening our feelings of inferiority. As a result, whether intentional or not, Western media’s seeming acknowledgment of Asian Americans and women of color still plays into largely sexual representations of us. This not only alienates typical Asian Americans and women of color but allows for the male gaze to intensify toward women of color — to see us more as sex figures than as women who hold powerful positions in society.
Women of color are always in the minority — not just in terms of representation, but in the progress made in American media where women are seen as independent and confident outside of being sex figures. Truly, then, our media is at fault and will be for a long time. Of all the things the media could promote for women everywhere, it chose to promote physical and sexual beauty, blindly ignoring the damaging ramifications that are intensified for women of color.
However, I too am at fault for perpetuating this idea of the ideal American woman.
Sometimes, it seems harmless. I buy clothes or watch American TV shows that make me feel included. I play with the idea that I, too, am desirable and unique in the way the media suggests I be. None of these things are inherently bad; it’s OK to want to be seen as powerful or pretty.
Still, I’ve noticed that my Asian American female peers and I have created our own, slightly more ‘reasonable’ standard of the perfect Asian American woman all by ourselves through our own view of Western ideals. Perhaps it’s been created through years of white validation as well. Whatever it is, I’ve started to notice that this has become my own subconscious goal: to become the ideal Asian American woman who is allowed to have her Asian features while imitating many aspects of the white American woman — her outgoingness, her confidence, her beauty in the eyes of Western media.
Honestly, I recognize that I promote this idealized Asian American woman through my actions and my priorities. Still, some part of me allows it. I’d rather be overly Americanized than overly sexualized. In this country, those two views feel like the only way women with my skin color are ever actually seen or celebrated.
It would be unrealistic of me to wrap up this article by saying that I hope things will get better and that all women will be seen as beautiful. Beyond my own stories, there are hundreds of thousands of others from women of color who struggle with loving themselves because of the media’s — and their own — pressure to fit into the American model of an ideal woman. Some even shape their lives around that pressure.
I know that each woman has something to offer to the world, and it’s not because of media or our society at all. It’s only because we as individuals must believe and encourage that sort of confidence for women to make it true.