Photo by Bettmann
Twice a year I have a ritual. I go up to Thirty-Second Street in Manhattan’s Koreatown and head into an anonymous building where I am greeted by a tiny, beautiful Russian woman who leads me to a stack of mesh disposable undies, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since slipping on some of those bad boys in the maternity ward after giving birth. No loaf-sized pad to layer in, though, or mewling baby to squish onto a nipple. No, these days, in my sheer (what is the point) water-repellent undies, I am directed into an igloo-shaped hot dry sauna, then a hot tub full of lemons, then a cold tub full of cucumbers, then a hot wet sauna.
The spa is not so much relaxing as it is a march of boobs-out, crotch-masked efficiency. Everything around me is busy. Small Asian women bustle about, directing customers here and there, guiding dripping, naked bodies to and fro. After emerging, dripping sweat, from the steam room, I am led by the elbow to my penultimate destination, a vinyl-topped massage table that recalls a combo of your great-aunt’s plastic-covered floral love seat and Hannibal Lecter’s dissection room. Here, my clinician instructs me to remove the mesh and lay down on my belly on the slippery plastic.
I am naked, ass-side up on the plastic-coated table, when she starts tossing buckets of hot water on me from an industrial-size drum. There’s a pause as she straps on her tools of the trade: sandpapery gloves with which she will scour every inch of my body, including within my butt crack and under my boobs and in between my toes. The whole thing takes an hour; I will shed at least three pounds worth of dead skin, endure countless buckets of hot water, and be manipulated this way and that on the plastic butcher block. This is BEFORE I get passed off to a sadist dressed as a facialist to extract six months’ worth of goo from the pores on my nose and chin and get layered up in algae and kelp—I pay extra for that—and scolded for letting my face absorb so much filth.
This is just the beginning. This is so I can then go to the multitude of beauty stores on Thirty-Second Street and literally buy snail smegma to smear on my face every night, after washing my face twice with two different kinds of rice oils, toning, then adding some sort of ginseng brightening serum, then slapping on a collagen cream.
Right now, my bathroom shelves include the following:
- Oil cleansers
- Face oils
- Moisturizing body oils
- Anti-cellulite oils
- De-oiling mattifiers for all the oils I’ve added on
- My fucking RETAINERS, to hold in place the work done when I got ADULT BRACES, to “fix” my smile
- Teeth whiteners, which I use with frightening regularity (seriously, there’s a schedule that aligns with my birthday and the holidays)
- Seventy-three thousand millionty bazillion NEUTRAL lipsticks and glosses, because the point of slathering chemicals on your face is to look NATURAL
- An equal number of “barely there” blushes and bronzers
- Concealers for the scars that I sometimes like to show when the rest of my skin is flawless but that I like toc over up when it’s not (my level of imperfection is closely calibrated)
Why? The key is to be only imperfect enough to be charming, so that I can say, “Oh, I don’t really wear makeup. I’m pretty low maintenance.” So I can be the kind of lady that is effortless.
In 2018, when Google did that brilliant data-mining scam and asked us all to upload our personal information and FACES to the damn internet to find ourselves in their global database of portraiture (liars; I was matched with some French lady because obviously Asians don’t make art), I posted a #makeupless selfie on Instagram with my art match and felt smug about that photo for days. Because #nofilter, my skin looked fucking great. Just enough freckles and my bright scar, so people knew I was being authentic and I looked real, but glowy and smooth and lovely, like the kind of lady who has an IV of collagen and turmeric juice. I looked effortless.
Why the cloak-and-dagger routine? Why not say, Hey, this shit is hard? Nobody actually has perfectly groomed eyebrows. If you don’t have enough, you fill them in. Pencil? Brushes? How many shades do you use? Maybe you microblade, even, to save yourself the time every morning of filling them in. You literally slice pigment into your face WITH SHARP METAL OBJECTS to SAVE YOURSELF BEAUTY TIME. If you have too much eyebrow, you wax and you pluck and you thread and you groom the remaining brow with pomade and comb it with tiny little eye-brow brushes. If you have just enough—wait, are they the right shape? Right angle? Right shade? Did you know you can dye your eyebrows? If your eyes are the windows to your soul, the eyebrows are—well, goddamn if I know. But it’s boring to talk about this stuff. Right? Like, smart women aren’t supposed to care.
But I do.
I was never the Pretty One in my family. I was not light skinned, or petite, or doe eyed enough. My sister was the Pretty One, and also the Straight-A Smart One. I was the Fun One, and the Popular One, and the Smart One Whose Parents Still Worried About Her Because She Had Rebellious Tendencies.
Those tendencies were programmed at an early age. I am not Gen X, I am not a millennial, but I am part of the female American microgeneration that grew up on Sassy magazine, riot grrrls, Courtney Love’s band Hole, Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, and every other cultural touchstone that dictated that you must be grungily and rebelliously imperfect and maybe even a little bit outcast, but only in just such a way that actually made you cool.
Early on, it was very clear to me there was a Right Way to have a perfectly messy ponytail or slightly disheveled T-shirt or a lean, loungy body. Somewhere in the very narrowly defined gray area between outcast and edgy, nonchalant and within the accepted standards of beauty, was the effortlessness I so wanted to achieve.
But to be effortless, you couldn’t talk about it. It’s not that all effort was uncool. It was cool to play sports and go to practice every day. It was cool to be a musician and need to rehearse. It was cool to be a pretty, thin girl who could hang and take big, messy bites of burger. It was NOT cool to tell people that in order to maintain your weight you only ate lettuce and Laughing Cow cheese squares and that to throw your hair up in a cute ponytail actually required twenty minutes of teasing at the crown. Feminism Lite (my preferred brand of feminism as an adolescent) required keeping your damn mouth shut about the desire to be something as superficial as pretty, so I did. Being pretty had to be something you just were, not something that you tried to achieve, and if I wasn’t it, I had to be quiet about wanting it and what I did to get it.
I am also Korean American. I grew up living in a vale of silence and not some small amount of shame. That is, I was primed to take up the mantle of silent effort in the pursuit of effortlessness.
In my eighties childhood, in the verrrry white Midwest, my parents owned a convenience store within Oasis Mobile Home Park, a massive trailer park in a then-industrial suburb that felt a million miles from the fancy suburb we lived in. They made an excellent living as small-business owners, but as an engineer and a nurse by training (immigration does things to a person’s job prospects), they were ashamed of their jobs among the doctors and lawyers and executives in our community. We ate kimchi and broiled fish every day, but we never unleashed the smell in front of white people, because, you know, foreign. My parents occasionally struggled with English but insisted that their children’s was perfect.
I absorbed it all: the need to succeed and the internalized judgment of how we did so; the love of who we were and the not-wanting-to-be-weird-in-front-of-white-people; the need for the linguistic cues of my Americanness to appear effortless, to show that it was natural to me, even though English was my second language. Internalized white supremacy is a real trip, lemme tell you.
So here we are. I am basically programmed to be wildly, savagely proud, and also always a little bit ashamed. I am groomed to always cultivate the appearance that I belong here, that I am beautiful, and that this is how I was born to be. That this is all effortless.
I AM LIVING A LIE AND I AM SO TIRED.
Because, of course, I am relaxed about literally nothing. I am effortful about everything, and it extends far, far beyond trying to be pretty. Wait—I was relaxed about potty training my kids, maybe? No, my husband and I were just too overwhelmed with having two kids under three years old that we essentially forgot to potty train, and they did it themselves. The truth is, we were drowning. If you are nearly killing yourself with effort in other arenas, turns out, not putting forth any effort and somehow getting a good result can turn into actual #effortlessness! But oh, the temptation TO LIE! To blithely say to other parents, “Don’t worry so much about potty training! It’ll happen when it happens. We hardly had to do anything and it was so easy!”
The things I could do if I weren’t carrying around the mental burden of the need-to-find-the-perfect-blend-of-sheer-lip-plumper-slash-gloss-and-maybe-it-would-make-me-feel-better-about-my-mommy-pooch-which-makes-me-feel-weirdly-regretful-about-my-C-section-because-maybe-my-pooch-would-be-smaller-if-I’d-had-vaginal-births-but-we’ll-never-know-but-thanks-for-the-lifelong-question-that-I’m-too-embarrassed-to-talk-about-because-women-are-only-supposed-to-be-grateful-for-healthy-babies-and-a-feminist-shouldn’t-care-so-much-about-a-round-belly! The sheer SPACE I could clear in my brain! The loneliness I could let go of!
The mental gymnastics—Jesus. What a waste of goddamn effort. How much more useful, how much more joyful, how much easier to actually be truthful, to celebrate our efforts, to create communities around our desires and not fucking live with the shame that the desire for effortlessness brings, for women, and for immigrants, and for people of color who may never fit into a white, Westernized standard of beauty. Maybe all the effort that goes into being effortless could be used, I don’t know, in loving ourselves and loving each other better. How transformative being honest could be.
The lie doesn’t just exhaust me; it hurts us all. When we lie about the basic values of our culture (that women must be beautiful) and yet do everything in our power to adhere to that value (we kill ourselves to make ourselves beautiful) and lie about the labor women must put into adhering to the unspoken value of our culture (we have to be effortless), we ensure that nothing will ever change. We can’t change our culture when we lie about what the culture is. We can’t accept ourselves until we stop pretending that we already do. And we can’t value our work until we acknowledge that this is work—this, THIS (please imagine me gesturing expansively at the world)—that existing in a body as a woman in this world is work.
Nothing is effortless.