Splitting hairs: Masculinity as an Asian-Australian male

“Woah. Dude, youre starting to grow sideburns?” My best friend Paolo glared with subtle admiration at my patchy facial hair.

“Really? I just shaved two days ago.” I was trying not to give away that I was pleasantly surprised the hair follicles against my cheek had already started to regenerate – albeit sparingly.

Paolo and I are both Filipino-Australian men in our early twenties – both aware of the fact that a full beard is something we can only ever dream of, due to our genetics. Anything besides the strange wisps of short hair that randomly populate our upper lips and chins is considered admirable. 

I still catch myself feeling genuinely shocked when I see an Asian man with a lusciously full beard – a unicorn.

A thick set of greeny-black hairs rests underneath Paolos nose, a solid, hearty moustache that is occasionally a topic of conversation among our friendship group: “When is he going to shave it off?” “I think it really suits him.”

The reason facial hair is a regularly addressed issue among my predominantly Asian-Australian friendship group is that we’re all aware how rare it is to be able to grow a beard, at least compared to the rest of the guys who make up the melting pot that is Western Sydney, where we grew up.

I still catch myself feeling genuinely shocked when I see an Asian man with a lusciously full beard – a unicorn. And Im still slightly envious when I notice my younger brothers friends, who are only just going through the last stages of puberty, with hairy faces.

Theres an obvious sense of insecurity shadowing these peculiar reactions over what are literally just fibres made out of keratin. These feelings go further than mere insecurity, though; they speak to the reality of being an Asian male navigating the Eurocentric and hegemonic male beauty standards of the twenty-first century.

“Your nose is so round! And so flat! Talagang Pilipino! So Filipino!”
“What’s wrong with flat?”
“Nothing is wrong with flat. Pero sharper is better. People will treat you better.”

This exchange occurred between Alex Tizon, the late Filipino-American writer and journalist, and his father. The quote features in his book, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Selfwhich I recently finished in an attempt to find my own ‘Asian self’. 

Tizon explores the complexities of growing up Asian-American and unpacks issues commonly faced throughout the migrant experience. He investigates the origin of tropes of passiveness and subservience, which are forcefully applied to Asian men, outlines Asian male representation in Hollywood, and tells tales of powerful, influential Asian men throughout history who challenged societal perceptions.

He also describes the methods by which he tried to alter his Asian features to reflect an image that communicates wealth, Whiteness and masculinity. For instance, for years he would sleep with a clothes peg clamped on his nose in order to diminish its roundness, and would hang from monkey bars to try and encourage his limbs to grow at a faster rate.

I remember someone in the class glancing over and chuckling, asking why I drew myself a beard.

Tizon is certainly not the only Asian male to desperately seek a way around the genes handed down by our predecessors. When my friend and I were younger, we would routinely do exercises that would sharpen our jaw lines, hoping to render them similar to the ones found on chiseled God-like statues. I slept on my back with my legs completely straight for years, convinced that it would make me taller (I’m 6’1”, so a part of me still thinks it actually worked). And in year three, our teacher asked us to draw what we want to look like when we become adults. I remember someone in the class glancing over and chuckling, asking why I drew myself a beard.

Eight-year-old me was convinced that having a face full of prickly hairs adhered to the idealised and idolised image of a rugged, handsome man – and he wasn’t exactly off track. A 2016 study in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology examined the relationship between facial masculinity and beardedness, and how women use it to determine men’s facial attractiveness. The study tested various types of facial hair such as clean-shaven, light stubble, heavy stubble and full beards to see which appeared more or less masculine. The results indicated a notable correlation between beardedness, masculinity and attractiveness. It was also suggested that “beardedness may be attractive when judging longterm relationships as a signal of intrasexual formidability and the potential to provide direct benefits to females.”

In year ten, my friends held an actual intervention at lunch, equipped with a banner and speeches, in a grave attempt to address the “virginous” moustache I was so proud of. I’m not unique: online there are countless videos and articles riddled with tips, solutions and guidance for achieving hairiness. Can Asians Grow Beards With Minoxidil, Asians Can’t Grow Facial Hair, HOW TO GROW BEARD For PINOY..From zero to hero in 3 months and I’m an Asian male and I have major beard envy, to name a few.

In hindsight I wish I had listened to them and shaved the ‘bum fluff’ before my school photos. Im now forever haunted by the picture stuck on my grandmothers fridge. Back then I was holding onto what I perceived was ‘manly’ and a point of difference from my Asian mates. I had a baby moustache and I wasnt ready to shave it off and start from scratch again.

In his book, Alex Tizon references a two-year study by Columbia University that found women of all races consistently rank Asian men the least attractive. It found that “even Asian women find white, black, and Hispanic men to be more attractive than Asian men”.

This result is not exclusive to heterosexual relationships, but pervades queer spaces also. In his paper, ‘I think you’re the smartest I’ve ever met: Racialised economies of queer male desire,’ Asian-Australian writer and academic Alan Han argues that “queer white men claim possession of desire as capital through racialised economies of queer male desire.” Han analyses the experiences of queer Asian men and finds that they are undesirable in the eyes of most queer men, who other and racialise them.

Queer Asian men, because they are not muscly, large or hairy, are seen as submissive.

Queer white men dominate the gaze of desirability across the community, “because whiteness claims possession of the standards by which we measure all racialised non-white queer mens desirability.” In other words, queer white guys become the authority and poster boys of attractiveness, and anyone who does not fit that image is rendered undesirable. Queer Asian men, because they are not muscly, large or hairy, are seen as submissive.

Another Asian-Australian queer academic, Tony Aryes, conveyed the problem by highlighting this stereotype: “because the majority of gay Asian men in Australia are slimmer and smaller than their Caucasian counterparts, they are also stereotyped as feminine or boyish … the same racial stereotype that makes Asian women desirable makes Asian men marginal.”

This “womanish” perception of Asian males echoes Elisa J Lee’s idea that “the general goal of hegemonic masculinity works to assert dominance over femininity by assuming that with femininity comes subservience and weakness.” As a result, Asian men in Western cultures are pressured to negotiate their way out of a predetermined mould by assimilating into and accepting the customs of “White male traditional hegemonic masculinity.”

Recently, a girl opened a conversation with me on Tinder with this line: “you are so Filipino.” Unsure whether it was a compliment, insult or observation, I was interested in what visual cues led her to assume my ethnicity. She told me it was my nose and my sun-kissed tan. A small wave of insecurity clouded my mind; I was worried that my Asian-ness or ‘Filipino’ nose would be a turn-off. Obviously she wouldn’t have swiped right if it was, but my mind went straight to the notion of being seen as undesirable as a result of my ethnicity.

In high school, I recall interrupting a conversation between the girl I had a crush on and her friends. They were swooning over some famous Australian actor I had never heard of, clutching their binder folders decorated with magazine cutouts of Jordan Rodrigues’s face.

Jordan Rodrigues, an Asian-Australian actor, was known mostly (at the time) for his role in Dance Academy. Their keenness on Rodrigues provided me with a sense of hope, instead of the usual feeling of defensiveness and envy I would experience when some Caucasian heartthrob was idolised. It was the first time I had seen a man of colour in media be desired.

While there’s been some progress in Hollywood in addressing the issue of diversity, Asian men are still very rarely seen as the love interests on Australian screens, which contributes to the overall perception of us as undesirable. I can recall Jeff from The Wiggles and a couple of contestants on MasterChef as my only mirror of representation on Australian TV. There was no one like me in dating reality shows like Love Island and The Bachelorette.

Productions like The Family Law and Homecoming Queens are imperative to building and rebuilding the psyches of Asian-Australians, males like me inclusive.

Screenwriter, journalist and author Benjamin Law’s TV series The Family Law acts as a momentous shift towards combating the issue of underrepresentation of Asian-Australians in Australian media. By casting mostly Asian actors, Law subverts the conventions of a white-centric industry that often leaves people of colour isolated and poorly reflected, and generates a comforting feeling of familiarity and hope.

Law’s sister and fellow screenwriter Michelle Law takes this a step further and employs George Zhao as her on-screen love interest in the short web series, Homecoming Queens, released early 2018. George Zhao, who also appears in The Family Law, is seen through the gaze of desirability in an honest way that doesn’t tokenise or bring trivialised attention to his Asian-ness.

The reality of a white-washed television environment is supported by a 2016 report developed by Screen Australia, which found that “a number of Australias minorities and marginalised communities are under-represented in TV drama compared to the population”. It essentially concludes that if you aren’t white, straight and able-bodied, then there’s a small chance you’ll score a gig on Aussie screens.

Productions like The Family Law and Homecoming Queens are imperative to building and rebuilding the psyches of Asian-Australians, males like me inclusive. They offer varying representations of the lived Asian-Australian experience, challenging the mundane and monochromatic narratives we are used to, which have inculcated in us and everyone around us that we are other, less than, undesirable.

The bigger picture here lies in the unenviable portrayal of Asian males reinforced against a Western framework. While writer Peter A Jackson is specifically referring to the gay community in his paper on white gay desire and Asian homosexuality, his thoughts also hold true regardless of sexuality: “the dominant de-eroticisation of Asian men within White gay cultures occurs by an effeminisation of Asian mens bodies and the privileging of a model of masculinity based on the idealised attributes of a Caucasian male.”

At a societal level, as long as bodies are measured within a hegemony of Whiteness, senses of self will continue to be damaged.

There is a constant internal struggle wherein I am hyperaware of the undoubtedly social construction of Western masculinity, and yet at times I find myself unwillingly conditioned, a product of the very cultural ideals I try to reject. I still get a slight kick when I see hair sprout from barren parts of my face, and I always feel the need to update people on the status of my chest hair growth. I’m also still perplexed as to why I haven’t grown any hair on my arms, and why my leg hairs grow in patches.

It is a journey of unlearning and reeducating myself on what it means to be ‘Asian,’ ‘Australian’ and a ‘man’. Constant questioning is crucial to the process of deconstructing and disarticulating commonsensical modes of thinking: Why am I feeling self-conscious about exposing my speckled leg hair in public? Why does being hairless equate to femininity? Why is being perceived as feminine bad?

Alex Tizon writes in his book about visiting a statue in Cebu of the Philippines’ first hero, Lapu Lapu, a native warrior and local chief of the Visayas region who succeeded in resisting Imperial Spanish colonisation:

The face was the most memorable part for me. No Europeanised features there … It was a very Cebuano face, with distinctly Asian eyes, a broad nose, full lips, jutting cheekbones, square jaw and chin … It was an indigenous face, born of these islands. A face I could relate to.

Like Tizon, it is by becoming aware of and ultimately resisting the cultural structures and systems in play – that racialise non-white bodies and romanticise Eurocentric beauty – that I can finally not give a damn about the uneven, slow-growing nature of my body and facial hair. This, though, is the work of the self.

At a societal level, as long as bodies are measured within a hegemony of Whiteness, senses of self will continue to be damaged. We need to rebuild and repair the statues of our predecessors – of ourselves – by generating visibility in the very spaces that push us aside. We can start by consuming literature, art and cultural works produced by people of colour. Watch The Family Law. Read These Wild Houses by Arab Australian poet Omar Sakr. Visit the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. Support the works of Asian-Australian publications like Pencilled In, Liminal and Peril Magazine. Encourage and lift the voices of those who come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

By becoming engrossed in works that resemble and represent our experiences, we’re slowly chipping away at the moulds into which we’ve been forced to fit. In turn we’re building new foundations that recognise our idiosyncrasies and the fact that we have always existed, and continue to exist, beyond any homogenous stereotype. My diasporic search for self, through critically reading, watching, talking and reflecting, has naturally led me to the realisation that my identity isn’t bound within suffocating Western ideological constructions of manhood. Ask yourself, what is there left to do until you feel the same?

Header photo by Pablo Rebolledo

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2 Comments

  • Fred Reyes

    July 24, 2018

    Proud to be Filipino

    Reply
  • Dom Reyes

    July 25, 2018

    I’m very proud of my nephew and proud to be Filipino.
    Keep going Martyn

    Reply

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