Models Describe Anti-Asian Racism in the Fashion Industry

Over the last year, there’s been an outpouring of stories about anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. But this isn’t an issue with one source — while the pandemic saw increased reports of anti-Asian racism, it’s a form of violence Asian Americans from all walks of life have experienced for many years, on the streets, in social settings, and in the workplace. That’s true too for Asian people in the modeling industry.   

While many models experience adversity at work (for example, pressure to be a certain size, sexual harassment, financial exploitation, and no regulation around labour protections), Asian models face unique challenges. Asian models have claimed to experience a host of anti-Asian actions at work, but the fashion industry has yet to sufficiently address the issue. Cultural appropriation, sexual harassment, tokenism, racism and yellow-face are just a few of the ways Asian models have said they’ve experienced anti-Asian hate, violence and oppression at work.

Even as more and more successful Asian models hit the runway and work for large brands like Victoria’s Secret, racism and discrimination has not waned. And, the increasing (though still underrepresented) presence of Asians in the modeling industry likely won’y be enough to stop microaggressions or hate at work. 

Teen Vogue spoke to some Asian models to examine just how anti-Asian hate shows up in the fashion industry.

“There’s such a double standard at castings. I’m a petite Asian model with curves and because of that I’m looked at like a porn star,” says Fiffany Luu, a freelance model based in New York City, who has appeared in campaigns for Fenty by Rihanna, Pat McGrath Labs, and i-D Magazine. Meanwhile, white models with large breasts are seen as sexy and desirable, she says. In an instagram post, Luu cites White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence, a 2008 article by lawyer Sunny Woan, to illustrate that the hypersexualized stereotype of Asian women is rooted in Western imperialism in Asia. She posted this after the killing of six Asian women across three metro Atlanta spas on March 16. “I would bring [this topic] up once in a while online but it seems that no one really cared enough or really knew what I was talking about. Unfortunately sometimes it takes something tragic for people to start listening.”

In her day-to-day life Luu says she often thought she was being too sensitive when she experienced microaggressions, but when she noticed other Asian models receiving the same treatment, she understood it as a pattern of racism. Luu remembers a photoshoot for a major beauty brand where the photographer referred to her and other Asian models on set as “hi-yah!”, a Japanese term used in Karate practice. Though the microaggressions Luu and other Asian-Americans face daily are often overlooked, they contribute to the overall anti-Asian racism that can lead to hate crimes — and that’s hard to cope with.