In the Mirrors

There are pimples on my face; it’s a simple enough statement, one that usually turns untrue in a few days, as the evil red dots subside, leaving in their place a scar. Pimples and ensuing scars, disappearing altogether in time, are nothing to be alarmed about. What disappeared as I grew up, instead, was my relatively smooth skin devoid of red patches and sporadic spots, because the pimples, calling upon their allies, acnes, declared war on my face, and I lost. Over and over.

 

D.S.E., the public exam in Hong Kong, was an incessant worm squirming through our minds; by our, I mean higher-formers’ minds—unwilling soldiers fighting an imminent war, desperate to get our hands on a golden ticket to universities. It was in the summer before sixth form, consisting of piles of books, past-papers, and marking schemes, my skin had enough of stress and anxiety, and acne broke out. I prioritized studies over self-care; D.S.E. can do that to you. Worse, everyone, from parents to teachers to your neighbor, perpetuates the notion that the public exam is the ultimate battle, the culmination of our efforts in the past 17 years. The social climate of education is a giant hoax, and we believed that a uni entry ticket was worth more than our mental and physical health. Hong Kong society has little patience or tolerance for the lazy, uninspired and directionless, which pushed me to become goal-oriented; the thing is, along the way I lost sense of who I was fighting for. Every day as I pick up the pen to write more essays and to do more math problems, I was thinking of the consequences—family disgrace, the social stigma of being not academically intelligent, then being tossed away. Most of these things aren’t true, but at the time, they felt like my reality. My body sensed the threat and acnes exploded onto my skins; the pimples that had so bothered me were a finger’s flick, this was an atomic bomb, and I was bombed out of existence.

 

When I received my results (I’d been admitted into an English program), a voice inside of me whispered an incantation: my acne scars will dissipate. I changed my sleep schedule, became cautious of what I put into my body, cooked my own food when I was home and spent large amounts of money on skincare. Indeed, my skin recovered, but it was never as smooth as it used to be. My family’s reaction piled on further stress. Picture your father asking your mother, “Why is her face still so bad?”, because you and he never established communication, and thus these queries go to the human bridge of you mother; picture him at the rare family dinner, eyes lingering on your face, enough to make you notice his stares, not enough to make you feel his empathy.

 

 Secondary school friends, too, would look at me with pity mixed with concern in their eyes; their gazes darting then fixed onto a certain spot on my face, laser-sharp beams cutting into the skin I so wished to hide; afterward, I’d chide myself for not looking like what I used to. The silent judgment is quite the hallmark of Asian or Eastern societies, wherein the identification of a problem or a ripple in the normalcy is kept quiet and hidden, instead of out in the open with kindhearted discussion. That was almost worse, my friends pretending they didn’t see my scars, as if fueled by embarrassment and something akin to survivor’s guilt.

 

On the other hand, attending university presented an opportunity with which I could start anew. I needed a social armor, which sounded appealing but underwhelming since my armor was an acne-scarred battleground. I didn’t want to put on makeup, fearing the foundation would clog the pores, and everything would turn from bad to worse. Relief came as genuine connections were made, about which I felt more than lucky, and my baseless horrors of being shunned because of my skin were but my insecurity cooking up nightmares every night. Though there were, indeed, embarrassing situations, in which some of my acquaintances erupted into fervent discussion about my skin, setting off like a rocket and I sat there, an unbitten popsicle, melting. A friend once pointed out to me with an index finger that my skin got worse, which instigated frustration for I was the one to gaze at this face every single day after I wake, and before I go to sleep—my scars hardly escaped my notice. My agitation, though, was chased away by a desire for social disguise; thus, I chuckled and said, “Uh…yeah, my skin is worse than last month.”

 

Strangers, too, are inadvertent participants in demolishing my fragile self-worth. Their eyes, normally staying ahead of their course, would stray to my direction and linger, then turn away. Hongkongers are known to be distant and cold; perhaps I should not take their stares to heart, and swallow the lack of empathy like medicine that will toughen me up. Perhaps I’m too sensitive.

 

Amidst all this, something inches from behind the curtains, sheepish yet defiant, nervous yet aggressive—my self-hate, egged on by fear and insecurity. I have been treating myself horribly; I buried my sensibility and my skin—my social armor takes the helm to steer, determining my direction. Each morning, I rush to mirror with heart pounding, to check the red patches or spots, either one of two scenarios would result: they’d act up, become reddish and my day is ruined, or they’d subside, and my cheeks are smoother than normal, only then would I feel a little bit more alive and normal. Yet, things are never, and never will be, normal; I still don’t like myself: my pores are too large, my nose isn’t pointy enough, my jawbone sticks out, my hair won’t part in the middle. My self-love is built on conditions, and ones that I can’t ever fulfill.

My sense of self was constructed on founding stones that are chiseled by my own tools of relentless self-rejection. I think that the mirror isn’t showing the truth, because we make those mirrors, we see in them what we already see in ourselves. Thus, when I steal a furtive look into the thin piece of glass, ready to deliver my life sentence like a judge, I see what I expect to see: an acne-scarred, hateful, scared little girl. I’m hardly the victim in all this, as I too have contributed to the stereotypical image of what a person should look and be like, rejected myself countlessly, and projected my thoughts onto other people. With the ubiquity of reflective surfaces in our lives—social media, novels, movies, and other media, the vernacular we use like “body goalsss,” we become obsessed with a version of ourselves that we suspect we could aspire to, and that is perfected in those media. People tell us we should care about certain things, or that these things will ultimately make us happy, so we prioritize them over everything else—it’s like D.S.E. all over again.

Perhaps the only mirror we need is ourselves, into which we need to look, long and hard, to see what we value, what we let control our lives, our pores, our nose, forehead, chin, hair? Then perhaps we will recognize the need to reprioritize, make them our priorities, not society’s or anyone else’s. No amount of people’s support, or lack thereof, should be able to shape the reflection in our mirrors, and if we falter, the best skin products, the toners and serums, and creams, should go on the inside, then we will heal, bit by bit.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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