I had impulsively bleached all my jet black virgin hair to an ashy brown in an attempt to reinvent myself the summer before college, just to arrive on campus and realize I was but one of many girls who had the same idea.
Many of us sported different shades of blonde, often with the roots grown out, forming quite a harsh and artificial gradient across the hair shaft that shifted from natural black to a sudden orangy yellow. These girls, myself included, can often be spotted with false lashes and filled in blocky brows as well.
In popular culture, East and Southeast Asian girls with dyed hair, dramatic makeup, long nails, tattoos, piercings, revealing clothes and, of course, bubble tea are labeled as ABG’s or “Asian baby girls.” The classification gained traction from the popular Asian-American Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits,” where the (primarily East and Southeast) Asian diaspora comes together to concur and gossip about Asian pop culture. The term originates from the Southeast Asian diaspora in the late 1990s to the early 2000s to describe Asian women involved in gangs, criminal activities and drug use.
The term was later appropriated by East Asians, and the rise of social media’s glorification of the trendy ESEA women gradually solidified the term as a reference to internet-famous women and shifted away from its origin. And now, due to the infectious nature of the internet, this newer definition has replaced its predecessor.
The appropriation of the term ABG is far from an innocent cultural exchange within a given diaspora. Contrasted to the East Asians who immigrated to North America on work and investment visas, or as students, some Southeast Asians have relocated across continents as refugees and overall earn less than East Asians. This income gap is largely overlooked due to the generalizing nature of the model minority myth. This power imbalance results in the hyper-visibility of East Asian issues in comparison to other Asian diasporas. This appropriated term enforces this hypervisibility and creates a monopoly of Asian creativity and style that, in the eyes of the American public, belongs mainly to East Asians.
Aside from the appropriation, the very existence of the phrase “Asian baby girl” implies that the default for Asian women is the plain jane, nerdy career woman, who can, of course, be beautiful as well. However, this stereotype is the ABG’s character foil. I have always wondered why the term ABG came into being to describe hyper-feminine and stylish Asian women when there are no such terms to describe such women of other demographics. Perhaps it is because of the “nerdy” Asian stereotype being the default that we needed a separate term to describe the women who steered away from this characterization and created their own. It is also perhaps that the label came to be popularized because of the “ABGs” themselves, in an act of rebellion against these stereotypes.
It could also be argued that some of the styles within the “ABG” aesthetic adhere to white beauty standards. For instance, I often wonder if the voluminous false lashes ABGs wear are to conceal some of our insecurities with our unique monolids and hooded eyes by enlarging them with lashes. Though style and makeup are always up to individual choice, it is worthwhile to evaluate why we make the choices we make in order to make ourselves presentable and appealing to the masses.
At the end of the day, I and many like-minded people are happy to see young Asian Americans flourishing and feeling beautiful on their own terms. However, even a term as seemingly lighthearted as ABG is a misrepresented term. While we bask in our youth and this particular style as an expression of our individuality, it is worthwhile to dissect how the label came to be and how we as a community should move away from categorizing women, while considering the history of stereotypes targeted against us.
MiC Columnist Zoe Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.