SARAH LOHMANN WRITES — Self-care is “taking action to preserve or improve one’s health.” Framed as mindfulness, the concept has exploded on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Yet, it has been co-opted by something darker. A recent piece from the New York Times discusses “the Catch-22 of self-care” as the practice “ends up feeling like just another productivity chore, the kind that led us to burnout in the first place.” It has become yet another form of self-monitoring, bordering dysmorphic obsession, filtered through consumerism, racism, and misogyny. The ugliness of the beauty industry unravels gruesomely in Grammy-winning violinist and first-generation American Ling Ling Huang’s debut novel Natural Beauty.
The novel follows a nameless young woman as she ventures into an elite world where perfection comes at a staggering cost. When an accident leaves her parents debilitated, she abandons her dreams for a job at the high-end beauty and wellness store called Holistik.
The protagonist’s namelessness is rooted in Huang’s experience. At the Cleveland Institute of Music, there were so many East Asians that “them being interchangeable became a joke.” Huang says she never felt her name mattered. “I’ve often felt like a blank because people were going to project onto me whatever their preconceived notions of someone who’s Asian is. I wanted my character to experience that.”
While all people feel the pressure of beauty standards, women of color feel them more distinctly because those standards are modeled on a white ideal. Huang recalls: “I was like, Well, if I can’t be white, I can just be really thin. I never asked why I was obsessed with beauty, but if I had it would have made me realize that beauty was just whiteness in my eyes.”
In Natural Beauty, women become less distinct. In fact, despite many at Holistik being people of color, the protagonist believes herself to be a “diversity hire.” She later notes that “the gentle slopes of [her] mother’s body had disappeared from [her] frame as if someone had lopped them off.” This line expresses the forcefulness of her transformation as she goes from like her mother—in line with her Chinese descent—to something unfamiliar.
Having been made fun of for her nose—told not to smile by friends and family—being surrounded by features like hers, unpoliced, was refreshing for Huang. “I remember sitting across from my great uncle, having tea, and I saw through the steam that he had the same nose that I do. And he was laughing. No one had told him to tone it down, or if they did, he didn’t listen. What I realized was all of the time I was chasing beauty and whiteness, I was really chasing belonging.”
Untie the knots of consumption and unfold deep crevices of identity with Natural Beauty. Huang exposes the bitter underbelly of what should be society’s most beautiful. She points to dangerous trends that have emerged—and others that may not be far beyond the horizon.
Sarah Lohmann graduated from Knox College with a BA in Creative Writing and Asian Studies, where their research focused on film, translation, and literature. They are currently pursuing their MFA in Writing at Lindenwood University.
Edited by executive editor, Ella Kelleher.