I remember being thirteen, looking at myself in the mirror, examining every corner of my face, my cheekbones, my eyes, my nose bridge.
I pinch my nose hoping that that small outside force can shape my cartilage to be a bit taller, a bit stronger. Every pair of sunglasses still seems to slide down my nose. I learn to contour, so that my cheekbones can seem more defined and thus my face more thin. I wish I had a heart shaped face with pointy chins like the rest of my friends. Or maybe give me their blue eyes, light brown chestnut eyes, blonde hair, anything so that I can be beautiful and desirable too.
I remember the first time I realized I didn’t like my body. I was in eighth grade and in ballet class. I noticed my legs were not as long as the girls around me, and my body was not fit for me to be a dancer. And so every night I would ask my mother to help me stretch my legs out, hoping that at age 13, I still had potential to grow a little taller, legs a little longer. It was around that time that my body started to change. I was no longer paper thin like I used to be. People around me reminded me of that as well.
“You look… healthy.”
“You look… strong.”
“What has your mom been feeding you?”
“I knew your baby weight would catch up to you.”
With those comments, my body entered a into a new era, where it would become the object of everyone’s gaze, judgement, and opinion. That was my welcome into womanhood. My mom, with her good intentions and blessed heart, saw that I was unhappy and wanted to help me. She offered to increase my allowance if I lost 3 pounds by my birthday. I took that as encouragement. I would spend hours watching videos on how to lose weight at home. I would eat half of my school lunch and toss the rest in the trash. My aunties introduced me to whitening products. They said to me, “white people might look nice tanned, we cannot tan. Because when we tan, we don’t look bronzed or golden, we look like dirt. You play too many sports outside in the sun, these products will help.”
My best friend at the time was the talk of the school- she was, as they call it, a “natural beauty.” She’s half white and half filipina, and all the boys seemed to have a crush on her. She didn’t need makeup, or to do her hair- she naturally was more beautiful than everyone else, is what they said. I loved her of course, because she was indeed my best friend, but I couldn’t help but feel like her plain asian sidekick- not beautiful, not desired, not to be seen or noticed. I was the nerdy one, bossy, loudmouthed, arrogant (as some would say). I was angry, I wasn’t easy going, I knew I was smarter than all the boys so I never laughed at any of their jokes. That, combined with my flat asian face, boring black hair, flat chest, made me see myself as a secondary character in my own life story. Of course now I realize how problematic this entire rhetoric is, she was being fetishized and objectified in different ways, but at the time, I thought if I looked like her, at least a little, I could be beautiful, feminine, wanted, too.
A lot of my past struggles with my body has to do with my Asian upbringing and my instinct to survive and assimilate into whiteness. This isn’t to say that asian culture is “backwards” or “traditional.” There is a lot of anti-blackness within Asian culture that has to do with class structures in Asia, and the worshiping of whiteness leftover from the colonialism era perpetuates that sentiment. But I think about how much time I spend everyday pondering over my body insecurities, my not-so-defined features, and how much I could accomplish if I never have been taught to think about those things in the first place. How many times have I forced my body into clothes that restrict me. How many times have I yelled at my body for not looking and functioning the way I wanted it to. What if I was taught that my body is beautiful because it is a vessel for my soul? What if I had been taught to thank my body, for functioning, for protecting me, for working for me?
My relationship with my body has changed a lot in the past three years. Though I still harbor some of the insecurities from my childhood within me (how could you not when the media and well-intentioned family members are constantly reminding you of them), I’ve managed to begin to unlearn my toxic habits of hating my body and the way I look. The most important lesson I’ve taught myself is that my body is my home. No matter where I am in the world, who I am surrounded by, I have my body, my vessel of rest, carrying my soul and mind, and that is a lot to be grateful for.