What Representation Means to Me

Cathy Lee
5 min readApr 15, 2016

But honestly…it should. It surprises me that I, or any woman of color I know, have any self-confidence. It’s not noticeable at first, not even to us. The messaging is subtle. Even when not so subtle, our natural response is to accept that we are simply not enough. Questioning the social construct within which you live is a favorite, instinctive pastime of very, very few people.

As a teenager, I was often told how disappointing I was (I was a pretty cute fckin kid with big eyes, so they had high expectations). The words (used in distress by one emphatic woman) were “Oh, you were supposed to be pretty, how disappointing.” Sorry, lady. Really. My features were constantly assessed in terms of how much prettier I’d be if my eyes were just a little bit bigger, if my nose was a little bit more narrow, my skin…a little whiter.

I did not and would not meet the world’s standard of beauty. Which is white. Everything around me tells me so. Magazines, movies, TV shows, fashion shows, books — media represents standards of beauty almost exclusively with white women. Y’all I really thought I actually looked like Lucy Liu. Heard it enough goddamn times because she was the only reference anyone had to Asian women. I look nothing like her. The beauty industry wasn’t made for us — GAP jeans were never gonna fit my curves, make-up products had ten thousand shades of white….and bronzer and, of course, cultural appropriation has taught us that certain styles are only acceptable once white women make them “trendy”. And the few women of color who are recognized for their beauty typically have extremely anglicized features.

Fast forward a few years later to my first period and training bra (4th grade) and then middle school. I didn’t register the effect I had on men until I began to hear the catcalls that always came paired up with some sort of racist comment. Before you roll your eyes, realize that a.) I’m talking about being catcalled/harassed — that is not a form of compliment and I am not humble bragging here (for my woke people, explaining that to some people is actually a thing) and b.) I’m talking about being sought after not for me, but for what I represent — better known as fetishization. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have paid attention otherwise. There’s something about being asked if your vagina is as small as your eyes that will stop you in your tracks.

Confusing, right? On the one hand, seems like our features will never meet standards of beauty. On the other hand, seems like we’ve become objectified by the very features that don’t meet said standards. Turns out, the few women of color who do get a chance in mainstream media (entertainment AND news) are often hypersexualized or wallflower pieces, props regardless of how they’re depicted. Oh…and porn. I’ve never even watched porn and I know this. It’s not just Asian women. Almost every woman of color in an interracial relationship will side-bar me to let me know that there’s nothing to worry about — “already made sure he doesn’t have a fetish.”

Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Mahler writes, “When you fetishize — as opposed to value — something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself.” It’s dehumanizing. Representation in the media matters. Media’s objectification of women of color perpetuates the dangerous racism and sexism that keep them oppressed. This widely accepted one-dimensional portrayal of women of color incites the kind of fetishization, objectification and dehumanization that hurts lives.

The hypersexualized, submissive Madame Butterfly; the hypersexualized, angry Jezebel; the hypersexualized, fiery chola; the hypersexualized Pocahontas (I will publicly humiliate anyone I see wearing a headdress — Native American women are twice as likely to experience rape/sexual assualt) — the psychological backlash is twofold. This limitation of the true, rounded portrayal of women makes it easier for society to turn the other cheek against the online harassment, sexual abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking rampant around the globe, skewed heavily towards women of color. The world doesn’t bat an eye for us. Concurrently, women of color grow up in a world whose messaging often focuses only on what her physical entity has to offer — intimating that she will never attain true, pure beauty and her only real value is found in her sexuality above all else, perhaps leading to the lack of confidence that often associates itself with abuse. We don’t defend ourselves.

We wake up to look in the mirror and we think we understand the person we see. But when we walk out that door and into the world, we are very quickly reminded where in the social stratum we belong. We don’t meet the standards of “true” beauty worth respecting nor are we seen as entities with intelligence, diversity and complexity, nothing beyond our hypersexualized bodies. Our race and sex determine whether we walk out that door with entitled confidence or an armour of fear.

I’ve heard a lot of scoffing at the idea behind #oscarssowhite, men and women alike rolling their eyes at the demands of accurate representation in media and snickers at the few women who are brave enough to actually share their stories, a radical act of feminism in and of itself. The violence and harassment against women of color has been a low-key issue for decades, if not centuries. Just not quiiiiite important enough, after all society has reduced us to no more than stereotypes — no real value, eh? Institutionalized racism and sexism makes for a system that either denies or minimizes the impact of sexual assault against us. Nothing we say seems to matter until a man or a white woman says it too. Those who sneer — y’all are straight assholes. But those who remain silent….it’s time to listen.

We are no longer the minority. It’s time to share our stories. It’s time to create our own narratives. It’s time to understand the incredible power of our voices. It’s time to be heard.

I want the world to see me….for me. And I want to see myself as beautiful…enough. I think it might be too late for that now. But maybe not for the girls today who will become unapologetically smart, kind and beautiful women tomorrow. It’s time. Don’t be surprised by how brightly they shine.

P.S. As I finish this piece, yet again, I’m staring at the newest white woman playing an Asian character in yet another movie. When will we, the Other, ever be enough to represent ourselves as a fully developed character in today’s culture?

Lol or maybe I just need to understand and accept that We’ll never be as good at Asian as ScarJo:

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Cathy Lee

thoughts that are more or less informing my journey…hoping you find it helpful too