Swipe your yellow MTA card and push through the turnstile. Head towards the “Uptown and Bronx” track for the 1, and walk down the stairs. See that the subway is still 5 minutes away and take the iPhone out of your coat pocket. Unlock iPhone and open Instagram.
Tap on the home button, scroll down. Brigitta’s selfie is the first image that pops up. Eyelashes curled and brows thickly drawn, skin glowing in the natural light, chin angled just slightly to the left to showcase her smooth jawline, and lips opened - just a tiny bit - to show the gap in her teeth. Double tap on the selfie. A heart pops up on the photo indicating you’ve liked it. Briggita is always a little much when she takes selfies, but that’s probably how she perfected the art: 50 likes and only posted an hour ago. Scroll down and double tap on Amanda’s snap of her on her latest getaway, perhaps the tenth she has posted this week. It’s not unlike the photos she’s already shared. She poses as if she weren’t looking into the camera, standing in front of a picturesque background [insert some sort of mural/city landscape/photogenic natural scenery] as if a photographer just happened to catch her walking gracefully into that very shot. 90 likes and posted last night.
Look up and see the train is heading towards you. Walk towards the second carriage, by the first door, because this opens right below the staircase at Columbia University’s subway stop. Lean by the door when it closes, and scroll down again. Double tap on Annisa’s latest photo of her and her sisters, all professionally made-up for a wedding. Tap to see the other accounts tagged in the photo: the makeup artist, the hairdresser, the designer of the kebayas they are wearing, and the jewelry maker. Their chocolate Javanese skins always seem to glow under their custom-made kebayas, the traditional Javanese attire of a sheer, exquisite blouse paired with a batik sarong. Tap to view the comments and scroll through a bunch of heart-eye and fire emojis, exclamations of “Indonesian princesses!” The Widjojo sisters are picture-perfect and boy, does Instagram know it: 200 likes, posted a few hours ago. Scroll down again and see that the photo of Jessica has bested them all: 500 likes and posted just 15 minutes ago. Her long, jet-black, wavy hair, her fair skin, her skinny-yet-somehow-still-curvy body, her sweet smile; she checks all the boxes of the perfect cindo – Chinese Indonesian – girl on Instagram. Tap on Jessica’s profile and see she now has 90,000 followers. See all the comments of Cantik! – pretty – on her photos. Check her most recent photos and see that she is now an endorser: either physically holding some sort of product, or tagging an online shopping account to show what she’s wearing in almost all her photos. Who is she? Just a girl you knew in elementary school who has become some sort of Instagram celebrity. And for doing what, you ask? She’s just a pretty girl, and Instagram loves pretty girls.
Double click the home button to find the camera app to check quickly on how you’re looking today. Your Columbia cap thankfully covers your oily dark brown hair, but not your chin riddled with the scars left over from pimples you just couldn’t resist scratching; you make no attempts to cover up your bare, imperfect face. You put your phone back into your pocket, and take a look at your outfit – dirty, black sneakers, black jeggings (because you just don’t wear pants with real buttons anymore), and a long-sleeve black shirt. You’re no pretty girl, but that’s okay. You look up to see that you’ve arrived: 116th Street. You get off the train – just right in front of the stairs, what did I tell you – and begin the climb out of the station.
Whenever I’m back home in Jakarta, my younger sister Brigitta makes me wait every time we leave the house. Brigitta Time is an hour to my fifteen minutes of getting ready. I lie down on her bed and check Instagram as she sits down in front of the mirror in her vanity. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her blending nude-colored powders and brushing them onto her cheeks: a touch of blush here, some glossy powder there. She traps her lashes in a golden eyelash curler before applying the thick, black goop that makes her already long eyelashes – extensions, of course – even longer.
As she paints a thin, black line across her eyelids, I can still make out the scars on her cheeks from her acne days. I remember how she could barely walk in public without people staring at her pimple-filled face, some even stopping to offer advice and the names of their dermatologists. A year, some powerful zit medicine, hours of watching beauty gurus on Youtube, and many trips to Sephora later, and Mama says Brigitta looks like she has been reborn. People still stare at her, but it’s for a different reason now: highlighted cheekbones, thickly shaded eyebrows, a thin and pointed nose like that of a Caucasian, and full, plump lips. With her towering height of 170 centimeters – at least 10-15 centimeters taller than the average Indonesian woman – and her long, thin limbs, to say she looks like a model isn’t a complete stretch.
After what seems like an eternity, Brigitta will apply her maroon lipstick, the signal that she is finally done. I ask her as we leave her room, “Why do you always need to use makeup?” She shrugs. “I feel most myself with makeup.” She takes out her iPhone, and starts to pout at it from multiple different angles. I think of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” After all, you don’t become queen of selfies in just one day.
I also think about how I feel most myself without makeup. When we are walking together in the mall, I look like the younger sister who hasn’t learned how to dress up yet, with my usually bare face and my mostly casual attire compared to Brigitta’s full face of makeup and her height towering over mine. While Brigitta’s hair is naturally wavy, my hair is dark brown, short, and straight – so straight that a good blow-out will last maybe two hours, if I’m lucky. Brigitta’s complexion is also fairer than mine, as mine is on the tanner side and marked by scars left by the mosquito bites I’ve collected through the years. Mosquitos especially like me because my blood is sweet, Mama likes to say, from all the cookies and cakes I’ve eaten. Brigitta is gluten-free, so that automatically makes her skinnier than me. I’d like to think having a sweet tooth has made me maybe a bit curvier, but according to the many overbearing Indonesian women in my life, not being skinny just translates to “fat” (very undesirable, in their view).
Strangely enough, I’ve never felt like I was ugly. Whether this is the result of overconfidence, self-delusion or a combination of the two, I don’t know. Perhaps there are days when I’ve felt uglier than usual from a zit or two, or wished I were a pound or two lighter, but I would say I dislike my body the normal amount. Maybe that’s why I’ve never felt the desire to invest so much time in my appearance, to find the perfect outfit or to use makeup daily. Yet I’ve sometimes wondered: by not participating in this vital feminine experience, am I missing out on being a woman?
I remember the afternoon when my uncle asked me why I don’t seem like a woman. I was sitting in the living room of his house with my cousin Vanessa when he proceeded to interrupt our conversation to ask me, “Olivia, kamu kok nggak kayak cewek sih hari ini?” I checked myself to see what has prompted my uncle to say that I didn’t “seem like a woman” that day. It couldn’t be my outfit: I had stolen this frilly white top from Mama’s closet, these skinny jeans from Brigitta’s, and worn ballet flats for the first time in months. I guess I did have my hair in a bun, in contrast to Vanessa’s blow-dried hair. My aunt walked in the room just after my uncle had said it, and hushed him - but did not disagree with him.
I laughed awkwardly, ever the respectful niece. And I waited to feel offended, but I never did - by my uncle’s standards of what a woman should be like, I guess I have broken all the rules. Take Vanessa, his daughter: she asks me two weeks before Christmas whether I have an outfit in mind yet, because she has just ordered a custom-made jumpsuit for herself from that designer on Instagram. Her drive to scour through online sales astounds me: I can barely get through a store in the mall, while she has taken shoes other people have left unattended for five minutes because, in her words, “it’s their fault if they just left them like that!” She drags me to facials and manicure appointments, makes me wait when she gets her brows done, and only eats a spoonful of the chocolate cake we share whenever we go out for coffee. I am equally amused and impressed by her sheer dedication to looking the way she does.
Vanessa had also just returned from the U.K. after completing her studies, but told me she had no desire to work anytime soon. I told her that I would be applying for jobs in the States when I graduated, and of course my uncle overheard. “Hah? Olivia nggak pulang?” was what he said, but what I heard was, “A woman? Not come home?”
Perhaps that’s why he’s never seen me as a woman.
I do not know why I scroll down and double tap every chance I get. I scour through profiles of Indonesian girls I do not know, friends of friends and cousins of cousins, with an irrational sense of urgency. Every time I have a free minute - in bed, in lectures, on the subway - I examine each photo they post like a detective looking for fingerprints in a crime scene. After going through so many profiles, all the photos of skinny, happy Indonesian girls having the time of their lives at the beach or at brunch start to blend together. I notice that the size of their accessories increases with age: the younger girls wear chokers and tiny Balenciaga sling bags, and the girls who have just realized they are now women don big, beady necklaces, the kind Mama’s friends wear, and carry large Celine handbags on their arms. They are picture-perfect: not a crack in sight.
Is it a homesickness, I’ve wondered - a desiring of a life I could have had, had I not left Jakarta to study in the States when I was 15? Even though Mama had insisted I come home every time I had a break from boarding school or college, allowing me to continue to interact with my Indonesian girlfriends here and there, I had spent more time around my American peers over the past seven years. My priorities were different from a lot of the Indonesian girls I knew, even those who were studying abroad alongside me. Theirs was to complete their education as quickly as they could and return home afterwards. “She’s graduated and going back for good,” they’d say. Meanwhile, I was planning out all the options I had in order to stay in the States. As much as I missed my family, I knew nothing awaited me back home.
But even from half a world away, I remain intrigued, addicted to following the lives of these Indonesian girls. In the middle of writing Economic History papers, I procrastinate by scouring through profiles of Indonesian endorsers: a myriad of picture-perfect women posing with picture-perfect products. I tap on the one familiar face on my ‘Explore Now’ page: Nadia, a girl who attended my old school in Jakarta and has accumulated 90k followers after winning a nationwide beauty pageant. Perhaps I should say woman rather than girl. Nadia may be a year younger than I am, but she is married and has a baby boy – their Instagram profiles are linked through her bio. I scroll through her 2,372 posts with a fervent energy that should be going into my assignment, experiencing every bit of her every day. With merchandise for every moment, of course. Even the hundreds of photos featuring her seven-month-old son have tags to Instagram baby stores: the perfect stuffed animal vendor, the perfect stroller shop, even the perfect imported American diaper supplier! Yet the endless number of identical paid posts do not impede my focus as I somehow delve deeper and deeper into her curated life. For Nadia is not a person anymore: she is a brand, for all of us to consume, consume, consume.
I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. Would life be easier if I were like Nadia - a living, breathing brand of a wife, mother and woman? What would life look like, if all I wanted to do was return home after college and get married? What would I look like? Would I still obsess over these girls as much as I do now, if I became one of them?
There is a kind of spectrum of Indonesian women. Native Indonesian women – the Javanese, the Balinese – are on one end: the white men who come to our land find them exotic, with their naturally tan complexion, tiny builds, gorgeous giant eyes, and luscious, black hair. Unlike the allure of the hypersexualized Latina woman that can be intimidating, the native Indonesian woman is the approachable kind. She has a kind smile and a reserved demeanor, because at the end of the day Indonesia still has the world’s biggest Muslim population. But watch out: get any darker, she’ll be called a maid. Get any fatter…well, she’ll be fat.
The native Indonesian woman is the everyday commoner to the cindo woman’s wealthy bourgeoisie, on the other end of that spectrum. While cindos are technically only 1.20% of Indonesia’s population, many of them are at top of the food chain, so to speak. The cindo woman’s pale white complexion is proof that she does not work under the sun, and so she makes sure it stays that way, staying in the shade and telling her own daughter not to join the soccer team for fear of her getting darker. She is clothed in designer brands from top to bottom, because how else will she let everyone know she is rich? Yet at the end of the day, even with her Dior purse and her Hermes scarf, she still has Chinese eyes, so she still needs to get her eyelids done.
But whether you are a native Indonesian or cindo woman, one thing still stands: you must always, always look flawlessly put together. It’s why my friends from middle school, Amanda and Annisa, go through such lengths to maintain a flawless feed. It’s why endorsers like Nadia and Jessica can literally make a living from curating a “self” as a brand for people to envy. In a city with 170 shopping malls, is it really surprising that the act of jaim, jaga image, painstakingly maintaining one’s image, permeates deep into Jakarta’s culture? It’s why Brigitta always checks my outfit before we leave the house – most likely a pair of my jeggings and one my nicer tops – and deem it unacceptable by Jakarta standards. Brigitta knows all too well the inevitable looks of judgment we’ll get from the women that pass us in the mall if I appear underdressed (even if they are just as ridiculously overdressed, with gaudy Chanel pendants and stiletto Louboutins on just to go shopping).
For Brigitta, still in high-school, had not left Jakarta like I had. She was experiencing firsthand the painstaking ways that people in this city would pick and judge every aspect of your appearance. At worst, I’ve only experienced two weeks of overbearing aunts pinching my cheeks and asking the straightforward question of “Gendutan ya Olivia?”, whether I had gained weight during my time abroad in the States. “Please pick something from Mama’s closet instead of yours,” Brigitta will instruct, like the older sister she appears to be. Even as I grumble under my breath, I still walk back into Mama’s closet obediently to change. Mama is no fashionista, and the casual section of her wardrobe feels like an updated version of mine, which is why I can still find clothes I like from her slightly more expensive skinny jeans and slightly fancier monochrome tops. Mama is also not Brigitta, not a makeup guru by any level, with how often she smudges her own eyeliner or draws it in an imperfect line. Yet somehow, even with her considerably minimalistic apparel and her mediocre makeup skills, Mama has always been beautiful.
I’d like to think that it’s because Mama probably falls right in the middle on the spectrum of Indonesian beauty. Yes, Mama’s cindo, but she’s seventh-generation, with bits of Javanese and Portuguese thrown in there somewhere. With her naturally brown eyes – the kind cindos get with contact lenses – her naturally wavy brown curls – the kind cindos get by perming their hairs – and her naturally mancung, sharp nose – the kind cindos get from cosmetic surgery – she has always looked indo, which is what people would call Indonesians with Dutch blood in them. At the end of the day, the white woman’s beauty is still the most coveted of them all.
“Let’s take a selfie, Ci.”
“Aduh Ma, selfie again?” I complained.
Mama was already stretching her arm out and motioning me to lean in. I had just sat down at the table where Mama was sitting, by a large window in the Magnolia Bakery. People were walking up and down Columbus, enjoying the warm spring sunshine that had finally arrived only at the beginning of May. I had just bought a lemon bar, Mama’s favorite – the perfect balance of tart and sweet, and would go well with our respective drinks of decaf coffee and earl grey tea. It would have been a perfect New York afternoon, had Mama not been frantically selfie-ing all the way through it.
“Iyaaaaa Ci udah jangan complain deh. Mama besok udah mau pulang.” By now I should know better – that there is no saying no to Mama’s selfies. Even if they are taken at the most inconvenient of times. Especially when she is leaving tomorrow.
Mama was visiting me in New York for two weeks, because I would not be returning home for the summer. I had gotten my first summer internship at a startup in New York, as their User Engagement Intern. My new office was going to be right across from the Empire State Building. I made it, I told Mama and Papa, I made it. Scoring a shiny internship – like one at a trendy startup in a colorful office with unlimited supply of snacks – before junior year was The Key, everyone said, to landing a job after graduation. But this would also be my first summer not coming home at all. I shrugged it off. I always come home and get bored, I told them confidently. Let me stay and work.
I had been looking forward to spending some quality time with Mama over those two weeks. Instead, they mostly consisted of a flurry of embarrassing photo sessions, with me taking photos of Mama down the Highline on a windy day, in the middle of Washington Square Park at sunset, and in front of the Flatiron at night, despite my constant reminders that the picture would turn out blurry in the dark. The worst photo-op of all was down at the 14th Street subway station, where we had to switch trains and were walking through a long hallway in between the two lines. As we made our way through the crowd, Mama spotted a man playing the guitar right in the middle of the hallway and immediately said to me, “Ci, please record Mama walking down here. This is so New York.” My eyes widened. I could not believe she was actually asking me to record her walking down into this grimy subway station.
“Are you serious?” I replied to her in disbelief. “Banyak banget orang disini, Mama ga malu?” When she shook her head to signify that no, she was not embarrassed, I realized I couldn’t get out of it. I jogged a few steps ahead of her and started recording her walking through the crowd, complete with guitar playing in the background. I watched her get closer and closer on my iPhone screen – a preppy vision in a light brown trench coat, black skinny jeans and Hunter boots. That day, her lipstick was a shade redder than her everyday color and her eyeliner thicker and blacker than usual. She watched and re-watched the video when we got back to my place that night, with absolute glee. “Don’t I look like an Asian Kate Middleton?” she asked me, more earnestly than jokingly. I laughed and nodded, “Iya ma, you do.”
Just as I was about to take a sip of my earl grey tea, Mama stretched out her arm again. “Ayo Ci, another one. I don’t look good in that one.” I shook my head. “My goodness Maaahh. No more no more!” Thank goodness Mama doesn’t have Instagram (though she does make me post photos of her occasionally on my feed). My friends double tap and comment enthusiastically – “Queen!” “*Heart Eyes Emoji*” “Your mom is so pretty omg” – and Mama loves it. “Loooook,” she says when I show her, “Look at how your friends love me!”
When we got up to leave, Mama immediately told me to go out first. “Take pictures of me as I leave, so you get the ‘Magnolia’ sign above my head,” she instructed very carefully. I walked out and crouched down, in order to make her look tall. I pressed the capture button every second or so to capture her every movement, but still she was not satisfied. Mama went in and out of that bakery at least three times, I remember, until we got the shot.
My first New York summer was lonely. The initial sparkle of the work perks quickly dulled, as the unglamorous aspects of job itself, which I had not bothered to familiarize myself with when I accepted my offer, became more and more prominent. Turns out that User Engagement actually translates to Glorified Customer Service. Who would have known? I knew enough friends who stayed around in the city, but was often too tired to socialize after the long hours of dealing with angry service users. On subway rides back to my apartment, I plugged my earphones in and resorted to the world that was my phone. But with the lack of phone service on the subway, I’d eventually find myself getting off Instagram and scrolling through my iPhone photo gallery. And almost immediately I’d find Mama, what with at least two hundred photos of her in my phone, smiling at me from my screen.
Just like in real life, Mama glows in photos. I’d scroll through the photos of Mama with the same irrational urgency behind my incessant Instagram scrolling. I feel myself looking, looking, looking for pieces of myself within these pretty girls, for remnants of a past self I could have been. But with Mama, I feel myself looking for any remnants of a future identity I would have had, could have had. Perhaps this was why I tolerated her vanity, and why I still looked at her beauty with a secret childlike adoration behind my public embarrassment. All summer long, the words of Warsan Shire echoed over and over in my head: “You desperately want to look like her. You look nothing like your mother. You look everything like your mother.”
I know Brigitta is the one people think of as Mama’s twin, and me as Papa’s carbon copy. Yet I attempt to imitate my mother still. When my arduous internship finally ended and summer quickly turned into fall, I started wearing Mama’s cashmere sweaters - the ones she had left behind from her trip in the spring had residues of her sugary-sweet perfume on the sleeves. If that scent had a color, it would be the softest shade of blush. I began donning a gold bangle with three pearl studs around my wrist, a bracelet Mama used to wear. As I walked down the street, in a sweater too sickeningly sweet for my own taste, I wondered how putting on a costume could feel so familiar. I suppose the remnants of the future self I had left behind - the possibility of pretty - had somehow settled comfortably within me.
During my freshman year, I wore makeup every day.
I had been terribly unimpressed with the supposedly life-changing experience that was college, dying of boredom in my lectures and lacking any interest whatsoever in any student organizations. “Google a makeup class in New York,” Mama said on the phone. “It’s about time you became a woman.”
I did not go so far as to enroll myself in a makeup class, but I did buy my first makeup kit. The brand I had chosen for myself was Bare Minerals, having bought into their promise that their products would make my face as naturally, and of course perfectly, bare as possible. You’re not going to feel like you’re wearing makeup, the Sephora woman whispered in my ear, as she watched me try on five different shades that were totally wrong for my skin tone.
I watched their Youtube tutorials religiously as I skipped lectures. Every morning I woke up and carefully followed their instructions in their video. I wrote each step down in a note card that I stuck beside my mirror, just like I would when studying for an exam. “Sweeping, circular motions,” the beautiful white woman in the video sung to me from the screen, as she gracefully swept the foundation across her cheek. “To cover your cracks and crevices!” I waited and waited for the morning I would wake up and the routine would come naturally to me. I waited for the morning I would be able to paint my face the way Brigitta had always easily done hers, instead of methodically and anxiously sweeping my brush around my cheek in circles. I waited for the morning I would intimately know my cracks and crevices like the beautiful white woman in the video, and how to cover them perfectly instead of always having to look at my notes for the order of application for powders that all looked the same to me. Yet practice in this case never made for perfection, and that morning never came.
This is what becoming a woman feels like, I kept telling myself. Doing the things you’re supposed to be doing. For years, I’ve been watching the women around me put on a full face of makeup like suiting up in armor for war, a shield against a world engineered against them. Cover up your womanly cracks and crevices, cover up your feminine vulnerabilities, because who cares about covering up a face ridden with acne scars on a man? This what becoming a woman feels like, I kept telling myself. This is what growing into the self I am supposed to become feels like. Yet in order to know who I could become, I needed to know who I was. And I didn’t.
When I first entered my American high school, I felt like the little lost Indonesian girl. I clung onto this identity as I struggled to make sense a world completely strange to me. But in the hallways of Barnard, I wasn’t so little or lost anymore. I knew my way around a class discussion, as this was how all the classes at my high school had been structured, unlike my fellow classmates who had been raising their hands all their lives. I knew my way around homesickness and how to deal with the chest pangs of being thirty hours away from my family, unlike the girl from California living four doors down from me who was crying and crying about not being able to go home for Thanksgiving. It was a strange feeling, to be ahead of the curve for once. I didn’t recognize this Olivia, this not-so-lost and not-so-little girl. Perhaps she was growing into a woman?
I don’t quite remember when I stopped wearing the makeup, but remember the progression of the gradually disappearing beautifying products. Each seemingly unnecessary item started hiding itself away in my cupboards. I guess I don’t really need to use the bronzer, I said one day. Or the eyeliner, really, I said another. And my cheeks look fine without this blush, I told myself the week after that. Why would I just be using foundation, then? I finally asked myself when I put away the last item left in my makeup kit. I felt as if I was peeling away, layer by layer, into the self I truly was - a reflection of the girl who had once begged her parents to allow her to study in the States after seeing a brochure for a school where the cool kids are the smartest. That girl had proudly worn her Converses while all the girls around her were wearing ballet flats, and had firmly stuck to a strict no-dress rule despite her mother’s constant pleas. Even if she wasn’t quite that girl anymore, she looked a lot familiar than the full mask of makeup I had been staring into every morning.
Three years later, I found myself back at a Sephora: back at the Bare Minerals stand, back struggling to find the shade that would fit my skin. I had just scheduled my first full-time job interview – my first real shot to stay in the United States for good – and decided I needed to armor up. I had already bought my interview outfit. But as I looked at myself in the mirror, with a face laden with acne scars, I knew I needed some makeup – I wanted to present my best self. And this time, I knew who I was: a passionate writer, a sharp economics student, a hard worker. It didn’t feel like I was lying to myself anymore.
On the morning of my interview, I brushed a light layer of foundation over my face, drew two thin black lines along my eyelids, and curled my eyelashes with some mascara. I put on my outfit: an all-black pantsuit with a white striped top. I walked over to my full-length mirror and sent a selfie to Mama and Brigitta. I looked at myself in the mirror, and suddenly remembered a friend’s story about her graduation outfit. “I didn’t wear a dress,” she had proudly told me. “I was a badass! I went Hillary-style, and wore a pantsuit instead.”
I whispered to myself, you are a badass.
Mama’s reply popped up on my phone screen. “Cantik, Ci,” she texted me. I watched myself smile in the mirror. My pretty girl moment - my slowly, slowly becoming a woman.
Olivia Budiman is a writer based in New York.