Asian American Experiences of Beauty Standards: Yasamin (3/3)

December 18, 2019 at 12:57 am 2 comments

by Emma Li

In First Generation, the contrast between My-Linh’s new orange-haired appearance and her black hair dye drenched montage at the end emphasizes the dichotomy of beauty standards. My-Linh either changes her appearance according to white-washed standards or she imagines the destruction of these standards. Either way, the film sets societal standards as the ultimate determining factor. In the short Yasamin (2018) directed by Julia Elihu and Ashton Tu, the protagonist is a young Iranian girl named Yasamin living in the US during the Iran hostage crisis. Throughout the film, she also struggles with the disjuncture between her family’s culture’s beauty standards and those of her American peers. The point of contention is the hair connecting her eyebrows. Although Yasamin also ends up changing her appearance to assimilate, the short ultimately reaches a different conclusion compared to First Generation, as Yasamin’s mother sets the individual as the ultimate determining factor, rather than societal standards.

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When Yasamin opens up to her mother about other kids in class making fun of her unibrow, her mother shares a story of her own teenage struggle with appearance. She tells Yasamin, “So you have a little hair. It’s no big deal. Without hair, with it, you’re pretty. Don’t worry. Don’t let people’s words bother you. Don’t pay attention. I promise you everything will get better.” This seems to reassure Yasamin as she smiles back at her mother. Unlike First Generation, the rhetoric presented in Yasamin is that we need to feel comfortable in our own skin regardless of our appearance.

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While First Generation compiles shots of advertisements to point out white-washed American beauty standards, Yasamin includes montages of Iranian art to represent traditional Iranian beauty standards that praised unibrows. When Yasamin reveals her waxed eyebrows to her mother, the scene cuts to three shots of art depicting people with unibrows dressed in colorful traditional clothes. Their appearance “is clearly at odds with typical white-washed representations of royal, wealthy, attractive Middle Eastern women” (Vice).

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According to a Vice article and Iranian-born Harvard professor Afsaneh Najmabadi, “under Iran’s Qajar dynasty (1785–1925), beauty ideals shifted under Iran’s Qajar dynasty and the female unibrow had a defining moment. . . . Women wore thick, dark eyebrows and mustaches, sometimes even enhancing the hair on their upper lip with mascara.” Although Yasamin did not fight with her mother over her eyebrows, Yasamin’s initial unwillingness to reveal her waxed brows and her mother’s initial response suggest that “hair removal is still a contentious subject among some Iranian parents and their teenage daughters living in the West because of this legacy” (Vice).

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Living in the West poses various challenges to mothers like Yasamin’s who advise their daughters to not let other people’s words bother them. Immediately after this conversation between Yasamin and her mother, the very next scene shows Yasamin and her cousin facing racist remarks on the school bus from their peers. They’re told to “go home” and “don’t take us hostage” as crumpled up paper balls are thrown at them. Yasamin tries to cheer her cousin up with an inside joke, but the reality remains that their everyday life is heavily impacted by public perceptions of Iranians and unibrows. While Yasamin is able to find comfort in her family and chuckles in the face of adversity, the film ends on the hardly escapable reality of immigrants growing up in an anti-immigrant environment.

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Through the mother’s words, Yasamin provides some hope for young Asians struggling with American beauty standards. Nonetheless, it does not shy away from representing the beauty and identity struggles faced by the Iranian characters. The short actually begins with a television news anchor discussing the Iran hostage crisis and Yasamin’s mother commenting on the constant broadcast of the crisis. The mainstream media shapes the public perception of Iranians and influences Yasamin’s classmates to harass her. Similarly, in First Generation, the faces that air on television and get printed in magazines shape societal beauty standards and influences My-Linh’s own self-image. Both films address the nature of mainstream media in shaping beauty standards and how Asian characteristics are judged. As an Asian American, I experience the products of these media discourses in my everyday life. However, with new developments in the Asian American mediascape, media objects like Yasamin and First Generation also have great potential to reshape societal beauty standards and the conversations about those standards.

(All images’ source: Yasamin)

Click here to view the first post in this series.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • […] Click here to view the next post in this series. […]

  • 2. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 24, 2019 at 12:54 am

    At this final post in your series, I think you are beginning to make full use of the class blog’s online environment. This post has an interesting combination of academic and web-based research, media analysis, as well as your autobiographical voice. The scope of your series is appropriate for the expectations of the final project. Also it is clear that you were inspired by the film festival project we did in class to engage with these recent short films by Asian American filmmakers.

    Your choice of ‘Yasamin” as the subject of your concluding discussion is an interesting one, since Iranian American film is normally not considered as Asian American media. In addition to being included in the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, this film also brings an interesting perspective to your discussion that helps to expand on it. Discussion on body hair and female beauty standards is uncommon in an East Asian context. I think your exploration and analysis of this film broaden the premise of your series in important ways.

    I still would have liked to see more of an identifiable critical framework in your series, and more engagement with scholarship and web-based sources. It seems that this is a personally important project for you, and I can appreciate that!

    Prof Ma


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