Photos by Diana King
How Diana King deconstructs beauty standards through the art of photography.
Photographer Diana King has a stunning portfolio of work. Having photographed well-known celebrities such as Jamie Chung, King’s work merges fashion and pop culture, each of her subjects commanding the frame with a powerful stance, bright lights, and vivid backgrounds. However, as I keep scrolling through her website, it is the title “Almost Asian, Almost American” that stands out to me the most -- as it’s a phrase that strongly resonates with me.
“What are you?” “Why is your last name King??” “Why are you so curvaceous for an Asian?” These are intrusive questions, but King’s used to them; her appearance has always been contentious. Both Asian and non-Asian people have interrogated her with such questions, projecting their bizarre dissatisfaction with her inability to conform to their own beauty norms and expectations. Even after King became a photographer, it was difficult for her to escape that kind of feedback. While she was behind the camera, she still had to work within creative visions that used Asian models largely adherent to a particular beauty expectation. King explains that there are few Asian models in American fashion photography to begin with, but the select few are “only of East-Asian descent and [with] one body type.” Feeling disillusioned by this exclusivity and lack of comprehensive Asian beauty representation, King decided to start her project “Almost Asian, Almost American.” Like its title suggests, this series documents and celebrates Asian American women who do not fit into the conventional beauty standards of either of their cultures.
King describes the beauty standard she faced as having to be, on one hand, “extremely thin, light[,] and pale with flawless skin, [a] pointed nose, and long straight black hair” for the Asian community. On the other hand, for white Americans, the standard was “being blonde, tall, athletic thin, tan, buxom, and having high cheekbones.” While King would never exclude anyone who meets those descriptions, she simply wants to use her series to help people see the full spectrum of Asian beauty that goes beyond those descriptions. So far, King has photographed ten Asian American women, with her ultimate goal being to photograph one hundred Asian American women from across the country.
In each photo of the series, a woman stares into the camera, illuminated by studio lights, photographed in front of a pure white background. The women are not wearing clothes or makeup, and all are framed in the same angle and from the same distance in a close-up portrait from the collarbones up. King describes the unanimity of the photos as purposefully “[taking] away any artificial individual characteristics and all distractions, and [forcing] the viewer to look only at the face. By seeing all the portraits side by side together, especially women of the same ethnicity, the viewer can see how drastically different each person looks from each other and to collectively show that there is not ONE way to look Asian.” Each woman is accompanied by a personal quote in which they share how they do not fit into traditional beauty standards or an anecdote about how they have been commented on or affected by their “deviance” from a beauty norm.
Amongst the women King has already spoken to, many have had common experiences. The women shared that they grew up being bombarded with comments such as being “too fat” or “not light enough.” King summarizes the theme that runs throughout each woman’s experience as “the feeling of not belonging and the feeling of many being alone and rejected in a country they were born and raised in.” To simply celebrate Asian beauty and identity without first acknowledging the pain and erasure that comes with a mainstream beauty standard would be leaving out the most important aspect of understanding. Through her work, Diana shows how the acknowledgement of beauty relies on the unlearning of its restrictions and conformities.
While King isn’t personally photographed and featured in her series, ”Almost Asian, Almost American” is nonetheless incredibly personal. Not only does the project originate from her own struggle, but as the photographer, King actively shapes each image. From a technical standpoint, King learned that “you cannot use the same lighting for different face shapes,” which is why many of the images we see taken of Asian Americans may not be as flattering or catered towards their individual face shapes. For this project, Diana “was determined to create shape and dimension with the women’s faces with only lighting, knowing there wouldn’t be any makeup, clothing, and retouching to hide behind,” adding, “I don’t think a non-Asian male photographer would have that perspective.” With each woman she meets, King becomes connected to them as they mutually undergo a transformative experience of reflection and reconciliation with their identities.
To strip down, both physically and emotionally, and confront inner insecurities is excruciatingly brave. As viewers of each photograph and each story, we must reflect and act to confront the harmful effects of beauty norms in our everyday lives. King says: “While I don’t know if this project will fully transcend those standards and expectations, I do hope that the project will help women realize that their experiences are valid and can help change or alleviate how their experience affects them whenever they feel the pressure of those standards and expectations.”
Ultimately, what King wishes she knew growing up was: “Don’t wait for permission.” She expresses that we must find our own beauty through what brings us happiness. Whether it is through skin-care rituals, makeup routines, or fashionable outfits, our self-expression should rely on our own choices, and not on the arbitrary constructions that limit, pressure, and harm our ability to accept and celebrate ourselves. For King, her photography has helped unravel the constrictions of beauty.
Taking the reins herself, King has made a statement: “If you don’t see yourself represented in the media, create it yourself.”