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Immigrant Women on Navigating American Beauty Standards

On what is carried over, and what is left behind, when moving to a new country with a new set of expectations.

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America isn’t always gracious to newcomers. It doesn’t matter how long ago those “newcomers” actually came over, or whether it was by choice or not (to say nothing of the continued violence against and erasure of native populations).

In 2016, hate crimes against Muslim people rose by 67 percent. Our borders, already watchful, are now exceptionally perilous for those with the “wrong” skin tones or names. New stories about immigration-related arrests and deportations, causing families to be torn apart, file in every day. Old wounds are clearer than ever in the harsh light of today’s political climate, as long-standing rifts between “dominant” America and every kind of “other” bloom into increasingly violent displays.

The visceral hatred emanating from a certain kind of America keeps rising to the top of the news ticker like persistent pond scum. In search of a different kind of “other” narrative, I kept coming back to the uniform images of oppressed and desperate — or otherwise struggling but transcendent — immigrant women (often rendered in easy caricatures, à la Shepard Fairey’s “We The People” catalogue of images) and what I knew, but more often didn’t know, of the actual immigrant women in my life.

It is one thing to sift through countless photos of immigration-related rallies or notice details in my own attendances. It is another thing to confront lived histories, borne by these women through time and borders and generations. One point of access is their beauty histories: In many ways, beauty acts as a shorthand for how they’ve carried and treated their bodies and their cultural experiences throughout their migrating lives.

Through speaking with immigrant women, including my own mother, who came to America in search of a better life, I found a spectrum of beauty knowledge that isn’t refracted through our modern discourse. Margarita, who came from Cuba in 1960, learned about beauty early from her mother and her older sister: “I remember having them make face masks and hair concoctions in the kitchen, and I was always a guinea pig.” Communal femme conditioning, beginning at a young age, is a recurring motif. Teresa Luna-Lollie, who came from Mexico, shared one bedroom with six sisters and learned by example: “I would watch my older sisters do the stuff that my mom was telling them. How to keep their skin clear from acne and how to avoid wrinkles. Even though I was maybe in first or second grade, I was already watching them do their daily skin ritual.” This included the application of Negra Blanca cream, which she stills sees at CVS in Los Angeles and which “smells like shoe polish.”

Shukri Hassan, who came from Somalia, recalls regular meetings of women and girls who came together to perform domestic tasks, but also to “trade remedies and products, what to do with what,” she says. “What makes your hair curl, what makes your skin clear. As young girls, when you are among older women, as soon as you understand conversation you just start getting tips from elderly women and women older than you.” They gathered around shaahdali, a Somalian tea ceremony, while doing henna together, and through a weekly application of skin- and hair-clearing qasil (derived from the leaves of the gob tree; scientific name Ziziphus mauritiana).

Francie Nguyen, who arrived in America as a refugee from Vietnam, learned about beauty through another form of femme socializing: “My mother used to take me to the wet market [Ed. note: any marketplace that sells “wet” perishables, like produce and meat, as opposed to dry goods like clothes and housewares] with her every morning. As we were making the rounds, many of the lady vendors would comment on how pretty I was. My mother would reply with the same answer every time: ‘She’s the prettiest one in the family.’” That said, she credits the actual beauty advice of her youth to her father, who whipped up herbal and vegetable concoctions.

But, of course, the early and pervasive celebration of beauty isn’t the standard across cultures and, particularly, cultural eras. My mother Lei, who grew up in the shadow of Maoism in China, demurs on the topic of beauty: “It was not in fashion in China in those years,” she says, an understatement considering the generally forbidden nature of cosmetics during that time. This is an experience echoed by Ari Honarvar, who came from Iran when she was 14 and who was forbidden to wear makeup in her youth. When she eventually arrived in America, she had to adjust to its beauty culture. “I wore too much makeup for the first several years,” she says. “My parents weren't here, and I didn't have any female relatives or role models, so I didn't receive proper feedback.”

Every woman I spoke to remembers this period of adjustment to their new country’s beauty standards, either for themselves or for their female family members. For Teresa, it was her sisters’ friends who made the greatest impression on her. “They would come over in the evening to try stuff out and try to earn money to buy different creams,” she says, “not the ones their parents were giving them.” (She also recalls thinking “How come the boys aren't doing this? My brother wasn't even washing his face, God forbid.”) Shukri shares a tale of Eid money spent chopping off her long braids into an afro: “Well, it was very hard to come home. My mom was upset, but she said, ‘hey, it's your hair. If that's what you think is beauty, then let it be.’ People were already having the Angela Davis hairdo out there.”

Beyond their own unique beauty adjustments, all of the women I spoke to recalled a first impression of American beauty as something distinctly natural, a quality that seems to persist — see social media’s preoccupation with #nomakeup makeup. Of course, American beauty hasn’t been stagnant from the ’50s until now, but compared to the time-locked beauty practices and styles of these women’s motherland youths, the largely white, non-editorial makeup and beauty market offered a look into an “everyday” American aesthetic that often conflicted with traditions abroad.

According to Maggie, “Cuban women [generally] had manicures with bright colors and wore bright lipstick,” which can still be read as audacious outside of a capital-F fashion setting. Francie found herself at odds with the system she was trying to join. “I thought everyone was so glamorous and beautiful because the beauty standard was always the Western beauty standard,” she says. “The women who represented beauty were almost exclusively white... [I thought] foundation would fix my skin problems but I always end up looking too ‘white’ because the shades were not made for my olive skin tone.”

Likewise, Ari encountered a different kind of culture shock. “People complimented my tan (darker skin) and tall skinny figure,” she says, “and that was a surprise coming from a culture that prized voluptuous and light-skinned girls.” And Shukri puts American beauty dominance plainly: “When you are outside of America, you are still in America because of the media and Hollywood movies and all kinds of stuff.”

Yet there have been instances of “outsider” beauty culture entering the American mainstream. The co-opting of the “baddie” aesthetic, which grew out of black and brown femme culture and communities, within the fashion and beauty worlds is a decidedly negative example. Other appropriations are more ambiguous. My first introduction to Korean beauty came from my mother, who handed me a bottle of Missha’s BB cream around 2010, well before you could pick up packs of Tony Moly sheet masks at American Eagle. Nordstrom even recently launched a “pop-in” dedicated to Korea’s skincare and beauty brands.

My mother had gotten the recommendation from my father’s sister. The next time I went to China with my family, I tagged along as they browsed counters staffed by preternaturally pale women hawking brands with names that, at the time, were unknown in American department stores. I returned home with a bevy of skincare products, mostly from the brand Laneige. When I went online to try to replace them, I could only find listings on Korean import sites. Searching IRL stores was also a crapshoot; the only Laneige counter I eventually found in suburban New Jersey was tucked away in a Korean supermarket.

Now, Korean beauty is a staple of the Western market. We all bore witness to a collective migration of knowledge and taste: a focus on “uncommon” skin nourishment (like snail essence and donkey milk) and superfluous but adorable packaging. In this instance, Western tradition bowed to a charming foreigner; beauty as an ambassador of other values. But it’s worth interrogating how elements of exoticism, appropriation, and presumable anti-blackness colluded to bring Korean beauty to the table, when so many other brands, aesthetics, and, ultimately, people are shut out.

Still, entering American and Western beauty culture wasn’t, and still isn’t, always a bad thing. Many of the women I interviewed praised the wider availability of products, even if they were generally marketed in the same (white) way. And all of them had come to believe the maxim that diet, exercise, and genes all play a larger role in beauty than any number of skincare or makeup products. As such, they were all less likely to keep on top of contemporary beauty culture, though, as Teresa shares, much of this advice is recycled through generations and cultures. “If I see something on the internet that has something to do with, like, 10 tips to keep your skin smooth, I'll read it,” she says. “A lot of them are the same things that we were told by my mom — not eating greasy food, not touching your face with your bare hands, avoiding the sun, which is a huge, huge problem. Which turned out to be true. I can't believe my mom was actually right.” But there’s also the beauty industry at large’s obsession with youth, which usually leaves older women in a bind. As Maggie puts it, “It’s not so easy to find new tips for women over 50.”

It’s that reticence that resonates most between these women — they’ve had their larger and longer assimilation experience, and now they’re pretty much, well, over it. (In Ari’s words: “Beautifying is great up to a certain point, but I believe women are much, much more than their physical appearance.”) And once you’ve figured out your formula, that’s what you’ll stick with. This could mean a combination of skincare products across regional origins, boutique or drugstore or prescribed, that target different things, or a greater emphasis placed on how you’re treating yourself from the inside out.

Yet there’s still a draw to what you know, deep in the memories and traditions of your youth, even as your life changes around you. “I try to keep all the things that I came with, but you just cannot be living in a place and never be affected,” Shukri says. “This is a Western world; it's all about selling and buying, and you are part of it.” But within the hidden beauty archives of collective femme memory, you can recover remedies passed over by both Western norms and capitalist intent; vibrant memorials to lands and times that no longer are. There is magic in ritual, and in an increasingly homogeneous culture we can still seek it out, if only we know where to look and who to ask.

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