‘Natural Beauty Author Ling Ling Huang and Constance Wu on Toxic Ideals and the Dark Side of the Wellness Industry
Photo: Getty Images

Natural Beauty Author Ling Ling Huang and Constance Wu on Toxic Ideals and the Dark Side of the Wellness Industry

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Ling Ling Huang, the Grammy-winning classical violinist, briefly worked in the wellness and clean-beauty industry, during which time she really “drank the Kool-Aid.” “I was using so many different things and found the research that goes into ingredients and products fascinating,” she says. However spending more time in that space eventually led to disillusionment. “Figuring out why I have visible pores and things that are totally normal started becoming exhausting, and that’s when I realized I should take a closer look at why I’ve just accepted all of this as work I need to do.” That awakening planted the seed that ultimately birthed Natural Beauty, her absorbing debut novel out today. It’s set in Holistik, a luxe Goop-y mecca that peddles trailblazing beauty/wellness products. A television series based on the book is currently in the works, produced by actor Constance Wu along with Creative Engine and Entertainment One, producers of Yellowjackets.

Natural Beauty starts out frothy, offering an enticing dip into how tech could beautify and perfect our bodies and faces in the near future (whale-collagen injections, plumping gloss from Japanese pit viper venom, etc.). It quickly veers into subversive horror, turning into a cautionary tale on societal themes we’re currently seeing IRL: rigid beauty standards, cultural appropriation, surveillance culture, and the unending quest for physical perfection. “So much of our cutting-edge science is being used to subjugate women’s bodies, making sure that we adhere to societal values, which is very interesting,” Huang says. 

Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang

Her lived experience infuses the book; she left no facet of her life unplumbed. Apart from her beauty experience, she uses her knowledge of the classical-music world as an overlapping backdrop. “I found a lot of parallels [between beauty and] the classical-music world, like the prioritizing of aesthetic over everything else,” she says. “In the classical-music field, it’s still more permissible for women to be mediocre than it is for them to be fat,” she scathingly writes. 

Huang’s childhood as a first-generation American and the resulting relationship with her parents informs a track with much pathos and gentleness. There’s the classic immigrant tussle of loyalty to family and one’s culture of origin warring with the predictable teenage desire to fit in and conform. It’s sweepingly universal yet intensely personal at once. 

Ling Ling Huang, the author of Natural Beauty

Photo: V.J. Alcantara/Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The protagonist of Natural Beauty remains unnamed throughout the book until she is forced by her employer to adopt an anglicized name. Even this literary device came from Huang’s foundational experiences. In middle school, she was one of the only East Asians. Later at the Cleveland Institute of Music, which she started attending at 15, paradoxically there were so many East Asians that all of them being interchangeable became a joke. “Growing up I never really felt like my name mattered. I’ve often felt like a blank because people were going to project onto me whatever their preconceived notions of someone who’s Asian is. I wanted my character to experience that, especially as she moved through this world where people are not passive in their own lives, the way that I’ve felt like I’ve been made to be,” she says. 

It’s no surprise that Wu—who’s had to dismantle a few stereotypes herself, both within the Asian American community and outside it—loved it enough to option it. After that, Wu says the wheels started turning very quickly. “That’s what’s been really thrilling, the immediate action and excitement this work brings when people read it. We’ve hired a screenwriter/showrunner I could not be more excited about,” she says. 

Vogue recently spoke to Wu and Huang about the themes of this book and their experiences, both past and present, in navigating the beauty world. 

Vogue: Constance, what themes in Natural Beauty really grabbed you and made you want to option it?
Constance Wu: Of course, the themes of the beauty industry and beauty standards that we place upon women that are rooted in sexism, racism, classism, and all these other things. The themes are so current, but the book itself is so engrossing that you don’t notice that because you’re so caught up in the story. Any book that does that to you, especially if it’s so visual the way this one is, makes for great cinema or television. The female characters especially drew me in. I haven’t seen female characters very accurately portrayed, particularly when depicting their friendships. [There’s] either this patina of niceness or total bitchiness. It’s never what it is, which is complex. Some of the interactions reminded me of one of my favorite series of books, the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. When I talked to Ling Ling, that was one of the first things I said. 

All women feel the pressure of these insane beauty standards, but women of color feel them more keenly because beauty standards are modeled on the Caucasian ideal. How has that played out in your lives?
Wu: Whenever I walk into a department store in any Asian country, they’re practically throwing whitening creams at me. In some countries, eyelid plastic surgery to look more Western is nearly the same as getting your driver’s license—almost everybody does it at 16. I was lucky to be raised by a mom who was anti-vanity. I know there’s a stereotype that Asian ladies do their nails and have perfect skin. My mom was always like, ‘You’re not allowed to wear nail polish or makeup’ or ‘Don’t worry about your skin.’ Which, as great as it was, was not effective because the culture was more effective. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where everyone’s blond and blue-eyed. But it was a good foundation for understanding that there are ways of existing where somebody can tell you that your worth is not based on your physical appearance. That said, I was a very vain young woman, so that definitely beat out what Mom was saying. I am less vain now that I’m 40, but I’m glad I had that foundation set by my mom. Which I don’t think is typical for a lot of Asian mothers, but my mom was not typical.
Ling Ling Huang: I definitely felt pressure. I always felt the odd one out growing up ‘cause most of my friends were Black or Latina. And everyone was blonde in Houston, everyone. I was pouring Sun In, lemon juice, and beer in my hair. I had a very severe eating disorder for a long time. I was like, Well, if I can’t be white, I can just be really thin. I never asked why I was obsessed with beauty, but if I had it would have made me realize that beauty was just whiteness in my eyes. 

There’s a profound track in the book on DNA and familial features. As a young woman, the protagonist wants her face to be everything other than an identifier of her ethnic background. Later when she loses those features, she thinks, If I can’t look like my parents, I don’t want to look like anyone. In the past, have either of you wanted to reject features that were a marker of your ethnicity?
Wu: That was one of the things in the book that really moved me to tears. After she’s gone through this whole transformation where she objectively does get more attention and respect—even love—because she becomes this Western ideal, but her parents are dying, it is very moving because it makes you recognize that the beautiful things in life are not having a flawless complexion. They’re moments you share with your parents, them massaging your hands when they hurt, or your mom making this particular soup when you’re sick. When you’re about to lose that, you start to understand what real beauty in life is, and this other thing you’ve been chasing is just substance-less. Jack Gilbert wrote this poem about his dying wife and how he has to hold her over a pot in the corner so she can take a shit because she’s so weak. And he recognized this is life. This is beauty, taking care of this person I love while they’re so weak. There’s this line where he’s like, “Where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.” That’s why we cherish art, whether it’s literature or poetry, because it brings us back to that. And people like Ling Ling write in that way, which is very special when we find it. 
Huang: I think Constance really hit it on the head, especially about why we love art. [Unlike beauty standards] art isn’t standardized. That’s always what I loved about playing violin. In a sense, not getting to the level of success I really wanted to [helped me] because at that level of violin playing, you do have to standardize. So much of my conservatory training [was] sterilizing my voice and what I wanted to do with music, similar to this narrow beauty ideal. 

I’ve always been made fun of for my nose, not by my parents, but within my family and friends circle. People told me not to smile or laugh because then my nose flares out in a way that’s extra unattractive. On the first trip I took to China as an adult, I remember sitting across from my great uncle, having tea, and I saw through the steam that he had the same nose that I do. And he was laughing. No one had told him to tone it down, or if they did, he didn’t listen. What I realized was all of the time I was chasing beauty and whiteness, I was really chasing belonging. Seeing my nose on a family member was a shock of recognition for me: This is what belonging is. Every part of me is going to emerge from some ancestor, and I was really proud to be a part of something like a family. 
Wu: Interesting how the uncle, who was a man, was—not that we know of—not told not to laugh. Laughter is literally one of the best things about being alive; why would you deprive yourself of that? Also, the standardization. It’s interesting because sometimes when I think of my own acting career, the higher you get, the more they want it to be standardized. 

Constance Wu, who is producing the TV adaptation of Natural Beauty

Photo: Getty Images

Often, our own cultures of color have internalized these ideas about what the right or worthy kind of beauty is, and generations of women have grown up inheriting the idea that beauty is the Caucasian ideal. Can you see a way forward where we stop passing on these ideas to the next generation?
Wu: I feel very strongly about this. The beauty and fashion industries now think they’re [inclusive] because [they’re saying] real bodies, people with disabilities, and everything like that are beautiful too. The problem was not saying that there’s one standardized aesthetic of what beautiful looks like. The problem is we’re talking about what things look like, the focus on the visual aesthetic. Why don’t we talk about people’s actions rather than their appearances? If we focus on actions and character being markers of value, that would be a big step instead of trying to welcome every single type of aesthetic. That’s a little bit idealistic. But that’s what I’d like to instill in my own kid and soon-to-be kids. 
Huang: I love that. I have two nieces; they’re almost three and six. Since they were born, my sister-in-law has been a great example for this. She has rules for what we’re allowed to say to them. We’re not allowed to comment on their appearances, only their efforts. So we can’t be like, “Oh, Amelia, you’re so cute” all the time. Although in the beginning, I would just spell it out because it was difficult not to say it. 

Early in the book, the protagonist thinks she’s a diversity hire, then learns that all her other colleagues were also women of color who had morphed into looking more Caucasian over time after using Holistik’s supplements and products. The subtext is that society forced them onto that path, but they seemed happy to go along with it to collect the cultural capital that comes with being Caucasian and beautiful. That’s a great parallel with the current scenario of beauty standards being thrust upon us at an unbelievable pace, but at what point are we responsible to say no?
Wu: That’s really hard because even if you know better, the feedback you get from the world is separate from the standards that you ideally want in your own head. I know when I was in my 20s and dieting, when I was thinner, I just got more looks on the street, just a little more gentleness, given a little more grace by strangers. So to blame women for being forced into this culture, it’s way more complex than that. Yes, it is your choice, and even if you’re smarter, you think, am I doing something for the sake of the entire culture and sacrificing a little ease in my life for that? 
Huang: I actually don’t think women really have a choice. I’ve definitely punished myself. In the past, I was like, I’m so complicit in my own bodily subjugation, but it was one of the only ways that I had power or control. It’s one of the only ways we can advance socially and economically. It’s so much more tied to our survival than it is for men. If you don’t try, you won’t get anywhere, you won’t get the same opportunities, and if you do try too hard or too obviously…like there’s absolutely no way to win. 
Wu: Especially when you’re from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, where your options for value and worthiness are more limited. Part of the reason I love the movie I did, Hustlers, is it’s very easy to think of the women as taking advantage of those men. But the only currency they were given was their bodies. It doesn’t matter if they can solve the greatest math equation. Nobody’s going to be able to put food on their table. They did the best with the system they inherited. And that’s not complicity. 

What larger conversations do you hope are sparked by the book and show?
Huang: To ask questions when you buy something, like if you’re buying it because you were made insecure. Was something on your body made to be a problem that needs a solution? Or are you buying it because it’s gonna make you super happy and you’re excited to experience it? Just having a bit more thoughtfulness for consumption of the messages we’re getting from society.
Wu: The kind of things you’re asking is pretty important. Not to make final judgments on but just to think about. I buy beauty products for pleasure—some of them smell so nice! But then there have definitely been late-night searches for an anti-wrinkle treatment or something. And the quality of that type of search is a desperation to fill something missing versus the quality of the search for a bath bomb that smells like heaven. It’s different. So just to notice that. I love self-care products. But when it comes from a place of unworthiness, rather than pleasure at life, it’s good to look at.

Beauty discourse has taken on a feminist kind of bent, reframing it as self-care and wellness instead of trying to be more outwardly attractive. How do you feel about that?
Wu: I mean, it’s kind of like trying to put different size models on the [runway] and patting yourself on the back for it. I don’t think self-care needs to be marketed to us. It’s pretty intuitive.
Huang: I think it needs to return to that intuitive aspect. Because right now they’re like, “Whenever you feel not good, just throw on a sheet mask.” That’s not always gonna be the solution. Maybe sometimes but definitely not always.
Wu: Sometimes it’s helpful to be gentle with yourself when you’re going through something, and that could mean putting a sheet mask on. It could mean talking to your high school best friend. Not being so hard on yourself when you’re going through something is what it should be focused on, rather than, “Here are the products you can use to make the pain go away.” Because pain is a part of life. It’s a privilege of life. The only way out of it is through it. While wearing a fabulous sheet mask. Just kidding.

What Holistik treatment did you think was the craziest or most horrific?
Huang: The Twilight sleep cream. That [an injection of morphine and scopolamine] was a real product used for giving birth. It was something that existed in the 1800s or something to make women not remember, not feel.
Wu: They’re all so out of this world, but the mink pubic-hair implants. 
Huang: I feel like I know people who would absolutely get that done when it becomes a thing in five years. 
Wu: Yes, if suddenly having pubic hair is also the thing to do, [they’d do it.] If you have it, it better be nice!