Written By: Rose Fong

In Malaysia, Joann Wong grew up believing that she would never fit the beauty standards of her people. In news media and films, there is virtually only one idealized look - they’re slim, their cheekbones are right, they have the right nose and fair skin. “They’re not good at acting. They’re found off the street because they are good-looking, and suddenly they become famous. They work hard, but the starting point is that they’re good-looking.”

People in her immediate community were not shy about their opinions of Joann’s flaws. She inherited a sensitive skin condition from her family, and in the heat of Malaysia, she was told to cover up her skin to hide her inflammation and preserve modesty. “It’s funny because they tell young people how to fix how they look, but it’s the number one thing you really can’t do anything about.”

The concern for beauty standards permeated into her home. Triggered by her husband’s extramarital affairs, Joann’s mother was strict with her daughters’ eating and exercise habits. “My mom and sister would go on different diets throughout the years to make themselves feel better… but they’re not even healthy anymore. I [watch my diet and exercise, too], not because ‘skinny is beautiful’, but because I don’t want to go through what they’re going through.”

“There’s no point really listening to anyone! I’ve been to restaurants, and people will tell me to order more and eat more. And in the same night, I will talk to my mom, and she will say, ‘Did you notice you’re getting fat? I just want you to know.’ And I say, ‘What if I’m fat? Will you love me less?’ And then I will ask her, ‘What if I’m stressed, and I lose weight?’ She says, ‘Well, it’s always good that you’re losing weight.’ No, it’s not! I’m stressed!”

When Joann moved to the States, the attention she received regarding her appearance took an almost flattering 180 degree reversal. She was catcalled on every corner and people constantly pursued the slim, small, Asian girl. “I did love the attention. I went after it. I did everything I could to get it.”

After some time, she felt like she was a piece of meat. “That was the point I realized this is my body… My mom is still stuck in her [marriage] because she doesn’t love herself enough. My sister and I ask ourselves, ‘How do we love ourselves enough?’ [As kids], we were taught to be humble and love others more than ourselves. We’re never really taught to love ourselves.”

“I don’t think you have to be sexy to be beautiful,” says Joann. “All body types are to be celebrated it. But I abused my sexuality to feel beautiful, and it was awful. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt obligated to have sex with someone. You don’t have to. No one should have more say or right to your body than you do.”

Joann says she avoids lingering in front of the mirror to look at her body. “I was in tae kwon do before, so I appreciate the power of my body. My body is helpful to me. I live with it. If I don’t love it, it’s not helpful to me... It sounds really pretentious, but I am more in my mind than my body. My body helps me achieve what I want to achieve, but my mind is more important.”

To see more of Joann and her journey please follow her Wong Joann