How My Pixie Cut Made Me Understand Asian American Beauty

 Photo credit: Tiffany Mascarenhas

Photo credit: Tiffany Mascarenhas

At a party over a month ago, in a room filled with people I didn’t know, one guy asked me what it was like (as a woman) to have a hairstyle like mine—a pixie cut. There were three things I remember saying in response, two of them being this: “Sometimes I fade into the crowd” and “other times, I stick out.” I probably said these comments out of self-consciousness since I had the attention of four strangers on me. But the conversation made me contemplate my short hair, the beauty I found in it as an Asian American woman, and my choice of making myself different enough to be invisible and other times, distinct.

The roots of this pixie began in middle school, when my hair changed. As a kid, I had straight black hair, the typical beauty standard for Asian girls. But as puberty creeped in, my hair began to have a slow, uneven explosion into thick frizz and coarse waves. It was not glorious. My hair stuck out in places, never laid flat, and wasn’t smooth to the touch. A relative once said how both my parents had thick frizzy hair when they were young and it seemed that my hair was the resulting combination of both. And there was a LOT of hair, enough to physically and mentally exhaust a hairdresser after one appointment. The impression I had of my hair was that it wasn’t beautiful.

I was frustrated with my hair, but I also felt like I was supposed to be frustrated with it. Like many women, I was surrounded by a variety of beauty standards in regards to hair, but being Asian American came with specific nuances. I tried complying to them all. I straightened my hair frequently to minimize its volume and waviness so that it was like the straight black hair of other Asian women. Because of my after-school commitment to ballet, I kept my hair long to put in a modest bun. In addition, I never cut it shorter than chin-length because society (both Asian and Western) seemed to suggest that women weren’t supposed to have hair any shorter than that. When it seemed like my hair was too black and one-dimensional, I added highlights to give it “dimension.” When I was introduced to the curling wand, I straightened then curled my wavy hair to achieve a passable shape of a wave.

In my efforts to fit my thick mess of hair into the standards postulated by Western/American media and Asian/Filipino culture, I ended up just feeling tired. Attempts to form my hair into these ideals couldn’t change the fact that my hair was always going to be a divergent from the typical expectations for women, both Asian and American. I often resorted to gathering my hair up into a ponytail so that I could easily wrap it in a ballet bun for later. Hair didn’t equate to beauty or identity then. I didn’t want to work with my hair. My frizzy hair was just an inconvenience to work around.

When I started to do smoothing treatments on my hair late into high school, it seemed like the solution to my insecurity tied up in a ponytail. The first time I went to school with silkier kempt hair, a high school friend called it “sexy,” something that was never before associated with my hair. To fit into beauty standards that seemed so unattainable in the past was exhilarating. With this new hair I even adopted a bob cut, something I had always wanted to do but couldn’t. Long hair with my natural texture was heavy, but with the smoothing treatments, I believed I was now allowed to have this acceptable “female” length without it looking like a poofy triangle. But as the years went on and I went into repeat treatments to tame my frizz and loosen my waves for long-term effects, I began to question whether I was okay with modifying my hair’s natural texture. Why did I prioritize these Asian and American beauty standards that I never fit in before? What would I lose in the process?

I’ve had an asymmetrical pixie cut for a few years now and it’s been a while since my last smoothing treatment in a series of increasingly infrequent appointments. The effects of the treatment has toned down the frizz irreversibly and I still use products to make my hair a bit more malleable and defined. But my pixie cut keeps my hair lightweight and low-maintenance, while also letting me show off my thick hair texture. I hardly ever straighten my hair anymore, because I simply prefer my waves and frizz. And finally, I don’t feel less like a woman. At all. I once feared of what society would think of me as an Asian American woman without the coveted long hair. But with this daring new cut, I feel more like the woman I’m meant to be. My only wish is that I had adopted a pixie cut earlier in life.

My thick, frizzy, wavy pixie lets me embrace my beauty and identity as an Asian American woman. If I was never meant to fit into the popular beauty standards of my ethnic culture and my country of residence, and if I don’t want to align with either beauty standards, then I believe the space I inhabit as an Asian American woman between the two standards is what defines Asian American beauty for me. It means never looking quite “Asian woman” enough for Asia and never looking quite” Western woman” enough for America. It means being a rejection from both beauty standards. It means being a little bit of both. It means being different enough to fade into the crowd and being different enough to stand out from it.

Before my friend whisked me away from the room of the four party attendees curious about my experience with a pixie cut, I had a third, final comment about what it was like as an Asian American woman. In comparison to the first two statements, the third was quite uncomplicated: “But all the time, I just feel like me.”