By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Where Beauty Lies, the newest exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum, takes on the topic of beauty, particularly as it pertains to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
What constitutes beauty? Who determines what is beautiful? How do societal standards become part of ourselves and, amidst the signals we receive all around us, how do we realize our genuine selves? These questions, and more, are considered in the exhibition created by a community advisory committee, Exhibit Developer Mikala Woodward, and other local contributors.
Where Beauty Lies is not just a museum exhibition, but an event. On opening night on Oct. 11, staff wore beauty pageant sashes with slogans like “Decolonize Beauty.” Local artists and icons, such as drag performer Aleksa Manila, arrived demonstrating, by what they chose to wear, or not wear, how they did their hair and make-up, or didn’t—the ways they respond to expectations of beauty and gender—with authenticity and empowerment.
Local poet and visual artist Shin Yu Pai, who wrote the didactic panels for the show, stated, “I got involved in the Where Beauty Lies exhibition because the topic deeply resonated for me.
Growing up in a non-Asian community in the shadow of Los Angeles in the 1980s, the beauty standards that surrounded me both outside and inside the home were unachievable, unhealthy, and deeply distorted.” For Pai, and many of us, reversing the effects of what we are taught as children takes a large part of our adult lives, and the question remains, how far have we come?
Committee member Cynthia Mejia-Giudici, special education teacher and published editor and author, explained that she grew up in the 1950s, “when looking ‘pretty’ was the main focus of many women.” For her mother, it meant, “Don’t leave your home without putting on your make-up, having every strand of hair in place, wearing high heels and stockings, and donning stylish attire.” However, Mejia-Giudici was a teen in the 1960s, when “women were slowly liberating themselves from such strict and acceptable forms of ‘beauty.’ They went natural and didn’t use make-up, they unplugged the hair straighteners, they discarded the razors, and they burned their bras.” Yet for every step forward, there is a step back. The struggle is constant.
The exhibition begins with a video, “100 Years of Beauty: Asian Pacific America,” created by Marina Taylor and Chris Chan, and starring Jenny Ku, also known as burlesque performer, the Shanghai Pearl, who modeled makeup and hairstyles for each decade. Maliha Masood, resident author of two travel memoirs, and prior lecturer of political science at Bellevue College, also participated in a photo shoot for the exhibition, recorded audio about skin politics, and contributed an essay about her identity journey from Pakistan to America. For Masood, participating in the exhibition helped her feel “empowered to accept myself as I am and not just how others see me. I grew in self-confidence both physically and emotionally.”
The second gallery of the exhibition displays movie posters and video clips in a dizzying array, which brings home the power that the media has over our conceptions of beauty.
Committee member Dr. Edmond Y. Chang, who travels back and forth between Seattle and his teaching job at Ohio University, is accustomed to exploring the role of the media.
“One of the questions I always ask my students…is, ‘Do you see yourself in the world around you—in media, in advertisements, in stories or your communities?’” Chang commented on how deep-seated societal pressures can be, even though we think we “know better…it is really important to understand that, even though we are told over and over that we are ‘beautiful on the inside’ and that beauty standards are all a construct, the structures and norms, ideologies, and institutions are very real and have very real consequences for bodies, practices, and identities.”
After the media gallery, the visitor walks into a somewhat forlorn facsimile of a beauty salon, which reminds us of the efforts we make to meet these often unrealistic standards. In a pedicure chair plays an excerpt of the movie, Nailed It, which forces us to think of the lives of the AAPI women who do our nails and massage our feet.
Mejia-Giudici, perhaps the oldest member of the committee, at 66, talked about some of the ways we collude in maintaining standards of beauty, such as beauty contests.
“The general public misunderstood these contests to be based solely on attractiveness, poise, popularity of the contestant,” she expressed. “However, every ticket sold brought in revenue, which the Filipino community depended on.” While there are positive outcomes of such activities, there are also negatives. In the next room of the exhibition, we find the story of a woman who died from a botched plastic surgery, and a brazier where visitors can write down examples of self-harming practices and beliefs about beauty on pieces of paper, which will be burned later.
Dr. Sally Chung is a clinical psychologist in Bellevue who specializes in Asian American psychology, cultural identity, relationship issues, and depression. She remembers, growing up in the United States, how easy it was to be “swept along by mainstream ideas about what is popular, beautiful, and desirable…It was easy to feel ugly and foreign when cosmetic companies didn’t bother making products for your coloring and the media you consumed didn’t have people who looked like you.” To Chung, Where Beauty Lies is important because it “presents the issue of Asian beauty in a thoughtful, complex, and educational way…It also offers opportunities [for visitors] to participate and contribute parts of their stories.”
Chung contributed a meditative poem in the next gallery of the exhibition, which is actually a hallway of mirrors, where visitors are asked to look at themselves honestly—with compassion—after witnessing the history and impact of societal ideas of beauty in prior galleries. Like many of the people involved in the exhibition, Chung was surprised at the emotions that came up.
“Even with my research and knowledge, I am not immune to internalized messages, cultural standards of beauty, or the continued struggle of a bicultural identity,” she admitted.
“Acceptance of oneself and identity development is an ongoing process and some days are easier than others.”
According to Chung, part of the hope of the committee is that visitors “leave with greater knowledge of what has come before, increased awareness of what they have internalized throughout their lives, and a greater appreciation for the unique beauty they have and bring to their community and society.”
Mejia-Giudici summed up, “[We] all agreed that beauty was more about one’s attitude, one’s self-confidence and pride in being real, being honest, being compassionate, loving and being loved…beauty from within that transcends one’s height, one’s skin tone, one’s nose shape, one’s body proportions.”
In the final gallery of the exhibition hang photos of AAPIs and work by AAPI artists who have successfully achieved their own preferred versions of beauty. Where Beauty Lies ends with a selfie station decorated with flowers and an exquisite Buddha statue, where visitors can take a sacred selfie of themselves expressing their insides, exactly how they want to, on the outside.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.