Through Her Mirror

What my white mother’s view on makeup taught me as a Korean adoptee.

2 years ago

Latest Podcast Should Asian Americans Care About China's Media Image? (ft. Kaiser Kuo) (Escape From Plan A, Ep. 162)
by Plan A Editors

In a beautifully reflective article written to honor her mother’s beauty routine, Plan A’s Jessica Rhee writes of her Korean mother’s skin care products:

Tokens of luxury, a psychological cocoon, a tangible sign of privilege, of finally belonging — these were what my mom really bought with her hard earned money in the heated years of the Reagan and Bush administrations. And let’s face it, all the “good” stuff was incredibly, starkly, white people stuff.

Jessica, now an adult, says that:

the lineup I rely on to unwind and quietly indulge myself, are unabashedly and proudly Asian. It feels like coming home.

It was with wistful envy that I read Jessica’s piece, thinking back to my pre-adolescent years. Like her, I’d sit in our home’s only full bathroom with my mother. Unlike her, though, I’d watch my blonde haired, blue eyed mother apply her own cosmetics. Each large, hooded eye would be ringed with charcoal-colored mascara. Then, her fair-skinned eyelids were outlined with eyeliner the color of walnuts (light-brown would be too pedantic a color name) and finally, a sweep of neutral eyeshadow and some pinkish blush to her high cheekbones.

During this routine, my mother’s long face would contort into the feminine expressions young girls interpret as an entrance into womanhood. I was no different in wanting to lean over the bathroom sink, matte-lipsticked mouth parted open and chin tilted upward.

When I’d look in the mirror after she was finished, though, I’d find I wasn’t fair-skinned or blue-eyed or blonde. What reflected back was a disappointing mockery. You’re still Asian, the mirror would say.

No beauty product could conceal my Asianness. Pressed powder couldn’t transform me into White.

Image of woman in bathtub full of water

One time, my mother took me for a prom makeover. Our local mall, a snug 1990s landmark of my all-White, Reagan- (and then Bush- and then Trump-) loving town, had a tiny makeup counter in the Bon-Ton. I sat in the hard-backed pleather stool while the red-headed girl attempted to transform me into someone better. When the girl held the mirror up to show me her work, all I saw was a Korean girl with two black eyes and eyeshadow that highlighted her lack of a prominent brow bone.

I stomped back to the car with my head down and my mother asking me what did you expect to happen, what did you want her to do?

We never discussed makeup again.


My mom died almost ten years ago. A mother who once joked that “blonde was the first attraction.”

In the years since her death, I’ve found the freedom to do my makeup in a way that, as she once instructed me, enhances my natural beauty. YouTube exploded and Google left no excuses for me to not know what to do. But still, the memory of my mother’s mundane makeup routine remained, its impact hidden until Rhee’s article reminded me of its significance.

I love my mother and I miss her every day. Despite her imperfections, her life did not deserve to be shortened by cancer; had she lived, perhaps we would have worked toward understanding the wedge transracial adoption firmly planted between us. She left when I was still confused by her wish for me — her only daughter — to be happy with an Asian face that others responded to as if it were a contagious illness.

What she failed to accept was our occupation in a world dominated by White beauty standards, from which I couldn’t escape since my home harbored the same message. Today, I’d like to say I don’t believe White beauty is the goal, that it’s silly to subconsciously endorse rhetoric praising straight noses and high cheekbones. But part of me still disowns my Asianness, tolerating it instead of embracing it.

Such are the hazards of transracial adoption. Still, the external forces decrying not White as undesirable don’t have to follow me — or other transracial adoptees — for our lives’ entirety. We can take these experiences and use them to empower us, proclaiming them as examples of human follies to avoid.We can share these stories so others don’t have to confront this alone. Because really, adopted or not, we’re all beautiful. We just have to be taught that our beauty isn’t tied to our race.


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Sunny J. Reed

Published 2 years ago