They used to say I had beautiful hands

[CW: Blood mention, some graphic details about scars and wounds]

Of the few childhood photos I have access to and from what my relatives tell me, I was once a baby with beautiful lily-white skin. Summer after summer of romping around in the dirt under the hot California sun, however, significantly darkened my complexion into my adolescence. I started to get mistaken for different ethnicities. Being outside so much without supervision often triggered my hay allergies and my arms and legs broke out in ugly rashes. It didn’t help that my face was also riddled with scars from roughhousing with the neighborhood kids and getting into very physical fights with my brother. Never one to think ahead or have much patience, I would always pick at and peel off the scabs on my face and come home with dirty, bloody fingernails and a rebellious grin.

My mother, not amused and decidedly concerned about my prospects as a presentable human being, went straight for the traditional beauty products. She came home with one of the most expensive things you could buy in an Asian supermarket: edible bird’s nest. It’s a rare delicacy that is known for its medicinal properties.

A quick Google search says that a case of these can be priced to upwards of $100, which goes to show how desperately my family wanted me to have a perfect complexion. 8-year-old me wasn’t into it.

Around the same time I started my first onset of pubescent insecurities, my Vietnamese family started to bemoan my deteriorating beauty as well. Their moisturized hands poked and examined my face and limbs like they were assessing fine china and clucked, “You’re pretty enough to get by. Once you’re older you can pay for surgery for that face.” It was the first time I learned that my face was something that needed fixing.

I’ve always loved wearing light pastel colors, but my family discouraged me from doing so (“They make your face look dirty, dark, unclean”). As I got older and gained some curves from puberty I was teased by my family for indulging in eating more than what was considered a ladylike serving. I learned to hate my thighs and my cheeks, and eventually started to pick at those too. Eventually over the course of high school I outgrew this and was able to focus my energies elsewhere until just recently.

I’m 20 now and my eczema came back full force when I moved into my current apartment. My hands started to become scaly and irritated. What started out as minor bug bites devolved into nasty wounds because when I scratch a bad itch, I scratch until I bleed. Sometimes I’ll scratch even further into the raw flesh. The skin on the back of my legs was the worst. They were two huge open wounds and for weeks it hurt to walk or use the stairs. I felt self-conscious about exposing my legs for the first time in years.

My skin is the ugliest it’s been in a long time.

In the midst of my dermatological troubles I got my second tattoo a couple of weeks ago after months of working with an artist to create the design. It felt good. It helps me feel like I actually am in control of my impulses and have the power to choose what permanently stays on my skin.

me and my tattclose up

I went to a dermatologist on campus for a consultation and he said that I needed to be gentler with my skin. Cooler showers, shorter baths, soothing lotion, protective sunscreen, and, as always, hydration. It’s easy to forget that our bodies are vessels that need to be taken care of before they start to revolt against us. I asked him if there were products I could use to lighten the hyperpigmentation of my darkest-looking scars and he shrugged and said, “You can’t quite undo the damage, but you can stop the habit and prevent it from getting worse.” Strangely, this was good enough for me.

Once, a lifetime ago, I complained to my aunt about how insecure I felt about the countless gruesome dark marks that disfigured me. She pointed to her face and said, “Look, I have them too. These are all battle scars. Each one has a story.” My aunt was looking pointedly at my then torn-up knees from a particularly embarrassing scooter accident. “When people look at you they won’t just see another girl. They’re going to see a warrior, a survivor. That’s something, right?”

On outer beauty, part 2

I was fiddling around with a “lip-plumping” lip gloss on Saturday morning unsure about how it actually works when my aunt decided that we should experiment with make-up.

“Your skin is so dark, so we can’t use these colors. Hmm your eyelashes aren’t too long either.” I gave an exaggerated sigh of agreement as my aunt and I both took in my reflection. She looked at me and said quickly, “But that’s okay.”

“I know.”

In the afternoon as I was attempting to wipe off all the make-up, I gained newfound respect for all the poor souls who actually put on and take off these mysterious powders and chemicals on a daily basis.

At one point I furiously wiped at blemishes under my eyes but the dark splotches refused to come off. Then I realized that you can’t quite wipe away nights spent alone in front of a computer screen with a turnitin.com window waiting in a corner, nights spent looking for shooting stars, or nights spent asking “what if”.

Eyeliner reminds me of my mom. It looks a lot worse on me. On me I’m reminded of crying or despair or desperation for some reason. I’ll go without.

On outer beauty

I’ve seen too many girls tear themselves apart because they felt they appeared unattractive. When I’m asked to judge a friend’s looks I give my honest opinion, which has worked thus far because I don’t actually know anyone who deserves to be called ugly outright. I never gratuitously say “You’re beautiful,” unless it’s true, either. That’s not the sort of message I advocate.

I went through this insecurity phase last year in which I became terribly jealous of all my gorgeous, pretty, talented, charismatic friends. I felt small and invisible. Eventually I moved past this, but I still feel somewhat small. There are some things you actually can’t change.

I had this fleeting thought the other day: “Someone needs to teach me how to be a girl.” I don’t know what to do with all my hair besides ponytails and buns and haphazard bobby pin placement. I have no idea if gold goes with silver. I have never worn earrings other than the ones I’ve had ever since I first had my ears pierced, and that was more than 10 years ago. How can you wear something other than a T shirt and jeans with minimal effort?

People like to tell me “You’re cute.” That’s fine and appreciated but becomes very old when I realize how few adjectives people have to offer me. There are greater things I aspire to be than cute, like “exquisite” or “lackadaisical.”

At the first funeral I ever attended I overheard my granduncle tell my aunt that I looked beautiful when I cried. He’s a douche and we don’t talk to him anymore.

I once read about a girl who couldn’t bear to hear people tell her that she was pretty all the time. It was not that she did not believe them, though. To her it indicated boys did not like her for her personality, or for who she was. That’s rough.

There are aspects of my physical appearance that sometimes bother me, but that has more to do with my innate perfectionist tendencies than crippled self-esteem. I have days when I wish I had this person’s flawless skin or another person’s nicer shaped lips. I have days when I want to hide under my hood or beneath a paper bag. I have days when I feel shitty but find out that my hair looks fabulous without even trying. There are days when I manage to wear something other than a T shirt and jeans. The best days of all, though, are when I can ignore the mirror and still feel absolutely stunning.