Social Issues

Hmong Beauty

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)
Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

One question  I get asked a lot growing up is, “What is Hmong?”  It was annoying, but I have grown to live with it and answer it accordingly to how I feel at the moment and by whom.

Another question I get asked as much is, “Are you really Hmong?”

The former is asked by those who do not know about the Hmong.  The latter is a question posed by those who know just enough to have formed a negative opinion on Hmong beauty, or lack thereof.  Let me explain.

I don’t remember how this conversation started, but in college, a male classmate ranted to me about how ugly Hmong girls are.  “They’re short, fat, and dark.  They have pig noses and chinky eyes.”

Hmmm, I thought to myself.  Am I going to let this go?  I looked over to my friend.  She smiled because she knew what I was about to do.

Being the witty person that I occasionally am, I asked, “Are they all really that ugly?  All of them?”

“Yes, all of them.  I have never seen a pretty Hmong girl!”

“So, do you think I’m pretty?”

“Oh, you’re more than pretty.  You’re beautiful.”

I giggled.  This is going to be good.

“Are you being completely honest right now or just trying to flatter me?”

“Why are you changing the topic?  I am not lying to you; You’re beautiful.  If you weren’t married, I would’ve made my move on you already.”

“Just so you know, I am Hmong,” I said as I sat back to wait for his reaction.

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)
Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

He was completely blown away.  He didn’t believe me.  He kept insisting that I was lying to him and kept on asking what ethnicity I really am.  He thought I was Chinese.  Chinese women are beautiful, he said.  I have to be Chinese.  He asked my friend if I was Hmong.  Yep, she’s 100% Hmong, my friend replied.  And then my classmate remarked, “You’re too beautiful to be Hmong.”

I don’t know about you , but this comment gets to me.  The person stating this is complimenting you on your beauty.  Take it as it is or—if you’re like me (and some others)—take it offensively.  Why?  Because this comment implies that Hmong people (or Hmong women, for that matter) are too plain or ugly to be considered beautiful, and you are the exception.  But why should you be offended?  They’re telling you that you’re beautiful.  I know, but they’re also implying that my ethnic group, as a whole, is ugly.  I don’t know where they’re looking, but I know and see many many beautiful, gorgeous Hmong women (and men).  We are not ugly.

One of my dear friend’s father was shocked when he found out (after 7 years of us being friends) that I am Hmong.  He said, “You’re not like the Hmong people I see.  They’re short and hunched back because they have to carry the bamboo baskets on their backs.  You’re tall.”  Not really; I am only 5’3″.

With all the comments I’ve received over the almost 3 decades of my life, I’ve compiled a description of how a Hmong woman should look like: short, fat, dark-skinned, hunched-back with a porky nose and chinky eyes.  This is the epitome of Asian ugly, isn’t it?  If you ask any Asian what it is to be physically ugly, most likely they would say one or all the characteristics mentioned above.  So does that mean that the Hmong is the ugly of the Asian race?

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)
Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

While searching the WWW to see if I can find an article on this topic, I came across Elmo Lee’s Hmong Beauty Project.  Elmo is a beauty and fashion photographer, known as Huenha Photography.  Her artwork is stunning.  I remember I started following her and her sister, Milly, way back when I was still on Myspace and their photography was called NaturalBlush.

The Hmong Beauty Project is to show people that Hmong women are beautiful.  Elmo states on its website that:

It’s not uncommon to hear Hmong women being told they’re too beautiful to be Hmong or that their beauty resembles another ethnic group.  My response to that is that Hmong women are as beautiful as any other ethnic group and none of it is a coincidence or an accident.  This in essence is the motivation and purpose of my photoshoot which showcases the beauty of Hmong women as individuals whose beauty is unique to herself.

I agree.  Hmong women are as beautiful as any other Asian ethnicity.  It does not do us any justice when others say that we, as a whole, are ugly.  We’re all individuals, and although we may have similarities, we’re beautiful in our own ways.

With Elmo’s permission, I have posted some of the Hmong women she has photographed on here.  This is a new project, which started at the beginning of this year, so it only has 8 women so far.  I cannot wait to see how it develops.

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)
Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

When I asked Elmo what sparked her Hmong Beauty project, she replied:

Whenever I stumble onto a pretty girl’s picture, it’s never a surprise to see at least one comment like this: “You are so beautiful. You look like a Thai/Korean/etc girl;” “You are pretty for a Hmong girl.”  It’s a compliment, but at the same time, it’s an insult; as if looking Hmong or being Hmong is a bad thing…. Just a few weeks ago, one of my cousins met my friend from out of state.  My cousin thought my friend wasn’t Hmong simply because she thought my friend was beautiful and that she doesn’t look Hmong.  This is exactly why I did the project.

I want to point out that I hear this “You’re too beautiful to be Hmong” remark within our Hmong community as well.  Growing up, I have heard too many comments on how Chinese women’s beauty trump Hmong women.  My father used to always say that Chinese women are the most beautiful in the world.  And it wasn’t uncommon to hear from other Hmongs—especially the older generation—that a Hmong woman is as beautiful as a Chinese maiden.  Elmo stated the same thing, “Zoo nkauj li nas ej Suav.”  I feel that this comparison has a lot to do with our not-so-good history with the Han Chinese.  My father used to spill Hmong propaganda that the Chinese kidnapped all the beautiful Hmong women to be their wives and that was why the Chinese are more beautiful than the Hmong (Really, Dad?).  And then, there is the media.

Elmo stated that she has made similar statements and feels guilty about it.  “Why do we think like this?” she asked.  Her conclusion (it’s not silly, Elmo) is:

We don’t have Hmong celebrities or “beautiful” popular Hmong idols to reference to.  Look at it this way, we don’t have our own country.  Before coming to the USA, we were simply farmers.  The Hmong entertainment industry isn’t like the mainstream here or anything near kpop/jpop.  We’ve only been in the United States for 35-40 years.  Our skills/expertise in whatever area are still poor. Yes, we’re improving, but we have a long way to catch up…. We have talents and skills.  We’re just not there yet because before all this, all we knew was farming, how to be a wife, have kids, dedicate our life to our in laws, etc.

It hasn’t been until in the past decade or two that the Hmong entertainment industry has immensely progressed.  With the help of technology and education, Hmong film-makers have created dynamic movies that have gained a lot of attention within the community.  And with this comes Hmong actors and actresses.  We now see beautiful Hmong women on-screen—something we have never seen before.  Additionally, many talented Hmong bands and artists have also emerged.  Hmong non-profit groups, such as CHAT are empowering individuals to express their artistic  and creative sides.  Hmong community events (that I can think off the top of my head), such as the Hmong Music FestivalFresh Traditions, and Revived, have showcased talented and beautiful Hmong people.  Prior to this, besides American celebrities, we had Asian stars to idolize.  We’re getting there, but are we there yet?

Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)
Hmong Beauty Project (Huenha Photography)

According to my observations, personal experiences, and what I hear from other Hmong women, I agree with Elmo that we still have some ways to go.  Society still believes that Hmong women are ugly and to be beautiful must mean that we are not Hmong.  How long will it take to have society realize our beauty?  How much will it take for the Hmong to embrace and claim the beauty of our women?  We are Hmong beauty.

24 thoughts on “Hmong Beauty

  1. I like that you’re exploring (and dismantling) the ideas of beauty being marketed to the Hmong people. Unfortunately I think the US has been very successful in colonizing beauty through Hollywood and the damage that the unattainable ultra-thin, tall, busty, blond, blue-eyed ideal creates is felt all over the world. The politics of skin color alone are baffling: white women in the US and Europe spend lots of money to look tan or bronze while women of color everywhere spend lots of money on skin bleaching. It’s ridiculous! People of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, ethnicities, ages and abilities are beautiful. It’s time everyone stopped listening to the beauty industrial complex telling us we’re not (and never will be) good enough. I’d love to see some “typical” (dark-skinned, pig-nosed, chink-eyed, short, fat) Hmong women in the Hmong Beauty Project. ❤

  2. A very good friend of mine is Hmong and I can assure you that she as well as her sisters are absolutely gorgeous. I think it’s awful that anyone would have the audacity to make such a rude, ignorant, offensive, generalized statement as “All Hmong women are ugly.” Just shocking. I think that the majority of mainstream western ideals in particular, as to what is considered beautiful are ridiculous, generally unhealthy and unattainable. I for one find the diversity in women of all ethnicities incredibly beautiful. It took some time and growing up but I no longer feel the need to appeal to anyone else’s notions of beauty and I just wish more women also felt this way.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It also took me some time to embrace myself. It’s really hard, even for the Hmong community to embrace their own beauty because of the media’s portrayal of what beauty is.

  3. While I understand the reason for the Hmong Beauty project, as a sincere effort to redefine…ultimately respect for beauty/stereotypes, it’s well from a feminist perspective, not going to advance Hmong or any Asian woman for that matter.

    The bigger dialogue should be more on why on earth there continues to be on North American tv show and serila shows, strong strong emphasis on Western white oriented beauty where even the rare Asian woman actress in a weekly show must have paler skin, more delicate nose, etc. Same old tiresome narrow definitions of beauty.

    1. If the Hmong Beauty Project can change one person’s view on Hmong beauty, then, to me, it was worth the effort.

  4. Definitely, I agree with comments about media portrays of “Asian beauty” and “western beauty.” I just want to add, although others may think Hmong women are not and cannot be beautiful, many of us has learn to live with it, no? At some point, we’ve just learn to accept that our skin will never be as pale, we will never grow any taller, have a high nose bridge or big round eyes. What I’m trying to say is, yes, we do still have a long way to go- simply accepting yourself and your own beauty is a start but the work is not finish. If you can comment on one woman every day how beautiful she is through her work, moment, looks, attitude then I believe we’ve made progress. I think it’s more than just showcasing Hmong beauty but really changing mindsets and spreading that beauty.

    I am a Hmong woman. Just the other day, I attended an event and was walking around a college campus. The weather was beautiful and since I will be out of the office that day I decided to wear a dress I had stored in my closet for years. I rarely wear dresses but I decided to wear it that day. As I was walking around, a student walked by and commented, ‘You look beautiful.’ I immediately reply ‘thank you’ before I even processed what she just said. It took me a while because (1) Honestly, I rarely receive this comment and (2) it was coming from another woman of color- unexpected. I don’t know if she meant the dress or me, however it made me felt beautiful. I wasn’t aiming for that when I decided to wear the dress but I think nice comments like that goes a long way for someone like me. If we can do that every day just imagine the difference it will make on everyone around us. Our children.

  5. I like Huenha’s project but I must say, the more I look at her photographs for this project, the more I can’t relate to it. I don’t have tall cheek bones or a straight nose, nor do I have pouty full lips. The definition of beauty is so subjective but as we try to showcase “beautiful”, we choose what we deem as beauty and neglect the general audience. I would love to see an array of photograph of these women in their true form, without the make-up and lighting. Dove did it best with its “Campaign for Real Beauty”. I don’t want to minimalize Huenha’s project, because I love her effort. However, changes come in raw forms.

    Thanks for your wonderful post.

    1. I agree 100%. I appreciate the effort of Huenha’s project, but looking at those pictures…I can not relate at all.

  6. Aww I don’t get why Hmongs ppl ever would feel ugly?? Im chinese from hunan and one of my fav singers song zu ying is gorgeous!! And she’s Hmong. I actually have always thought Hmongs to be hot!! So yeh don’t listen to haters!! All women are beautiful and special 🙂 xx

  7. Hmong women are beautiful…I met this girl she was so skinny, still she managed to have a great “chest”…..i really didnt expect such a beautiful chest. and yes it was real. she was fully dressed lol….

    but she wore a loose shirt I could peer in to her shirt till her bra lol…
    nd all the other stereotypes that all asians are obviously a generalization.

    she was a nice girl too…tried to acknowledge evenryting i did for her.

  8. Your former classmates! Why! I would have found it insulting!!! Well that’s just me!

    I think that the project is an amazing idea!!! I really don’t know much Hmong models or anything!

  9. Maybe instead of boosting your ego of ‘A-ha! I’m beautiful and I am Hmong, I excel your criteria therefore you are so wrong!’, you could of asked him why he feels that all Hmong are ugly, what ethnicity does he think are beautiful, does that mean everyone of that race is beautiful? Then you would probably come to realized that he is one individual who is obviously very ignorant and is probably a racist and in addition to the Hmong beauty remark, would probably make such lame remarks about other subjects as well. Therefore his point of view is not valid and should not be taken into consideration and should not support the claim that by being beautiful you must not be Hmong.

    1. no i wasn’t saying the Hmong are ugly, now way! some people can just be nasty and racist, not me though

    2. some caucasoid dude with his silly racist remark makes no sense!
      shame on him! he has one hell of a nerve doesn’t he?

  10. I think true beauty comes from inner self-confidence and some level of peace with who you are. When you feel good about yourself inside, you have an inner glow that can’t be matched by any amount of make-up or beauty treatments. I think most of us have seen women who look beautiful, but can tell that the beauty is only on the outside. Striving to achieve someone else’s idea of beauty doesn’t bring that inner glow.
    I have three friends who are Hmong women, and I have never viewed any of them as ugly, although they all have what are considered more “traditional” Hmong features. Their beauty comes from their smiles, their big caring hearts, and their acceptance of who they are. I was lucky enough to hear about some of the struggles they went through to break out of their traditional roles and follow their dreams, and their courage makes them even more beautiful and precious to me.
    Although its good to point out the exceptions to stereotypes, its also important to embrace those who fit the stereotype more closely. I would love to see pictures of some more “traditional-looking” Hmong women included in this project as well.

  11. At first I thought this was a neat project, but then I changed my mind. First off, it’s bias because the photographer decides who gets featured. I think you had good intentions while writing this article, but I found this article/project to be a little ironic. You describe how others view Hmong women as only being beautiful if they look similar to a different ethnic group. You feel insulted by these comments, but in my opinion, the photos that are displayed are exactly the type of features that fit the mold of what you dislike hearing. In my opinion, this project supports the insulting claims that only Hmong women who look like a different ethnic group are considered beautiful. There are comments stating, “She’s 100% Hmong” or somewhere along those line. If you and the creator of this project are really offended by the statements, shouldn’t you claim that Hmong girls are beautiful without having to look similar to a different ethnic group? I didn’t read all the comments from the readers, but I agree with the last comment made. Add a “common” Hmong girl/woman to this project without having to define that “She’s 100% Hmong.”

    I’m a Hmong girl myself who have experienced situations similar to yours. What was your purpose in refuting your classmate’s claim? When replying to him, your comments were so vague.

    I think in general, there’s a universal standard on what is considered to be beautiful. Eg: big eyes, light skin, nose bridge, etc. I feel that this project is trying to fit into that mold instead of show casing that Hmong girls/women are also beautiful in their own ways.

    1. Elmo’s intentions were to show people that Hmong girls/women can look like what others believe Hmong girls do not look like. “She is beautiful and she’s 100% Hmong. All Hmong girls do not have to have a flat nose, chinky eyes, and dark skin.”

  12. i still dont really understand the ideal beauty of the hmong people could you try to explain it more i am doing a project for my fashion class which is part of my final too and i cant find anything about it lol but i loved your story!

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