I’ve had the hardest time drawing myself, period. Therefore, I challenged myself to try and embarked on a self portrait journey.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been uncomfortable with my body and my self esteem. Burdened by anxiety and judgment, I became my own worst critic. I still am to this day.
Growing up as one of the few people of Asian descent in a predominantly White community, I longed for more Western features. I would wish that my hair and eye color would lighten and the shape of my eyes would widen. In addition to my outlier status, during my formative years, I was also overweight and taller than most which impacted my self confidence. Therefore, I chose to shun my Asian identity. I tried to act more White. The show “Fresh off the Boat” resonates so well with my upbringing. Check it out, it’s a great show.
I clearly remember this one instance in the first grade when I realized I was not like the others. A classmate of mine had asked me if I was Chinese or Japanese without any prompting. Sadly, they also pulled their eyelids taut to mimic small Asian eyes. I explained that I was Korean which lies between China and Japan. I’ve experienced bigoted followups from individuals after that ultimately racist question of “Where do you come from? No, where do you really come from?” with “Oh, are you from the North or the South?”. I’ve always been very aware of my “other” status. It is an awareness that I carry with me everyday.
I learned to present myself as “American”. When in a social situation with strangers, I learned to smile and speak first. I did this to stop the assumption that I didn’t speak English simply because I look different from the others in the room.
After many years of trying to seem more Western, I decided to embrace my Korean-American identity. I became obsessed with K-pop, dramas and Korean skincare. I started cooking foods that my mother would make for our family everyday. These were the feel good meals that I ended up craving after I moved across the country and away from my entire family and relatives.
As an adult, I reflect and see that the world has changed, but not very much. Something I look back at nostalgically are American Girl dolls. When I was a child, there was a limited group of dolls to choose from. All were White. My American Girl doll was Felicity. A spunky redhead from the Colonial period. She is now banished to the attic of my parent’s house, mainly from my fear of living dolls. That was a crazy segue, amirite? Then the first customizable American Girl dolls were released where you could make a doll that looked just like you. What an innovation! Honestly, if I had a role model that looked like me while I was growing up, I think I would have grown into a more secure woman. And that’s the truth.
Currently in 2019, the Korean wave is impacting trends worldwide. This is something I never would have dreamed to be true when I was younger. I am torn in many ways about the Korean wave and its impact. I am glad that there are people who look like me who are in demand and influencing others. On the other hand, I also feel like Korean culture is the hot new thing. Something exotic and somewhat treated as a spectacle.
Because of my struggles with my self identity and self worth, I decided to use self portraits as a stepping stone in my own self acceptance journey. As I look at my reflection in a mirror, as I review my face and body in photos, I learn to appreciate the “flaws” that I used to hate. My freckles and moles are now considered beauty marks. My mismatched eyelids (one has a double lid while the other is single) make my face more interesting. My large lips are deemed envy worthy and can only be given by God or a plastic surgeon. My eyes aren’t just dark brown, they have a brightness in them that illuminates sometimes. And my body whose weight has fluctuated so much through my 3 decades of life has taught me to appreciate that it is both strong and flexible, carrying me through this life and the years to come.
Within my work, I’ve learned to incorporate pieces of my background as clues for the viewer. I try to show authentic emotions, such as the feelings of despair during the struggles to conceive a child in “Mother of the Year” or propping myself up and presenting myself as a Korean queen in “RBF: Resting Bitch Face”. Although I do not descend from royalty, so far as I know, I can treat myself like I am, the Head Bitch in Charge.
I feel that my self portraits are therapeutic. As I take time and look at myself, I learn that my features have shaped my life experience. Something that solely belongs to me.
I chose to display my anxieties and joys on a canvas or a piece of paper. I can then look back at the finished piece and feel accomplishment. Once done, I then put the piece away, and that physical act of archiving my work is so freeing.
I believe this self portrait movement of mine will be a lifelong journey of acceptance. I wish to grow and reflect as I embark on more joys and heartaches. I hope you follow along with me on this enlightening journey. Namaste.