I know it’s ugly to want to be seen as hot. You shouldn’t want to be hot! You’re perfect just the way you are, you lumpy slug! It shouldn’t matter whether other people find you attractive because it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And technically, your blackheads are inside your pores so would it kill you to do one of those face masks that sucks your soul out of your face? Could you do it once or twice or every other day for the rest of your life? Okay, but what if we call it “self-care”?
Desirability is a conundrum. Sometimes, all I want is for every person who has ever lived to tell me I am gorgeous. Other times, I feel like if I am in any way observed, I will commit arson. I want the freedom to look hot without anyone saying anything about it, except maybe in the comments section.
Beauty is cultural currency—this is nothing new. I know it’s instinctive to pay attention to a person you think is attractive. I know the actor portrayal in the movie is almost always hotter than the actual person. I know billions of dollars are made off us pulling and squeezing and smoothing and looking as small and young and white-passing as science and Gwyneth Paltrow make possible. (The hottest age to be is your age cut in half, minus an additional seven years.) And I know that all that sucks, but I still want to feel like I have a full bank account of an ass.
Like most every other part of my life, my physical self-image is heavily—okay, entirely—derived from external validation. I ask my husband Riley how I look nearly every time we leave the house, and then I ask him thrice more, ignore him each time, and eventually say, “You’re lying to be nice!” On more than one occasion, Riley has ended my fun little “ugly or pretty??” game by asking something along the lines of, “Is anything I say actually going to impact the way you feel about yourself?” And I said, “Yes, but only if you tell me I look bad.”
My need for external validation is further complicated by the fact that I don’t know how to feel sexy without also feeling sexualized. I don’t believe my husband when he says I look okay, but I absolutely don’t want my male coworkers to imply they like how I look. When Riley says I look okay, I don’t believe him because, like a mother or an enchanted mirror, he has to say that. If he doesn’t, our marriage just automatically gets annulled. But when a man I don’t have any relationship with comments on the way I look, it feels more sinister than sweet. It feels like a threat, an implication of his browser history, a reminder that the way I look comes with a preamble of sexual connotations I cannot control.
Asian women, like children or decorations, are meant to be seen, not heard. We are sexy and submissive, sexy because we are submissive. We are exotic and unthreatening, eager to please without reciprocation. I should take it as a compliment that the bulk of my on-screen representation has been in pornographic subcategories. I should feel flattered that all I need to do is exist for someone to objectify me.
I don’t need to recant the chorus of microaggressions that rings in the back of my head for you to imagine the things people have said to me, about me, about people who look like me. You’ve seen the movies. You know the songs. I am so used to the idea that my body was made for consumption that sometimes I forget it is mine.
Ignoring the way you look becomes a political act when you’ve been fetishized your entire life. It’s a statement to be silent about your appearance when the world has been screaming about your hair, your face, your eyebrows, your feet, your armpits, your ass, your chest, your weight, your proportions, your striations, your various cuts of meat. And then, if you do speak—how brave!
There is an imagined afterlife or perfect alternate universe or some elevated state of existence where there is no such thing as being hot. Where we are all just beams of light, flitting around and illuminating whatever is in our noncorporeal path. In this universe, we mean it when we say we’re wearing makeup just for ourselves because beams of light don’t have cheekbones or pouty lips. If I were a beam of light, I hope that I would no longer care about my blackheads or my coffee-stained teeth. I hope I would relish in the freedom of not having this human body.
This is all made more complicated by the fact that looking nice and acting nice have a complicated relationship. One that is both symbiotic and parasitic. First, we have the cultural notion that an abundance of one makes up for a lack of the other. Is the friend you’re trying to set me up with hot? Uh, not in the conventional sense … but she’s nice though. Is Henry Golding chill in real life? I don’t know, but he’s so hot I’d let him run me over with a car. Then, we have the unavoidable truth that nothing is so loathsome as a hot person who has the audacity to also be nice. Like, no, don’t you get it? You won! You’re hot! You get to live life with your face and body, and the consolation prize to the rest of us is that we get to whisper about how you were maybe kind of a bitch to us one time five years ago. Being hot and nice is comparable to connecting two positive poles on a magnet. It’s as close to god tier as we mere mortals can get.
I know I don’t have a realistic sense of how I look to other people. I have wondered if half my face looks more Asian than the other and which of those halves is my “good side.” I’ve wondered whether the way I look will always come with an addendum about my race. I am pretty for a half-Asian girl. I shouldn’t put my hair in a tight bun because it makes my eyes look … well, you know. I am exotic. I am foreign. I am front and center of your corporate photo shoot because, at best, I am ambiguous. Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder if I’ve always been this ugly. Sometimes I think that Bella Hadid might look at me like her equal if I wore the right outfit.
I don’t think being or feeling hot should be a goal. I don’t wish to be told “Everyone is beautiful” by bottles of soap or Instagram models sponsored by ass bleach. I don’t want to clap for conventionally hot people posting unfiltered photos or clothing companies who equate “body diversity” to the inclusion of conventionally hot people who happen to have flatter chests or are a little bit short.
I want to separate myself not just from the negative stories about body image but all stories that say happiness is dependent on finding yourself attractive. That loving yourself is contingent on assigning any value to how you look. I want to feel confident without having to ask anyone, myself included, whether I look okay. I also still want to watch every single celebrity’s skin care routine. Baby steps.
In the rare moments I do feel hot, I’m usually by myself, and I feel like I need to say it out loud to acknowledge that, yes, there was a moment where I felt grateful to exist in this body.
It’s a quiet kind of comfort to like yourself when you’re alone.
Adapted from She’s Nice Though by Mia Mercado. Reprinted with permission from the publisher HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2022 by Mia Mercado.