By Joonhae Ahn

January 22, 2021

I rarely felt beautiful growing up. Maybe it was because of the painful red bumps that would erupt on my face overnight. Or the clunky metal braces stamped onto my teeth. It could have been that I was one of the few Asian girls in a mostly white neighborhood, entering womanhood where “the pretty one” was almost certainly a sunny blonde cheerleader.

I found some solace for my apparent lack of beauty with my mother. My umma was one of the few Asian, let alone, Korean women in my life as a child — and she was beautiful. With dark, half-moon eyes and a wide smile that beamed against shining olive skin, my mother radiated youthful beauty at the age of forty-five. Her beauty was accentuated by a series of staple accessories: colorful silk scarves, tortoise sunglasses, and an elegant gold watch that glimmered on her dainty wrist.

After school, I sometimes snuck into my parents’ bedroom to rummage through my mother’s closet and vanity, seeking the secret to her beauty. Digging through the drawers, I’d find my mother’s signature silk scarf and adjust it carefully around my neck. There was her lipstick, a warm rosy cinnamon color that I clumsily smudged over my lips. In the mirror, a pimply fourteen-year-old girl with lipstick peered shyly back at me.

And I felt beautiful.