I don't do new years resolutions, but I am trying a yearly theme to guide me. My theme for 2023 is “body,” in all ways — listening to my body, caring for it, looking at it without flinching. In this essay, I am trying to look without flinching.
I’ve been lucky to mostly worry about my body’s form, not its function, but age and stress are taking their toll. Everything works just a bit worse than it used to. Time to take care of it before it’s too late. I know I will look back, thinking I was so young, foolish enough to try and slow time.
Content note: body dysmorphia, mommy issues, anti-Asian violence
I am two years old. My grandmother is babysitting a neighbor’s kid, a Chinese-American girl named Holly in second grade. Holly is ignoring her math homework and adjusting her tie-front shirt — which she no doubt thinks makes her look good — when she turns to me and says, You’re ugly. I am sitting by her on the carpet, playing with a hula hoop, confused by the interruption. Isn’t ugly a bad thing? She repeats, You’re really ugly, you know. I know enough to cry.
A lifetime later, I am twenty-nine years old. I meet my friend’s Vietnamese-American wife, who I hope to donate my eggs to so she could have a child. She has had a total hysterectomy, lives in constant pain, and has to wear sunglasses to look at a computer screen. Afterward my mom asks me, Is she pretty? I reply, Yes, so beautiful and strong. Mom says, What if her kid doesn’t look as good as her?
It would be dishonest to use these two moments to sketch a life of verbal abuse. For the most part, people have been nice. I don't trust nice.
My mother, a great beauty in her youth, tried her best with positive reinforcement. She praised my efforts in fashion and makeup, reminded me that my big head housed a big brain, taught me that looks would fade but intelligence and money are more reliable sources of power for a woman in a man’s world. But I grew up watching her struggle with her weight and reminisce about the line of men who chased her in her prime. I grew up in early-aughts LA where everyone aspired to be famous for being anorexic and blonde. People expected the ugly quiet Asian girl to be smart, so I became smart and resigned myself to being ugly and quiet and Asian. I devoted myself to art, because if I could not embody beauty, at least I could create it. And when a boyfriend tore me down for being dumb, I did not leave, because at least he also called me pretty.
A few years later, I would look back at photos from that era, my body slouched behind thinner friends with wider smiles, and wish she would stand up taller because she didn’t know what she had. Beauty standards had changed; all bodies were beautiful; self-love was “in.” There was yet another thing to punish myself for, since I did not love my body enough. The best I could muster was to ignore its existence. And so I would bury my shame in the name of body acceptance, knowing in my head that I should be grateful for being healthy, but knowing in my heart that I wanted more.
A friend tried to reassure me, You’re an Asian woman. That’s like being in the Harvard of bodies. Who cares if you’re not valedictorian? You’ll look young at fifty and die at a hundred. No doubt these were the words she used to comfort herself, for she was also a young Asian woman, resolutely thin, summa cum laude, yet always stressing over her age and size. If she could find fault in her perfect body, what hope did I have?
Another friend decried the curse of the Asian woman's body. I’m sick of yellow fever. No more white guys. I could only hope to look like her, to be desired, to have a line of men trying to take me out. Yet when guy friends who have dated too many Asians would start telling me things like You look great, I would recoil and retreat from their lives, because I knew what they were trying to do. I could not control how they saw me, but I could control whether or not I was seen. I erased my face from social media, shrouded myself in baggy clothes, and ran at the slightest hint of objectification.
Then each time Asian women were shot or pushed onto subway tracks or stabbed forty times by strangers in their own home, I would let out a guttural cry, for the whole time while I wanted to control who saw me, I forgot the world saw me as disposable. I had only wanted beauty because I wanted power.
I didn’t want to only refer to victims — full humans with full lives — by their violent ends. Know their names, and their stories: