To be clear: I did not cry on stage.
The crying came afterwards, once I was safely outside of the Sheraton, away from taffeta and tulle, the judges and their whispered comments and stares. The crying surprised me; a wetness on my face that smeared my mascara, loosening the fake eyelashes makeup artists had painstakingly applied.
It happened like this. We were near the end of the competition, and all contestants were standing in the wings of the makeshift stage, laughing and pretending we weren’t about to jump every time another name was announced. Fourteen of us were participating in the Miss Chinese International pageant, and sixteen awards would be handed out. The arithmetic seemed in our favor to a distasteful extent. “They’re giving out participation awards,” I murmured to my mother, and we had laughed together, unaware of our hubris.
Standing backstage, my arms crossed, the sequined corset embedding itself into my forearms, a ball started forming in my throat as I watched more of my co-contestants–some of whom had become my friends–amble into the spotlights and bow their heads as the presenter slipped a sash across their torsos. The available awards dwindled. My mother rushed backstage. “I think there’s a chance you’re going to get first place,” she said.
Her comment momentarily buoyed me. I shook my head, laughed, pretending not to want it, pretending like I wasn’t thinking the same thing. I hadn’t joined the pageant to win, hadn’t even considered it, but the weeklong training–the sweat, blisters and endless indignity of being scrutinized by “instructors”–had created a buy-in for me.
When Pinky, whom I had become closest to in the pageant, was declared the winner, I clapped as loudly as everyone else. We had spent most of our weeklong training goofing off and complaining, and her triumph seemed like an underdog tale. The humiliation hadn’t yet arrived; her award meant there were no more titles left, which meant I was one of two girls who hadn’t even gotten a participation trophy. All of this hit at once, when my mother came hurrying backstage again and said, “Don’t be upset! Are you upset? This competition was rigged.” Or maybe the ignominy hit fully when Amanda, another contestant came up, eyes brimming with concern, and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, laughing, the pitch high and unconvincing. “I’ll write about this later. I don’t even care. It’s kind of funny.” I turned and saw my father, staring at me with trepidation, like he worried I would burst into tears. “I’ll pack your stuff,” my mother whispered, and started a blur of movement, my parents surrounding me like bodyguards, a few girls–my friends–touching my arm and asking me to the afterparty.
Once we were safely outside, on the sun-baked streets of Flushing, my mother repeated, over and over: “This competition was rigged.” I felt irritation, humiliation, and exasperation. Her protective rage touched me, but a small unkind part of me also wanted to say, “Well, whose fault was all of this anyway?” I wasn’t, after all, the one who found the pageant.
My mother discovered the Miss Chinese International Pageant through a group message on WeChat and she suggested I enroll. “It’ll be an interesting experience,” she said. “When else in your life will you have the chance? Youth is so fleeting.”
It was June of 2020, the summer after COVID vaccinations first appeared, when everyone’s sense of inhibition was careening downwards in tandem with the falling case counts. I was twenty-four, had spent a year living at home with my parents and was now twenty pounds thinner than when I graduated college. The pandemic thinned me out, eradicated the late-night drunken pizza runs, provided ample time for long walks and pilates. I had my cheekbones back.
I demurred, and then agreed – not because I thought I was beauty pageant material; I was just delighted my mother thought so. We poured over the application together: a two-page questionnaire, a no-makeup headshot, and my resume. I’m not sure they ever looked at my resume. I wasn’t sure how to customize it, but I added a section of “special talents,” and included singing, editing, and dancing––two of which were lies. For my headshot, I sent in a selfie of me in a silk robe. Apparently, my mother also sent in some professional photographs of me to Gloria, the pageant organizer. “Beautiful!” she replied over WeChat. The entry fee was a nonrefundable $300.
My mother and I watched prior years’ competition, available on YouTube. The format was straightforward: formal wear, talent, qi pao (the traditional Chinese gown) and this year, athletic-wear. “You know,” an organizer explained, “With COVID and everything, we felt like we should emphasize how important health is.” I sent my application, was rapidly accepted through a WeChat message, and forgot about the pageant entirely for two months.
In May, there was a meet-and-greet when all contestants congregated at the apartment of Rina, the head makeup artist, to get ready for a press release that afternoon. “There will be reporters,” Zao Zao said. Her role in the pageant wasn’t clear yet, but she was the prettiest of the organizers, with a glossy chin length bob and symmetrical, fox-like features. Her eyelashes almost touched her eyebrows every time she blinked. “We’re going to be written up in one of the newspapers,” she emphasized. All the instructors and judges referred to the contestants as mei niu, beautiful girls. Zao Zao sometimes called us “baby.”
I arrived at Rina’s an hour and a half late, and she was agitated both by my tardiness and the slow pace of her makeup artistry students. “You cannot be this slow on the day of the competition,” she kept saying. “And mei niu, if you arrive late on the day of the competition, we’re not going to be able to help you.” Then she turned to my face, tapping a foundation-soaked sponge against my cheeks. “You actually have quite light skin,” she said. “Your skin tone just isn’t even, so you can’t tell. But this foundation will fix it.”
Her living room was lined with mirrors. Underneath the mirrors was an L-shaped makeup counter, with a rainbow assortment of cosmetics littering the countertop: blushes stacked, eyeliners toppled, makeup brushes bursting from their stands, like the backstage of a fashion show. A beaded curtain hung in the middle of the room, serving no purpose other than a rattling background noise. Rina and her family also lived in the apartment, which doubled as a beauty school. Her makeup students filtered in as more contestants arrived. Coffee was brewed, breakfast pastries passed around. On the wall hung two wooden signs, the kind you find at Marshalls or Home Goods: Blending is my cardio and Wake and Bake.
Spurts of hairspray, puffs of powder, swipes of lip gloss accelerated. I caught other contestants’ eyes as we sized up our competitors. I hadn’t spoken to them yet, but we all looked tired and faintly puzzled, watching our faces transform. I was surprised when I entered the apartment to see no one that seemed “beauty queen” material. Many of us looked haggard: dark circles, acne scars, fried hair. It was comforting, in a sense. I relaxed in my chair, browsing through my phone, but when I next looked up, a transformation had taken place among the girls: poreless skin, kohl-lined eyes offset by fluttering lashes, cherry-stained lips. My momentary comfort faded. Rina smoothed a bright orange-pink lip gloss on me and stood back, scrutinizing her work. “It has a nice brightening effect on your skin,” she mused. She unraveled the hair straightener while looking at me. “We’ll curl your hair outwards. It’ll make you look younger, you know, cute and innocent.”
The press conference was to be down the street, at a boba shop bursting with pink accouterments and detailing. Someone said, “Oh, it’s for photo opportunities.” Drinks were $6+ and a daybed shaped like a hot air balloon functioned as a centerpiece of the cafe. Upstairs, each of the pageant instructors–dance, beauty, fitness, catwalk–gave a brief spiel about their specialty and what a competition like this meant. Microphones kept cutting out or were drowned out by the background music, a cloying mix of synth pop. The dance instructor, Maggie, herself a former pageant winner, said in Chinese, “And the golden rule [for weight loss] is of course, move your legs and keep your lips closed.”
Some of my co-contestants were taking notes, dutifully clacking away on their iPhones. We had changed into dresses, and as I looked around, I saw a glittering array of stilettos, some so bedazzled that glitter rained off, leaving a diamond trail on the floor. A perfunctory photoshoot followed:. headshots, group shots, and waving for video shots. Then, we were offered free drinks and heavily encouraged to post selfies of us at the shop, with a geotag, maybe some hashtags. I looked around; I saw no reporters.
“What the hell is going on?” I said to my mother. She was sitting on the steps to the second floor, purse in hand, watching with trepidation. “We’re, like, basically advertising for this boba shop,” which was owned by one of the competition’s sponsors.
A photographer, Ada, offered individual portraits for $200. My mother and I politely declined and then we drove to Zao Zao’s studio, a dilapidated townhouse nestled in a row of dilapidated townhouses.
“Oh my god,” I said. “We’ve been hoodwinked.”
There was a moment of silence. My parents and I stared at the sign, the house. We stared at the gas tank, calculating how much time and effort we had wasted to come here. There had been warning signals already: the low bar of entry, Rina’s cramped apartment, the haphazard nature of the “press release.”
“Forget it,” Mom said. “Let’s just go home. We’ll pull out of the competition.”
Later that week, she did some more research about the competition, realized that there was an international portion in Guangzhou, a port city near Hong Kong. She knocked on my bedroom door.
“I think we should do it.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I think you should compete.”
Here’s what I knew about beauty pageants before I joined one:
Contestants are conventionally beautiful and thin. There are often cash prizes. The swimsuit portion of pageants is most heavily critiqued. Culturally, some assume that pageants are only entered by the vapid and dumb. There’s a crown.
Here’s what I learned about beauty pageants through joining one:
There is not always a cash prize; you might even spend thousands of dollars for nothing. The bikini portion is not sacred and may be eliminated. You’ll learn coordinated dance routines that make your feet blister and bleed. Dresses can be incredibly expensive and should, almost always, include glitter or sparkles. There’s a crown and a trophy cup, though one made of questionable metal.
I did not bother interrogating my mother over her exact reasons for encouraging me to apply to the competition; I had my theories. I knew my mother thought being beautiful, while not the most important thing for a young woman (that distinction belonged to education and intelligence), did have an impact and could affect the course of your life. In my family, one of our central maxims was: “we don’t lie to one another.” If I asked my parents, “Do I look fat in this?” they would tell me not only that I did look fat, but how fat I looked and possibly analogize as well. “You look stuffed,” my father once remarked of a tight dress I was wearing. “Like a dumpling wrapper about to spill out its filling.” And sometimes, they would give unsolicited commentary as well, so I too believed that how you looked, especially if you were a woman, had a certain impact on your standard of living.
But, I knew, even in the beginning, that had I honestly refused to participate, we wouldn’t have pursued the matter. Yet I was curious, and every time my mother talked about the pageant a part of me swelled with pride that she —someone who had never tried to mince words about my appearance -– felt I was pageant material. My interest felt justifiable both given my journalism minor and my ability to lie to myself. “I’ll do it,” I kept saying, “but only so I can write about it.”
I sent my application in April, and the first “meet and greet” was in early May. In the weeks between meeting the contestants and the start date for training, I had a laundry list of preparations I should have finished: 1) find a suitable dress 2) pick a skill to showcase as talent and 3) “tone up” physically. I accomplished none of these goals. The night before training started, I haphazardly packed a bag, stuffing in a prom dress I bought my sophomore year of high school, and chose a Hozier song to sing.
Days before training, Rina, the head makeup artist of the competition, messaged my mother on WeChat to ask if I’d be interested in modeling for her makeup demonstration. “It’s because she can tell you’re beautiful,” my mother said. She beamed.
On the first morning, in Rina’s apartment, I sat silently among the contestants. Rina stood in the center of the room, bathed in vanity lights reflecting from the wall. Pointing at me, she said, “I picked Sabrina as a model today because she has rather severe smile lines and an uneven skin tone. I want you girls to be able to see how to conceal these things.” The seats around me creaked as everyone stared at me.
Including me, the pageant had fourteen contestants, ranging from sixteen to twenty-seven years old. A few of the girls’ faces seemed tense with sympathy, but then Rina’s fingers were on my face. “Oh,” she said. “You’re piling.” She took a cotton pad saturated with liquid and began to rub it across my cheekbones. “What kind of moisturizer are you using? It’s reacting poorly to your skin.” In the mirror, I watched as her hands flew across my face, slathering on moisturizer, primer, green concealer, orange concealer, foundation, stick bronzer, powder under my eyes, and then a different powder along the planes of my face, blush on my cheekbones, and finally, highlighter powder above my cheekbones.
Rina harped on the importance of skincare and “perfecting our base.” The idea was to keep our skin tone light and luminous, but not to “buy a whiter foundation just to be white, [as] white will make your face bigger”. Keeping our features delicate and feminine seemed to be most crucial.
“Celebrities get their makeup done to the point where their own mothers wouldn’t recognize them,” Rina said. We tittered. I thought about the controversy a few years back, all the exposes and YouTube videos made about Korean pop idols who looked unrecognizable without makeup, and the before-and-after photos online “exposing” Korean girl groups for plastic surgery transformations.
“You know,” Rina continued. “I used to refuse to go outside if I wasn’t wearing makeup. I just felt so ugly.” Around me, a few other girls nodded.
All through the competition, makeup would take up to two hours for each girl. Aesthetic values were identifiable in the makeovers: light skin, small face, sharp chin, double eyelids, and–judging by the contestants I had seen so far–thin. In Chinese, there’s a phrase bai fu mei, which colloquially means “Ms. Perfect,” but which directly translates into: white (fair skinned), rich, and beautiful. Interestingly enough, “white” comes first, before wealth or beauty.
“Compared to Western beauty standards,” a contestant, Amanda Bai, twenty-six, later told me, “East Asian beauty standards are less inclusive. For East Asian pageants, you have to be really skinny, very white, with a certain face shape and height. For Asians, there’s a certain standard, and the judges look for that in their contestants.” She used the adjectives “girlish,” “young,” and “tender” at different points in her answer. Bai was one of the first girls I met, and she possessed a striking beauty that my mother would comment on later as well. While getting her makeup done, she mentioned, off-hand, that she had lost ten pounds since the publicity event last month. She described drinking protein shakes. Rina congratulated her, and then leaned in close to me to say, “It’s true. She lost a lot of weight. Her face used to be round and now it’s not.”
With soft features and large, rounded eyes, she had an ethereal grace that kept her from looking intimidating. She was half-Thai and half-Chinese, and had competed in a fair share of pageants already. As a teenager, she was crowned Miss Teen Thailand, and she seemed entirely at home in Rina’s apartment, laughing with her makeup artist, leaning into the mirror, scrutinizing her reflection. Her Instagram bio read: Model. Collab work: DM or email please. Beyond her confidence, there was something ebullient in her manner, a quality beyond friendliness and openness. Graceful I later thought; it was one of the qualities the judges looked for.
The longer I sat in that makeup chair staring at everyone the more claustrophobic the room felt. My own features seemed distorted, the edges of my face softening and blurring with powders and creams. Asian faces are known to be flatter and wider, and another beauty standard was to have a slim face with a diamond tipped chin. In Korean, one of the compliments people give is “Your face is so small it’s the size of a fist!” There’s a popular surgery in South Korean called “v-line surgery,” which involves opening a slit inside the patient’s mouth and shaving down the jawline, giving patients–mostly women–a slimmer, more delicate jawline.
At one point, another makeup artist came over and squinted at me. “The bottom half of your face kind of reminds me of Xu Jiao,” she said. I had no idea who this was, or why she kept specifying that it was only the bottom of my face that reminded her of this actress. But I Googled Xu Jiao later, and found out that she was known for playing the role of a little boy in a film. I can’t remember how I felt, exactly, to know that this was my likeness among the makeup artists.
Later my mother arrived, looked at me and said, “Wow! Your face is so small right now.” My face shape, particularly the round cheeks, was one of my biggest insecurities. In high school, after developing an autoimmune kidney disease, I had been placed on a protracted course of prednisone, which caused me to develop the dreaded “moon face”. In college, to combat this, I paid to have botox injected into my masseters, the muscles near the hinges of your jaw. Every eight months, I faithfully shelled out $700 so my cheeks would thin slightly, and I did this for years until I read a research study that hypothesized botox injections could degrade the structural integrity of the jawbone itself. When I told my mom this, she chided me for my stupidity and vanity, but still, whenever I lost weight, she would comment on how much more prominent my cheekbones looked.
There were a few other moms in attendance that day, circulating through the room, touching their daughters shoulders and smiling at their reflections in the mirror. The contestants weren’t yet talking to one another, so the smattering of conversation between daughters and mothers were some of the only sounds in the room. Three of the contestants were sixteen, and when they introduced themselves to me, they used the honorific “big sister.” I wondered what kind of parent would let a sixteen-year-old girl compete in something like this.
“Is this what you expected?” I whispered to my mom at one point.
She turned her head, a quick dart of her eyes across the room. “It’ll be an interesting experience. Just…try to enjoy yourself.”
The catcalling started in Time Square, from a group of male tourists wearing soccer jerseys who wolf-whistled. “Look at those Asians,” one of them yelled. There were fifteen of us, some teetering in heels, some stomping in flats. Across our shoulders, each of us wore a pink sash with the words Miss China International stitched in white.
Gloria, the chairwoman, was waving her arms, trying to corral us into position for photos. Most of us had been up since 7 or 8 AM, seated in the makeup chair by 9. It was Day 2 of training, and I had an ally now. Her name was Pinky Tang, twenty-five, and a recent graduate of UC Irvine, with a degree in sociology. During hair and makeup, she had offered to share her whitening lotion with me, so our legs would look brighter and milkier on camera. “Chinese men really like fair-skinned girls,” she said. Over lunch, we ate hamburgers and she mused, “Why do you think anyone joins these things?” Her mother had suggested she enroll as well.
“I was just about to ask you that,” I replied.
“Are you having a good time here?”
“No,” she said. “I wish I were eating takeout right now.”
Pinky was my age, quiet and slight, with reddish, chestnut hair and small hands. She told me she had learned the flute in one month to satisfy the talent portion of this competition. On the bus, decked out in our formal wear, she raised her phone to take some selfies of us, and I noticed that she used an app that made our eyes bigger and more luminous, lightening our skin and also elongating our facial structure by narrowing our chin. It was an app that I would see a lot of other contestants use. “Chinese girls cannot accept what they look like in the original camera ,” one of the other contestants, Candice Jiang, twenty-six, later explained. “I don’t even recognize myself in those beauty cams…they will make your face slimmer, make your nose arch higher, your eyes bigger, your skin light.” I showed my mother the photo and she told me I looked pretty in it.
The entire day was dedicated to photography, shuttling on a charter bus between landmark New York locations and our sponsors’ businesses. Cliques had started developing among the girls, and Candice, Pinky, and I huddled together after each photography session, complaining about how badly our feet hurt. Contestants were developing affection for each other. Physical intimacy abounded: girls hugged, held hands, looped arms, and laid heads on each other’s shoulders. As we walked around the city, I could feel men leering at us.
One of our sponsors was a spa in Brooklyn owned by a stately-looking woman in red, with scarlett-stained lips and kohl-lined eyes. A jade bangle dangled on her wrist, and her hair was twisted into an elegant ponytail. At that spa, Ada lined us up, and something about the hunch of Ada’s shoulders cued me that she realized how shameless this all was. I watched as she asked the owner to pick two girls, the prettiest, presumably, to do solo shots posed with box sets of skin whitening lotions and exfoliating agents. Amanda was chosen, as was Candice who had shiny black hair down to her waist with fair, unblemished skin and long legs. The first day of the competition, she had shown up in jean shorts, purpled bruises stamped up and down her thighs and calves, and Gloria had said, “What happened to you?” before telling her that her dark circles made her look like a vampire.
After the spa, we posed outside The Oculus and then, finally, Times Square. Around 10 PM, we took our last shot of the day, and the bus dropped us back in Flushing, at the Korean barbeque restaurant that one of the contestant’s boyfriends owned. We took a photo there too, presumably as free advertisement for the business and a way to thank them for the free food, plates of lamb kabobs, soba noodles, edamame, and fried fish that circulated between the tables. “Do you want to drink?” Candice asked, a chicken skewer between her fingers. We flagged down a waiter for two Coronas and were toasting when Gloria ambled over, eyebrows furrowed.
“You girls are drinking?” Her brows furrowed.
I expected a quick reprimand, but instead she launched into a semi-lecture, arms crossing as her eyes flitted between our two bottles. She talked about not drinking for the duration of the competition, about values and the points system we’re all being scored on. She mentioned we’d have points docked, or maybe she threatened to dock points in the future if she caught us drinking again. But what I heard instead was a lengthy, coded explanation of upholding virtue and fitting an archetypical framework of what being a lady is, comparable to how Miss USA guidelines state that contestants can’t be, or previously have been, married or pregnant.
Gloria’s condescension bothered me, but later I would see how it paralleled the overall conventions of the pageant, which functioned as an arena to see what values the Chinese diaspora held. “A lot of Chinese culture is about tradition,” Amanda later said. Much of Chinese culture is Confucian in nature, and Neo-Confucianism crystallized a rulebook for women based on compliance and loyalty as shown through the “Four Virtues” that women must embody: sexual morality, proper speech, modest manners, and diligent work.
These terms were not explicitly invoked during our training, but in one segment of the competition we had to learn an Eastern-inspired dance, fan in hand, while wearing custom-made blue-and-white rayon qipao that cost $200. Our choreography was set to “Yumeji’s Theme”. Every few beats, Maggie, the instructor who was also a judge, shouted “pose, pose, pose” and each of us froze in place, watching our reflections in the floor-length mirrors and trying not to wobble in our heels. Spritely and small-boned, Maggie mentioned she had once been a pageant contestant herself. She was the one who had told us to “move our legs and keep our mouths closed” for optimal weight loss . At one point during a water break she went down the line of girls and said, “You look like you’re from Shanghai,” and “You look like you’re from Shan Dong.” Each province had its associated connotations, and it was said that Si Chuan and Shanghainese girls were considered the prettiest in China. When she landed on me, she squinted and said, “You look like you’re from Dong Bei,” and I texted my mother to ask what stereotypes were associated with that province: tall, she responded, and well-endowed. “Curvy?” I clarified. “Yes,” she said. “Big-boned.”
A few of my co-contestants had commented, at various points, on how my chest looked in the pageant costumes. “My god,” one of the younger girls said. “Your boobs are huge.” I was flattered, but it also felt like a further delineator of my status as an other, someone who didn’t seem to fit the “nice Chinese girl” mold this pageant centered on.
The qipao portion of the pageant also included a catwalk, and Zao Zao spent an afternoon quizzing us on how to achieve the right “atmosphere” and “mindset.” “What’s Eastern beauty like?” she asked. We shouted out adjectives: graceful, elegant, feminine. Zao Zao then stuck a hand on her hip, thrusting out her leg, head angled up with a fierce pout on her lips. “Don’t pose like this during your qipao round. Poses like this are more European. That’s not the feeling we are going for.”
“Chinese beauty depends on the atmosphere you create and the interplay between your movements and your gaze and tone of voice,” Candice later told me. “Western beauty is more lively, like Van Gogh’s sunflower series while Eastern beauty is like a black-and-white landscape painting,” a comparison I largely agreed with though I couldn’t exactly articulate why.
If the pageant’s conventions were meant to be traditional and thus “Chinese,” the athletic wear portion broke with those standards. On the third night of training, I hustled down Flushing’s Main Street, turning right into an alley, to a newly constructed gym and dance studio. Another sponsor and judge, a very fit fifty-something year old with a friendly face and dyed reddish-brown hair, owned the business. “There will be portions of this gym that have photo opportunities built into them,” one of the instructors said. “For viral photo ops!”
We had been given a matching set of spandex workout gear in either gray camouflage or a green and yellow pattern, and these sets were supposed to be one-size fits all due to the fabric’s stretch. As we changed, I heard multiple variations of, “I feel so fat” or “Oh my god, this is so tight” or “I need to eat less.” Huddles of girls formed in front of the mirror, turning this way and that as they examined their figures in the outfits. My own set dug painfully into my shoulders, the material clinging like a second skin to my thighs.
Every girl in the pageant was thin. This was not surprising, given the reputation of beauty pageants. What did surprise me, however, was the casualness with which bodies were scrutinized and dissected and the nonchalant reaction of the contestants. I asked Monica Pan, twenty-one, about this later, questioning if she found the bluntness of Chinese culture disorienting, the nonchalant way in which people’s appearances–women, specifically–were examined. “I think American people are very direct too,” she said. “But they feel the word ‘fat’ is not appropriate and will hurt someone. Back in China this is a very normal word…Fat is a word we use every day…Fat kind of becomes a joke, so that’s why my Chinese friends will be like, ‘Oh, you got fat, you need to lose weight.’ I wouldn’t feel offended, but if I said the same thing to my American friends, it would be offensive.”
I had grown up in an environment where my grandmother would turn to my father and say things like, “Your daughter got fat!” in a joyful tone. My grandmother’s excitement was understandable for her generation. Given China’s long history with famine, “plumpness” was considered a sign of fortune and wealth: only the very prosperous were able to eat while everyone else starved. But I had grown up with parents who commented on my figure and its fluctuation in negative ways as well; in college, after I went up two dress sizes, my father said, “Let’s not mince words. You should start to watch what you eat. You should think about losing weight,” and when I pressed him on why exactly this was coming up now, he faltered for a beat before admitting, “Well, I saw the way your stomach looked in your shirt.” Unlike Monica, I often felt brutalized by these statements, and when I was twenty-three, my mother admitted that she felt “scared” to comment on my body anymore. “You get really angry,” she said. “So I try not to say anything.”
But what I found truly surprising about Chinese culture was how codified “thinness” was. Candice, Pinky, and Amanda would all separately tell me about a rule-of-thumb: if you’re under 110 pounds, you’re considered “thin.” Moreover, muscle mass and looking “fit” are not synonymous with “thinness,” and, in general, women are discouraged from building muscle for fear of bulking up and looking masculine. “I think Chinese men like women who look frail and delicate so that they’re weaker and easier to manipulate,” Candice said, laughing. “I think these men are just intimated now that women have so much more potential than them.”
“You know,” Monica said. “In China, you’re supposed to send in a photo with your resume, no matter what type of job or industry you’re applying for.”
The competition was steeped in Chinese tradition and convention, but the formal wear portion did call for a level of commercialization that felt distinctly American.
After training one night, my mother and I took a trip to Macy’s, beelining towards the dresses, fingers seeking out glitter, sparkle, and tulle. Gloria told me early on that the gown I had chosen was too plain. She suggested I find something sparkly, something “eye-catching.” We passed hangers to each other, hmming and shaking our heads. The dresses I had stacked against my elbow were borderline ridiculous, laced with sequins, some shining so brightly the refracting light hurt my eyes.
We hauled a selection of warm-toned gowns into the dressing room, and I felt self conscious undressing in front of my mother. I had a tattoo she hadn’t yet seen; I was bloated and self-conscious over the way my stomach looked.
She scrutinized me, directing me to walk forward, turn this way and that. She walked towards me, pressing down on my lower abdomen, one of the problem areas I had spent hours staring at in the mirror. “This dress just doesn’t make you look…thin,” she finally said. “Suck in a little.”
The humiliation I felt then transported me back to high school, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, turning my body this way and that, wondering, Well what if I lost five pounds? Well what if I did more crunches? What if I tried coolsculpt? “I don’t think we’re going to find something good here,” I finally said, tugging on the too-tight zipper of a gown. A pile of dresses wilted next to me, which felt like a fitting metaphor for the situation, all the ways in which I was trying to slip into a second skin.
We did, eventually, find a suitable dress: a corset bodice, something that physically sucked everything in. “Wow,” one of the contestants said to me when I wore it for our rehearsal. “That is a lot of cleavage.”
The days of training bled into one another, distinguished only by which muscle groups ached most at day’s end. The competition took place on a Saturday in Flushing, at a Sheraton. The venue had an interior so sterile and deserted it felt dystopian. When I walked in, I worried I was in the wrong hotel.
In the ballroom, I saw the stage, a large backlit T. A haphazard formation of chairs flanked the stage, like you would see at a grade-school talent show. There was an intimacy to the production that suggested something homegrown. When I had envisioned the competition, I had pictured a looming stage, lit with strobe lights. I thought it would be frightening, even, all those people, all those eyes and the scrutiny. But from backstage, which was entirely visible to the audience, I saw my mother wave and shoot me a thumbs up. The amateur atmosphere of the environment put me at ease.“Everyone is just here to hang out,” my mother had said, many times. She also encouraged me to emphasize my education on stage. “Tell them about your degrees,” she said. “No one here is as educated as you,” which turned out to be wrong. Monica is also a graduate student at Columbia, studying Marketing Analytics. Her LinkedIn shows she graduated undergrad in two years, with a 3.85 GPA. But when my mother inquired, Zao Zao told her, point blank, that education wasn’t a metric used by judges.
The changing room felt like an assault of body oil, shimmer, eyelash glue, and hairspray. One of the girls vaped in a corner, leaning down to blow smoke under the table. Another girl preened in front of her phone, finding the right angles to make a douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. When showtime came, Zao Zao spent 40 minutes thanking sponsors. There was no mention of prize money; there was none. The pageant followed the format of the videos my mother and I had watched online, though these surroundings were decidedly shabbier. We performed two dances: one in qipao and another in athletic gear. Cameras flashed. The applause was enthusiastic but minimal. I thought there were maybe 50 people in attendance. During the talent portion some contestants sang, some danced, some played instruments, and one girl did a series of martial art moves. I sang Hozier’s “Take Me to Church ” while my knees shook and I tried not to stare at the judges’ table. Monica performed a truly astounding aria and when I stepped off the stage during the intermission, my mother whispered, “Don’t be intimidated. I saw on WeChat she’s professional.”
At one point, Zao Zao had all the girls line up and then she encouraged the audience members to come onstage and stand behind the girl they felt was the “audience’s favorite.” I vaguely registered how humiliating this was and thought about how a Western competition wouldn’t sanction something like this, even though we were here, after all, to be viewed and rated, like cattle. The mixture of embarrassment, excitement, and trepidation was infectious as little huddles formed behind each girl. My mother was the only person standing behind me; I had been too embarrassed to ask friends or other family to come. I felt my mothers’ hand on my shoulder, a slight squeeze of her fingers, a show of solidarity as Zao Zao counted out how many supporters each contestant had.
The program lasted two hours, and then we were all backstage waiting for the title announcement: most photogenic, most popular (audience favorite), best dancer, best musician. I remember feeling arrogant, proud of myself for surviving the training and the week. When my mother whispered about my chances for placing first, a not insignificant part of me believed her. It seemed more likely than what had actually happened, not placing at all, despite the mathematical improbability (sixteen awards! fourteen girls!).
As my family and I left the Sheraton, it felt more humiliating to be coddled like a baby bird by my mother than to be singled out as one of the least talented, least beautiful, least graceful, least photogenic participants.
My mother did what many mothers would do, she tried to find an answer, to figure out who was responsible for my humiliation. We were silent on the sidewalk, but in a sudden burst of anger, I looked at my mother and said. “I never, ever want to do anything like this ever again.” Her chagrin damped my ire, but then she was hustling off to try and reach Gloria again. My father and I were left standing on the sidewalk, watching her pace back and forth. My father was a man of few words in tense moments. He could be vivacious and charming, but he rarely used his skills to attenuate my emotional turmoil. He told me once it was because he needed me to be able to see myself for who I am, in all my flaws.
I resented him at that moment, for not offering up anything else, for going along with all of this. He had been an accommodating and quiet presence this whole trip, driving us around, picking up dinner, waking me up for practice, critiquing my dance routine when I asked for his thoughts (“What is this?” he had said, bewildered).
The setting sun turned the sky purple and pink, and sweat dripped down my neck. A few passersby eyed me, curious about the insane, bedazzled dress I was cinched up in. “I’m proud of you,” my father said, very quietly. And only then, did I start to cry.
Almost a year has passed since Miss Chinese International, and every time a pageant comes on TV, my mother and I both look away, embarrassed. I did, however, go to the afterparty at the karaoke lounge.
Candice had organized it, placing me in a groupchat with a horde of other numbers I did not recognize, all of them typing in Mandarin. “Come,” she urged me through text, followed by a series of emojis. Pinky went to a hot pot dinner with the second place and third place winners, and I met Candice in the private room of the karaoke lounge.
The party raged on until at least 4 AM, which is when I left, head buzzing with shots of Hennessy chased by green tea. My memories of that night are muted, at best, but I remember never-ending fruit platters and bottles of Ciroc and Hennessy, thirty or so people crammed into that room, jumping all over as EDM music blasted. A very thin, very blonde Chinese girl sat next to me on the leather sectional. “Sweetheart, do you mind if I smoke next to you?” We exchanged pleasantries, voices blurred by alcohol, and she promised me we would “go out like this every day!” Quickly, she smoothed a hand down her dyed blonde hair. “What am I saying? I mean, every weekend.”
After midnight, the KTV began to play club music. At one point, I asked the girl next to me, “Who’s going to pay for all this?” She laughed, brushing a strand of hair away with her acrylic nails. “The boys will get it.” I looked around, squinting as I surveyed how many males were there. Eight or nine, maybe, for around 20-something females. “The men take care of the girls,” she said. “Don’t worry. At the end of the night you can just leave.”
Almost a year later, in March of 2022, I boarded a flight to Rochester to visit Candice, and this was one of the memories we laughed over when she picked me up from the airport. “My god,” I said while sitting in her white Porsche. “We must have ran up a tab of a thousand dollars, at least, right?” Candice didn’t remember anymore, but with time, her impressions of the pageant had dulled and calcified. “It was very…informal,” she said. “We spent all this money, for what?” In total, Candice calculates she spent $5,000 for the week-long training, if factoring in food and living expenses. “I remember the place that they held the event was not that great and the people, the jury was kind of….they have something going on there…li yi guan xi….They get money from sponsors and contestants…” she trailed off.
Monica and Pinky had both said something similar to me, insinuating that the pageant bureaucracy involved an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” mentality. “It’s like we paid all this money to basically watch other people train,” Candice huffed. Pinky didn’t even end up attending the second leg of the competition, the international trip she had been promised for placing first. “It was too much of an investment,” she said. The cost-benefit analysis didn’t seem worth it given both how expensive flights were and that she’d have to sacrifice another month to compete. During the Miss Chinese International Pageant, she had also taken extra lessons with Zao Zao herself, who, Pinky said, charged $80 per session for a private “catwalk” tutorial in her dilapidated townhome. “I don’t feel the pageant gave me any benefit,” Pinky explained. “It was kind of a free for all.” She said the second place and third place winners had begged out of the trip as well.
Candice and I went back and forth on the aesthetic values of the pageant judges, and finally I asked her the question I had been circling around. “Do you think it’s really important to be beautiful as a Chinese woman?” We were sipping beers at an Irish bar filled with college students.I felt especially strange asking her this given her resume is fascinating and impressive by itself, without considering her appearance. Candice has lived in the States for around seven years, without any family here. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and now owns her own architecture firm. At twenty-seven, she also owns a house and car, and spent the pandemic gut-renovating her new home.
“Well,” she paused, taking a sip of her ale. “I’ve never been ugly before so I wouldn’t know.” She burst into laughter, which prompted mine, but then she began to describe her childhood and the years she spent being“ugly.” “I looked like a boy until I was 14 or 15,” she said. “I wasn’t concerned with beauty at all.” Then, after a male classmate called her ugly, she decided things had to change, describing her transformation as movie montage-esque. “I remember so distinctly one time I walked into the classroom and one of my male classmates’ jaws dropped. He actually said out loud, ‘Oh, she got pretty.’”
The more we talked about beauty, the more I got the sense that beauty is just another form of capital for her. It gives her power. Men stared at her as she showed me around Rochester, but she appeared uninterested and described various failed romantic endeavors with men who were either too entitled or not ambitious enough. “Men are such a headache,” she said, more than once. At another bar, while she sipped on a Long Island Iced Tea, the bartender folded a paper napkin into a rose and tossed it her way. “Oh,” she said, smiling and inhaling deeply. “It even smells nice! Thanks so much.”
Her demeanor makes her appear to be exactly the type of “nice, Chinese girl” who should have won the pageant, the kind of traditional and conventional Chinese woman who would make a good wife and mother. Yet, Candice doesn’t seem that interested in finding a boyfriend; after all what would he even provide for her anyway? “I earn more than a lot of people in my life,” she said to me, giggling, and it struck me that she literally embodied the Chinese aphorism bai fu mai: white, rich, beautiful.
Candice liked to propose a toast at every meal, and during my farewell dinner, she raised her glass and said, “For my future, on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.” With anyone else, I might have found the proclamation ridiculous, but with her I honestly felt that she had a fighting chance. We were eating at a restaurant she had designed; she had drawn the blueprints for the whole chain, in fact. “I have equity in the corporation” she mentioned, casually.
When I returned home from my trip, I called my mother, who was curious to see what Candice had been up to. “Well,” I said. “She’s thriving. She has her own business. She wants to start hiring people. She works her own hours and scouts for her own clients.” I paused. “You know, she drives a Porsche and owns her own home. She’s only twenty-seven.”
My mother made a sound of surprise. “She sounds very independent.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was standing in the airport, near the windows, watching people mill about and feeling alone and unsure of why I had gone to Rochester or what I was looking for there. I felt small and insignificant, not dissimilar from how I had felt backstage at the pageant, watching the other girls accept awards and accolades and hating what I wanted in the moment, which was to feel like the most photogenic or the most talented or the most something, a title that would make my mother proud.
Or, maybe at least part of my humiliation was built out of hubris, the fact that I had come to the pageant convinced I would write about its silly and insipid conventions only to find participants that blew my expectations out of the water, that made my own loss feel both discomfiting and deserved.“Yeah mom,” I said. “She makes me want more for myself.”
Sabrina Qiao is a writer and journalist in New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she was a Chair’s Fellow. Currently, she’s a teaching fellow at Columbia and is at work on a book about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. You can read more of her work at sabrinaluqiao.com.