Almost Asian, Almost American

Almost Asian, Almost American

One photographer set out to examine the impact of both Asian and American beauty ideals on the AAPI community.
By Diana King, as told to Sam Reed
May 04, 2021 @ 9:00 am

Diana King is a Chinese American photographer based in Nashville. Here, she shares an exclusive first look at the latest installment of her ongoing photo project, Almost Asian, Almost American, in which she explores the often conflicting impacts of Eastern and Western beauty ideals on Asian American women. When the project is completed, she will have photographed and interviewed 100 women between the ages of 18-45.

Below, King shares her inspiration and goals for the project, as well as the stories of ten AAPI women and their portraits.

I'm a portrait and commercial photographer, and I started this project in my head six years ago. After Trump was elected, I started to really see an uptick in the microaggressions and the racist language against Asian Americans. I photographed the first series for the project in 2018 in Los Angeles.

There are so many perspectives in the United States that I think as a people we don't see or understand. As a photographer, as someone who's in my late thirties now, I've never … I just don't see myself represented. I haven't seen myself represented until only the last two years.

So this project is for that little girl in whatever city they are living in right now to just see themselves. Because I had so many confidence issues, beauty-wise, esteem-wise, just not seeing myself represented. I never fit into the conventional definition of beauty in Asian or American culture.

To be lumped into Asian — non-Asian people don't understand that someone who's Japanese is so culturally different from a person who's Laotian or Filipino. I had this vision, how would people see Asians if they see 10 Japanese women on the wall side-by-side, and they all look different? Ten Indian women on the wall, ten Chinese, Korean, et cetera?

I wanted to see that visual because the question that I've gotten for my entire life is, "what are you?" And it's like, "I'm a human being."

I've been wanting to do this project because it's also a learning experience for me — I'm actually learning to be more Asian. On the whole, I feel more American than Asian because I don't speak Chinese, I don't know how to read or write [Chinese], I don't look particularly like the "Asian girl." I'm very curvaceous, I have an American last name …

In doing this project, I felt more Asian in that I felt a solidarity with all these women who felt the same way I did. They grew up American, but they didn't feel accepted in America. It made me more proud of who I am, they made me accept myself and how I look and how I feel, physically and mentally. I didn't do this intentionally, but I realized that I'm capturing women between 18 and 45, which is just on the cusp of Gen Z, millennial, and Gen X. And the differences of opinions are so eye-opening to see, because I'm a millennial, and millennials and Gen X grew up with the mentality of "this is how it is," in terms of acceptance.

I loved how the Gen Z women were like, "No, this is how we want it to be." I was empowered by these younger women who are going to college and are like, "I will not accept you treating me like this."

I feel like those kids are going to save the world.

This project was filmed in Nashville, Tenn. during the height of Covid in the summer of 2020. It was my first year living in a new city and in the South. I set up an outdoor/indoor photo studio in my garage and driveway, and ten women volunteered to be a part of this project and endured 100 degree humid heat, thunderstorms, lawnmowers, and aggressive mosquitos.

In this series, we go deeper into uncomfortable questions that were many of the issues Ifaced growing up. On top of that, I learned a new perspective on what it means to be anAsian-American woman living in the South.

These ten Asian-American women volunteered to be interviewed and photographed bare-faced and makeup-free. All scars, blemishes, and wrinkles have not been taken away. I acknowledge this session only covers a few of the many Asian identities. My ultimate goal for this project is to travel to different cities and interview women across the U.S to represent a full and diverse spectrum of Asian identity. I hope these women's experiences continue to empower our community to define our beauty and our identity on our terms.

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"I think my insecurities were even more exacerbated because I was adopted and lived in a predominantly white community. I didn't have a family around telling me I was beautiful and it being mirrored back to me, even though others may tell me differently. I didn't even know what my Asian mother looked like. I didn't see myself reflected in pop culture — dolls, magazines, etc. And I didn't see myself as fully "Asian" until a couple years ago, because I knew no other Asians. Some of my friends saw my curvy figure as something to be accepted, but it was something guys hypersexualized so I hated it ... but it may have been the only attention I received. Growing up and in college, I thought that if I could achieve and be the best at everything (AKA overcompensating), then maybe they wouldn't notice my eyes. But if they didn't notice my eyes, they'd see my wonky smile and imperfect lips and wide nose. Maybe if I just tried harder (being more stylish, etc.), I'd be accepted. For many years, even still today, I don't think I'm as pretty as others, but so far, I'm unwilling to go under the knife for anything!" - Allison Stites, 31, Korean American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"I grew up feeling as though 'Asian beauty' paled in comparison with other groups of people. I never even knew if my looks, or my body could be deemed 'beautiful.' Later on in life, Asian beauty felt like a 'cookie cutter' standard so to speak. Meaning, to fit Asian beauty, which already fell at the bottom of the beauty list, was to be petite, pale, with a wider nose...essentially, as white as possible. I was athletic and tanned. I grew up having to go to a Chinese Christian church that made me feel that I would never fit any standard of beauty. In fact, my father once said, "'Your sister is Chinese beautiful ... you ... you are new age beautiful.' (What does that even mean??????)." - Amber Wang, 36, Chinese American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"I had this perception of the beauty standard for being an American and being Asian one way, but my look didn't quite fall in either. I personally never considered myself 'beautiful,' but I knew I looked different. As much as I felt different and at times out-of-place, I always received positive comments about my looks. In fact, I would always be told that I was so beautiful, even by complete strangers while I was out and about. People would compliment me and sometimes proceed to ask what my mixture was, or ask my nationality, where I would respond, American. I believe people did not know how to 'categorize' me. 'Is she white? Is she Hispanic? Is she Hapa?' But looking back in retrospect, I think that the ambiguity of not being able to figure out what my ethnicity was, is a beautiful thing." - Diana O'Brien, 32, mixed Japanese American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"I am a Korean American adoptee who grew up in rural West Tennessee in a white family and all-white town. The only Asian women I saw were Kristi Yamaguchi or Michelle Kwan in the Winter Olympics. Knowing I was different than everyone else, especially the women in my family, it was always hard for me to fully accept and value who I was. As a child, women would come up and touch my hair in the mall, at church, and wherever else. I was introduced to exotification and yellow fever early on when men would call me China Doll. When I first came into contact with Korean beauty standards, it was a hard blow realizing I didn't fit. I enjoy the sun and getting tan from swimming or playing volleyball in the summer. I'm not skinny or dainty and enjoy eating pasta like a boss. I had accepted that I was not attractive by what men wanted or how girls treated me by the third grade. Whether it was someone pulling back their eyes, calling me a ''chink," or reminding me I wasn't Korean enough. It's always been a battle to not feel the stares or look at white women in a way that makes me envious as an Asian woman." - Erin Kim, 25, Korean American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"As a South Asian woman, having lots of body hair is common. I remember being so ashamed of my hair in middle school and begging my mom to let me shave when I was 10 years old. Finally, after weeks of begging and crying she finally let me use a razor. I was so excited that I shaved literally my whole body: my arms, legs, stomach. And I didn't even have that much hair! It was just the image and the stereotype I constantly compared myself to in the media that pushed me to feel this way and want to shave at such an early age. After my hair started growing back I realized the stupidity of my impulsiveness and never shaved my arms again. In sixth grade a boy in my class was sitting next to me and pointed to my arm and said, 'Why do you have so much hair on your arm?' All I remember is feeling so hurt and ashamed and crying when I got home. I was confused again and wanted to shave my arms, but refrained because I was slowly starting to understand that I didn't have to follow society's expectations. I realized how much pain I had internalized and slowly started to come to terms with the fact that I had a lot of unlearning to do. I am constantly evolving and still feel insecure at times, but I now understand that I need to learn how to embrace myself." - Gagana Borra, 20, Indian American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"I was first exposed to American beauty standards as a sixth grader, when I moved directly from Seoul to Nashville. High school was different. I knew I wasn't the cookie-cutter kind of pretty. If being Asian meant I didn't check the right boxes, then why bother trying? In the summer going into freshman year, I made the drastic decision to cut fifteen inches of hair off for a pixie cut. No other girl in my school had short hair. When you're Asian at a PWI [predominately white institution], you stand out. When you're an Asian with short hair, you're making a statement. I had my first battles with my sexuality; the more considerate people began asking me whether or not I was gay, but the less-so simply assumed I was. I did get many positive responses, and my friends now say that me cutting my hair marked my change into a more confident me. However, I also received many statements such as, 'I wish I had your confidence,' 'You're so bold,' 'You're so beautiful in your own way.' I knew those came from good intentions, so I was always appreciative and never offended. But I'm not dense. I wasn't being complimented for being pretty, I was complimented for standing out. I know that when people call me beautiful, it's never because I fit their standards. It's because I don't." - Jordan Yi, 18, Korean American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"After a certain age, probably about 11, I decided I didn't give a fuck about beauty standards anymore, American or Filipinx. I never fit into either anyway, so I threw the whole damn thing out. I got really into punk rock and my interest in smashing the patriarchy began very early. We can thank The Distillers for that. Brody Armstrong, the front womxn, sang openly about her battle with eating disorders. I was at the age where I cared enough about my appearance to begin experimenting with bulimia. After I read her lyrics, I didn't want to tolerate that kind of mental state for myself. Instead, I began to identify beauty as my willingness to be autonomous. Sounds cool, but it caused me to skip over a lot of aspects of Filipinx culture that perhaps I would have appreciated. Physically, I adhered to subculture aesthetics: liberty spikes in my hair, bullet belts, ripped fishnets and band T-shirts. Do and be whoever the fuck you want, as long as it comes from a healthy place and you're not harming yourself or others. You don't need anyone's permission to feel beautiful or worthy in life. Tell it to all your friends — you may be the only one." - Kit Canlas, 31, Filipinx American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"To be honest, I didn't really focus on American beauty, but from what I observed when I was in school was that they were always wearing what was trendy. Asian beauty to me was making sure that my hair was brushed, I dressed appropriately (not showing too much skin), fair skin, and slim. I probably fit into the Asian beauty category more just because I am a fair skinned Asian woman by default, even though I'm not "Asian" slim. As for style, I had always dressed for comfort even when I was little, and thankfully my parents never forced me into an outfit that I did not like so I've been able to dress how I want to dress, despite my parents' preferences. As I grow older, I don't care about being slim. I care more about being strong both physically and mentally and to always be comfortable in my own skin no matter what." - Monica Djunaidi, 30, Indonesian American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"During summer/winter breaks, we'd fly from Seoul to the U.S. to visit our extended family. I would say that the constant bi-coastal travel truly impacted my sense of identity and beauty. At home in Seoul, I was the majority. All of my peers, friends, parents of friends, looked like me. When I was in the U.S., I felt differently. I stuck out. I was 'Asian Morgan' instead of just 'Morgan.' Sometimes I felt that I didn't make friends as easily because I looked different. I felt that people never developed crushes on me because I didn't look like the girls sitting next to me. Growing up, I always looked to Western beauty ads/images/styles for inspiration of what I deemed beautiful. I mimicked what I could with the face and body I had. I was definitely confused as a child, but I don't think it really hit me until I went to college in the U.S., where people were more vocal about the differences. Everything I thought in my head was said aloud: 'I don't think Asian girls are hot.' 'How do you do your makeup without a fold like that?' 'Wow, your boobs are so small. A for Asian, right?' I am, however, thankful that I never went under the knife to make permanent changes to my body." - Morgan Yi, 25, Korean American

Almost Asian, Almost American
Credit: Diana King

"I loved my long straight black hair, but it bothered me when people touched it without asking. I was bigger than my siblings and always told I needed to watch my weight. Food was always a point of contention. 'Don't eat this.' 'Don't eat that.' 'Is that your second bowl?' No one helped me understand or research what foods would be best for my body. This created a painful and lifelong battle for a positive body image. Being told that you're fat and constantly being told that you need to lose weight is very mentally draining. As a kid, you're not given any tools, and even now I find myself struggling. People always commented that I had a beautiful smile and gorgeous hair ... if only I could be thin, guys would like me. WTH!? How were my physical attributes the reason someone would like me or not? I found it very important to be kind, honest, caring, and thoughtful. Those take no 'shape' in the fat vs. skinny realm. Being bigger, I was fat-shamed, and that in turn made me think that being fat is my fault. I am doing this to myself. Why can't I stop? I would always try to hide parts of my body that were 'fat.' I felt less than because I was not skinny. I was supposed to eat, but not eat too much. It's so frustrating because words are harmful." - Terry Vo, 35, Vietnamese American

King's work, including the completed portraits and interviews for the Almost Asian, Almost American project, can be found on Instagram. Follow King's other projects on the artist's professional account.