She stood next to me, towering over me. My legs swung back and forth from the playground bench, trying to stay in rhythm with the nearby slap-slap sound of a jump rope smacking the blacktop, again and again.
She told us she was going to be a model. I believed she would be and easily could be. The rest of the girls with us agreed. She was beautiful.
When I said I wanted to be a model too, she half-smiled. Then she chuckled and said, “You’re cute, but you can’t. Asian people are short, and short people can’t be models.”
The words were quick and effortless, the way my finger pushes the start button on our dishwasher. One press and things begin to whirl into motion. A belief began to wrestle around, looking for a place to stick: Asian women aren’t beautiful. I am not beautiful.
I lay in bed after that, night after night, pinching the edge of my nose together, hoping to make it longer, pointier, taller — less cute. I stared in mirrors, trying to imagine my strong, long hair a shade lighter and a little less wild. I stood on my toes in my room, pretending I was taller.
I wondered, Could I will myself to be something different than I was made to be? Could I fashion my body to fit into someone else’s narrow definition of beauty? Could I camouflage my ethnicity?
Later in my teen years, notes were passed in school. The penciled letters had been carefully lined up on the page, filling line after line with words written to tell me that I was beautiful to the ones who penned them. But like the girl on the playground who said Asians only go as far as “cute,” these boys told me my beauty was possible only as long as it fit into their narrow definitions of being different or exotic. I was a break from their regular focus of attention, a momentary curiosity. They didn’t know how far my Asian-ness sank beneath the skin of a girl who was becoming a woman, past cheekbones, lined eyes, and a body that had skillfully learned to hide what was most cherished within me.
I started attending a youth group at the end of high school. There, I learned that beauty wasn’t to be sought after, that it could be deceptive. Another note was passed out to all the girls one night. It was signed by “God” and said that we were all made “pretty, but not too beautiful,” as if this knowledge would somehow comfort and protect us. I sat on the gray floor, my dark, sun-tanned, cross-legged thighs pressed onto the carpet beside the girl next to me with legs the color of a sugar cone. I nodded my head in agreement because I thought I was supposed to. I felt some temporary relief that my longing for beauty could be pushed aside for the greater glory of pretending not to care and pretending we were all the same.
Eventually, it came down to this: I was blind and could not see. Beauty was much more extravagant and abounding than I had ever believed it could be.
The healing of my longing for and ability to see beauty would take years of undoing, vulnerability, and learning. But Jesus is a tender healer, and He delights in giving us eyes that truly see.
Just this summer, on the front edge of midlife, I found beauty at a Native American hoop dancing performance while I watched image bearers dance, as they described, “to the four directions” to share the stories of their people. On early morning jogs in July, I saw it as the sun rose in the east, glowing orange through the trees that faithfully stand at attention in the entrance of our neighborhood. It’s been witnessed in my son working hard to learn Korean, trying to mouth the sounds of my mama’s world, unknowingly building a bridge through generations. I see and taste it in the gypsy pepper that popped to life from the fragile petals of a flower in our garden. It’s in the freckles on my face in the mirror, the way my mouth curves like my mama’s, and how the wrinkles reach from the corners of my eyes like my dad’s, hinting at my family’s memories whenever I smile.
I have become a beauty seeker, and because of Jesus, there are no confines to what I seek. I’m no longer searching for an answer I once let a girl on the playground, teenage boys, and a meager youth group note answer for me. I bear the beauty of a good God in every part of my ethnicity. I was made to seek and use my words to call out the beauty of a good God in every person I see.
I once was blind, but now I am learning to be stunned by all I see. And there are so many gloriously beautiful, Jesus’-kingdom-come, created-from-Word-love-rib-and-dust things to see.
What about you? It’s never too late to learn something new. Would you ask God to show you where you are blind to the beauty He longs for you to see?
Jesus is a tender healer, and He delights in giving us eyes that truly see. -@tashajunb: Click To Tweet