Beauty is pain. Ling Ling Huang’s debut novel Natural Beauty explores this dark concept through the story of a young woman who discovers that looks can be deceiving in more ways than one when she begins working for a famous beauty and wellness corporation.
The protagonist, whose real name is never revealed, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who escaped their country during the Cultural Revolution. Growing up poor, her only comforts are her parents and the love of piano they instilled in her at a young age. She becomes a renowned prodigy and earns a scholarship at a conservatory in New York City, suddenly surrounded by the echelons of higher society. In her new environment, she increasingly feels the pressure to fit in. While she feels guilty about leaving her parents behind, she also longs for the lavish lifestyles of the upper class. However, when her parents become disabled after a tragic car accident, she loses her motivation to continue piano and drops out of school, barely scraping by on her meager wage as a dishwasher.
The protagonist finds a lucky break when a beautiful woman named Saje arrives at the restaurant where she works to offer her a coveted opportunity – a job at one of the stores owned by Holistik, an innovative company that sells organic products that promise to de-age skin, enhance features, and ultimately turn their customers into the epitome of beauty. Although Huang’s characterization of Holistik and its employees may make their company vision appear frivolous at first, the tone gradually turns dystopian, becoming a dark satire of what the beauty and wellness industries could devolve into with no boundaries or regulations. The company has a loyal clientele willing to pay as much as they need to maintain their youth and beauty, sometimes at the expense of their own health (ironic considering that Holistik presents itself as a proponent of wellness). People are willing to endure uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous side effects for the potential of looking younger and more beautiful, such as subjecting themselves to procedures involving live worms or jellyfish.
The protagonist starts as an outsider acclimating to this new world of Holistik, starry-eyed and drawn to the beauty of those around her. She finds various facets of the human figure attractive and alluring, and the author describes the protagonist’s observations about other characters in a way that is almost erotic, like imagining herself bouncing on someone’s lips or dipping her pinky toe into someone’s dimple. As an employee at Holistik, the protagonist finally sees her life starting to turn around. She is making enough to keep up with the monthly payments for her parents’ care and seeing herself become beautiful like those around her. As she continues to use the various creams, serums, and pills that the company provides to her on a daily basis, her physical appearance gradually begins to alter, and the accumulation of these changes reveal a disturbing twist. Her skin and hair lightens in color, the eyelash serum not only extends her lashes but also gives her hooded eyes, and blue and green flecks appear in her eyes. She now looks just like her peers at Holistik — thin, blonde, and pale — and her view of the world has changed just as much as her appearance. In a final erasure of identity, she is asked to adopt a new, Americanized name. When she discovers that some of her colleagues are also Asian-American but have been transformed just as she has, she begins to uncover just one of many horrors Holistik is putting out into the world. At one point, Saje freely admits that they are essentially encouraging a form of eugenics: “Holistik has changed everything. Natural beauty doesn’t exist here – it’s created. Why not ethnicity?”
Reading Huang’s Natural Beauty will make you deeply contemplate the role of beauty in society. Although Holistik’s vision is extreme, even in the 21st century, much of the beauty industry still targets the world of the WASPs, with the picture of ideal beauty as one of whiteness and wealth. Only the rich can afford the hundreds of dollars it costs to maintain their elaborate beauty routines on a monthly basis. The burden of looking effortlessly young and pretty is one for women to bear, while men, like the founder of Holistik, are the ones pulling the strings behind the curtain. Furthermore, choosing to opt out of the beauty standard is not really an option if it means one will be stripped of respect. The protagonist struggles to reconcile this fact when she notes, “Beauty has always been one of the only ways women have been able to access power, and I can’t fault any of them for wanting more of it.” From corporations profiting off of people’s insecurities to beauty standards being created by the white majority, it’s a confluence of factors that lead women, and particularly women of color, to fall prey to this vicious cycle.
With the number of deaths in the story, Natural Beauty is very nearly a tragedy. Although the protagonist makes it out alive, she finds her own features have mutated into an ugly, inhuman form as a result of the toxic materials she’s ingested. But inside, she is quietly triumphant, finding her connection to her past and truly understanding and accepting who she is.