It all began with Victoria’s Secret. The catalogues started flooding our mailbox when I was the impressionable age of nine, my two sisters in their teens.
“What is your secret, Victoria?” I wondered, “How can a person look like that?”
I didn’t yet know about Photoshop or plastic surgery, so I diligently studied each image, searching for the secret between thin scented pages. It was the 90s and the fashion was heinous, but it didn’t matter because women with fantasy bodies like that could sell anything.
To me, they sold the idea that there was only one way to look: have long legs with visible bones instead of muscles, nearly invisible arms, long wavy hair, and a chest that pours out of your bra like a waterfall. And don’t forget to be white, but very tan. Otherwise, you’ll be relegated to the smaller pictures at the back of the catalogue, in the pajama and oversized sweater section.
Always an optimistic (delusional?) child, I figured if this is the only kind of woman to see, eventually every girl must become this kind of woman. Great! I waited patiently to become long-legged, busty, and somehow, white.
In the meantime, I was the only Chinese kid in my class at a small school. I routinely had messy hair, sleepy eyes, and sometimes in the coldest weather, my little top lip would bubble up with fever blisters. I was not the most popular girl in school.
As a child, I wasn’t too aware of race, but somewhere between 5th and 7th grade, I started to suspect that I was different.
My pre-teen years were filled with romcoms where some Freddie-Prinze-Jr-looking-mofo stares at a girl until she innocently says, “What is it?” and he says, “Your eyes — they’re just so beautiful!”
And we would swoon.
At the end of school one day, one of the boys decided to pay attention to me. “Whoa.” He said, “Your eyes…” I blushed and looked around — who me? I batted my thin little lashes, “What is it?” I said innocently.
“They’re so…weird! They’re like…dragon eyes!
My heart tightened and my eyes narrowed into a glare.
“Whoa! How did you do that?! That’s crazy!” He summoned two other boys to take a look, “Tria, Tria, do it again!”
I very easily obliged and glared at all of them, much to everyone’s amazement.
“Oh my gosh, did you see that? They almost disappear! It’s really like a dragon! So cool!”
Something about the interaction hurt me, and something about it made me glow happily inside from even that tiny bit of attention. I took it as a lesson that no one would ever think I was pretty, but at least they might think I was cool. I didn’t blame them or think it was racist. It was a lack of exposure.
None of us had ever seen someone tell an Asian girl that her eyes were beautiful.
By the time I hit high school, I realized that my period had not turned out to be a red stork bringing long legs, big boobs, and Caucasian-ness. Puberty left me looking much the same. With teenage boy hallway conversation orbiting around cup size and butt curvature, it was clear to me that no one would want me and my too-skinny tomboy body.
What started as curiosity and some confusion about how I fit in with societal beauty norms gradually became insecurity and disappointment in myself. I couldn’t see myself as worthy of compliments, admiration, or love. I concluded I had no worth.
There was not really one good reason for this, but many silly little ones that, in a teenager’s mind, can arrange themselves to resemble the truth.
The combination of fluctuating hormones, body image issues, and ever lowering self-esteem pulled me into sinking bouts of depression. When I felt myself falling into that deep sadness at inconvenient times, I took to cutting my wrists and abdomen, causing just enough pain to beam me up from the dark well of my mind, and back to the present moment. I wore funky wristbands to cover the scars, and fantasized about suicide daily because it was easier than imagining myself as a valued adult. I couldn’t see my place in the world.
I was lucky though, and time brought progress before I landed on an end-of-life plan. Something had been happening very slowly, and I gradually started to see reflections of myself in the world around me: Charlie’s Angels let me be part of a group Halloween costume for the first time (the ultimate teenage acceptance!). That same year, my family piled into the theater to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My senior year saw reality T.V. victories back to back: Dat Phan won Last Comic Standing, and Harlemm Lee won Fame. Arms outstretched, I fell to my knees and declared to my mom, “The world is changing!” and we squealed, giddy with excitement.
My world was changing: I was heading to college.
On campus, I saw a strange new sight — groups of Asian students hanging out with each other! I was hesitant at first, wanting to disassociate. I didn’t want non-Asians to see me as part of a group that I didn’t relate to. I didn’t want to be seen as Asian because I didn’t know what it meant.
I was forgetting what my face looked like though. It got me invited to Asian cultural events and Asian associations. It got me asked out by boys who liked Asian girls. People would see me as Asian whether I felt Asian or not, so I better learn what it meant.
I let my guard down, and through new friends, was introduced to anime, Bhangra parties, Hong Kong cinema, Japanese pop, and Korean drama. I kissed my first Asian boyfriend. I even came close to joining an Asian sorority. I was so mesmerized by seeing a group of hot, sassy, Asian girls though that I went through the rush process just to get a closer look.
By seeing more Asians in entertainment and in the world around me, I no longer was desperately looking for myself in one token given to me every few years. I saw role models, anti-heroes, inspirations, and embarrassments. I saw a more complete picture that made me feel more complete.
When young people look for themselves in entertainment, they’re not thinking about network ratings or racial inequality. They’re simply seeking a sign of acceptance. That who they are is someone worth aspiring to be.
I’m many years past being an impressionable 9-year-old, but self-worth is an ongoing process. I still feel inadequate when I look at Victoria’s Secret models. I still know we have a long way to go in terms of creating a more inclusive society that values more than one type of person. I was one of the lucky ones and started to see myself reflected around me. But what about the Christian transgender kid living in Ohio, or the Muslim girl in Phoenix who dreams of being in politics?
There are so many ways to be human: so many combinations of ethnicities, cultures, sexual identities, body types, professions, income levels, religions, beliefs. So let’s stop finding excuses to only celebrate the stories of wealthy white heterosexual men. For all of us who have looked for ourselves onscreen or in print and not found enough, let’s lend our stories to the cause. Let’s make a world where every nine-year-old can picture herself as a grownup who is valued and worthy. Let’s not rest until we are all reflected.
This story originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.
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