On Beauty: Sean Kingston, Ethiopian Flight Attendants, and Tolerating Disapproval

Apparently I am “not thick enough” for American R&B pop-star, Sean Kingston.

[For those of you who do not know what “thick” means, you can look up the definition at www.urbandictionary.com]

On September 17, Kingston performed at Amahoro Stadium with Rwandan singer, Tom Close.

Despite all the anticipation and hype about the event, even a Saturday night could not draw me out of the house for the concert. It had been raining all day and, in Kigali, rain is a perfectly legitimate excuse to not go out. Think about it – many of the roads in Kigali are still unpaved, and most people walk or take motos to get around town. Unless you want to get completely soaked riding a moto or throw away yet another pair of shoes from walking in the muddy red soil, you’d do better to stay indoors.

So I stayed at home and watched Star Dust instead.

Fortunately, I didn’t miss much – later reports of a “lame” concert in which Kingston only performed four songs while the entire audience got progressively soaked in the rain didn’t sound nearly as exhilarating as a film about witches who want to carve out and eat the heart of Claire Danes.

But after the concert ended at 10 PM and the weather cleared up, my phone started to go berserk with all the incoming calls and texts about “The Official After-party” with … dun-dun-dun: Mr. Sean Kingston himself.

Hours later, I found myself in a car with friends driving from Sundowner to Legacy, and then from Legacy to Cadillac where – yes, we finally ran into Kingston.


A club in Kigali called "Shooters"

Having previously worked in Chicago night life, I’ll give you a brief run-down of night life in Kigali.

I guess you could say that clubs in Kigali are chill?The DJs play a mix of your Top 40s infused with African pop, but the songs are sometimes played in the exact same sequence as they were last summer. The clubs are small single-story buildings and not particularly well-ventilated. The “dress code” standards are relatively conservative (mid-thigh dresses and heels over 3” are still rather scandalous here) and there are few female bartenders (much less go-go dancers), but the bigger clubs are filled with prostitutes who have no qualms about directly, and sometimes aggressively, soliciting male ex-pats. The drinks are strong, the service is slow, and the night life culture in Kigali still serves the interests of men (so if you get harassed, the club isn’t going to throw the guy out).

But, not surprisingly, many aspects of Kigali night life operate in exactly the same way as they do in Chicago. You see the same crowd moving around all the popular hotspots in Kigali. This consistent crowd of club-goers (which one of my night life partners in Chi has fondly termed “The Degenerates”) serve as the backbone of Kigali’s social scene. In this crowd, money flows easily for drinks and V.I.P. access to networking events where one mingles with other known members of the same crowd. Your ability to ease into these hotspots depends on your position in society, your connections, your wealth, your appearance – any or all of the above.

Sounds like night life in the States, right?


Flight attendants on Ethiopian Airlines

Let’s talk about appearance.

When I walked into Cadillac and entered the V.I.P. area where Mr. Kingston had sprawled himself across a couch, I was told by his producer that I was “not thick enough for Sean” but I was “cute enough” to enter. Not to worry, I wasn’t terribly offended. In fact, I took the statement as a mild compliment (since I am quite confident that I would not want to be “thick enough” for Mr. Kingston). However, I was greatly amused and fascinated about the concept of “beauty” – not only as it is perceived by Kingston, but also by Rwandans, and, well, by everyone, really.


Beauty is a funny thing.

Last summer, one of my Rwandan friends proudly told me that sometimes people mistake her for being Ethiopian. She explained to me that in Eastern Africa, Rwandese women are well-known for their beauty but many women still aspire to look like Ethiopian women. Her statement was affirmed by numerous conversations I’ve overheard among men (Rwandese and ex-pat) who will eagerly share their admiration for Ethiopian female beauty. While I was in Nairobi, my male friends excitedly shared their enthusiasm for an Ethiopian New Year event where many Ethiopian women would be present. Ethiopian Airlines, in particular, has a well-known reputation for its beautiful flight attendants —  and, as a frequent customer of the airline, I would have to agree that the attendants are remarkably beautiful.

When I took “Human Sexuality” in January 2009, Professor Michael Bailey discussed the basis of beauty in physical symmetry, the 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio, the health of skin and hair, the “ideal” weight (which differs in various communities and societies), the scent of pheromones. The biological explanations for perceived beauty make sense when you recognize that men want to disseminate their seed in healthy vessels that will continue their genes, and women want to produce healthy offspring to loyal caretakers/providers who will ensure the survival of their offspring. The perceived notion of what is desirable and what is beautiful emerges from the biological drive to perpetuate the species.


A Google result of "Asian beauty"

In Kigali, people often tell me that I am “smart” (well-dressed) or “beautiful.” They also tend to guess that I am Korean or Japanese or Filipino or Thai or of mixed Asian heritage – basically anything except Chinese. [I’ll forgive them for not guessing Taiwanese – which is what I actually am – because of Taiwan’s relative obscurity and controversy as a country to many Rwandans (apologies to my Taiwanese readers)].

Essentially what I’ve realized over time is that many Rwandese people assume that I am not Chinese because they have this notion that Chinese women are unattractive based off of the population of Chinese women they have seen in Kigali. On the other hand, many guess that I am Korean because they firmly believe that “Korean women are the most beautiful women in the world” – which is very flattering but also always makes me think of my grandmother’s assertion that “Chinese parents save up money for their children to go to college, Korean parents save up money for their children to have plastic surgery.” (Harsh, I realize, but also part of the discussion on beauty).

*[10/10/2011: In trying to present different perspectives, I have unintentionally granted power to the statement above  instead of demonstrating the extremity of its generalizations. Yes, plastic surgery is a widespread phenomenon in Korea, but Korean parents are also very zealous about the education their children receive. The very existence of these statements underscores how sensitive people are about beauty, especially how they compare to others.

A good friend forwarded me a fascinating article on this subject, in which China’s vice health minister asserts that “Chinese make up 30 percent of cosmetic surgery patients in Seoul.” Ironic, huh? Here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/world/asia/24beijing.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all].

I suppose it is ironic that I have often felt unattractive as an Asian woman. While my weight is normal and perhaps even on the slimmer side in Kigali, I feel overweight among many of my female Asian counterparts. I always feel discouraged when I go from a size 0/XS in the States to a size M or even L in Asia. I am also acutely aware that my skin is much darker than the porcelain white complexion that is so prized in many Asian communities. In high school, many of my female Asian friends wore sweaters to outdoor gym classes and brought umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun. At home, they applied a variety of cosmetic solutions every day to further lighten their skin. Historically, Asian aristocrats have prized their pale complexion over the rough sun-tanned skin of famers so I guess it makes sense that, even while tanned skin has become more acceptable over the years, most models and actresses cast in Asian sitcoms continue to be fair and pale.

The preoccupation with beauty that I observed in high school evolved into an almost crazed obsession in college. The diversity of interests and talents among Northwestern’s students paralleled the range of eating disorders and physical insecurities that I witnessed on campus. I knew girls who were insecure about their weight, about their noses, about their height, about their skin, about their chests, about their eyebrows, about their voices, about their teeth. Then, there were also the girls who were concerned about not owning a North Face fleece or coat, a pair of Tori Burch flats, Burberry earmuffs and rain boots. I watched girls pinch their arms and stomachs in disappointment in front of mirrors, I saw girls starve themselves and faint mid-conversation, I listened to girls crying while they retched in dormitory bathrooms, I observed the rows of girls running desperately every day on treadmills in the gyms.

I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that I was also one of these girls.

It is a tragedy. And the worst part is that while women will often blame men for instigating their obsession with beauty, I honestly believe that women are equally responsible for projecting their insecurities on others and, in doing so, perpetuating their own demons through the judgment and criticism of other women. Yes, college gossip websites such as CollegeACB often served the interests of men (particularly those in fraternities and athletics) who mercilessly dissected and categorized female students on campus. However, much of the ruthless gossip was also fueled by women who participated in spreading vicious lies and cruel criticism of the bodies of other women. 

Last summer when I went to Goma (in the DRC) I was shocked and dismayed by how many Congolese women applied lightening products to their skin. I had, of course, fallen into the trap of thinking that the problems I had witnessed in the United States and in Asia wouldn’t exist in the Congo. But in all of my travels to the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Rwanda, the Congo, Kenya, China, Taiwan, the UK – I have yet to find a society where women aren’t crippled by their physical insecurities. Why can’t our apparent “flaws” be unique sources of beauty? Why must we look Ethiopian, or Brazilian, or half-Asian in order to be beautiful?


LEARN TO TOLERATE DISAPPROVAL” has become one of the most liberating mantras in my life.

Ultimately, it was a realization that there will always be people who disapprove of you, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to accept it and move forward.

Does beauty matter in society? Yes, it does – and arguably more than it should.

Is beauty the only thing that matters in society? No, it is not.

Everything in life has its pros and cons – and beauty is one of those things. Beauty can make your life easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Beauty may grant access to VIP treatment and earn perks – free drinks, expedited service, complimentary meals, favoritism – but it may also deny access to respect and genuine valuation as an individual with more than what is immediately realized on the outside. In Chicago, beauty may mean that you can cut past the crowd and enter every club without paying for cover or a single drink all night; in Dubai, beauty may mean that you are refused entrance to a club based on suspicions that you may be a prostitute. (True story).

Many of the cliches turn out to be true: “Beauty is skin-deep.” It can be here today and gone tomorrow.

For nearly two years, I participated in fashion shows and photo shoots where modeling and walking down runways was a source of healing and escape. But over time, the destructive pressure from the industry began to outweigh the therapeutic benefits. It became more and more difficult to shrink a body that no longer had the same speedy metabolism, and desperate measures to reach the ever evasive Size 0 only resulted in even more damaging and permanent consequences. It hurt to read comments from others about having a “massive pooch” or hear people comment on how much weight I had gained. Finally – the last straw – a show where I found myself surrounded by “real” models who were pencil-thin and towered over my 5’3” frame. In the midst of crumbling from physical comparisons to these goddesses, I realized this: The moment that I stepped on that runway, I was asking for an entire auditorium to evaluate me based on my physical appearance. I wanted people to see me for more than what was on the outside and I complained about the superficiality of society, but I was the one who was placing myself in environments where my entire value was skin-deep.


The lovely Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn is one of my childhood heroes, and even now that I’m twenty-two, I still think that she is one of the most beautiful women to ever grace this earth. I want to share one of her famous sayings:


For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others,

For beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness,

And for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”


We can recognize the significance and influence of external beauty but – whether Sean Kingston thinks we are “thick” or not – it is always more valuable and worthwhile to invest in beauty that comes from within.

Sending my love to all the beautiful women out there!