It’s no surprise that all women in today’s world live under the oppressive shadow of a Western patriarchy; women of colour walk the edge of a blade between two. I struggle to love the blood of my ancestors that flows through my veins and is in every beat of my heart, because it has forced me into gilded prisons of body dysmorphia and silence.
In the chaos that is unpacking each and every trauma in my writing, one question stands fundamental; how do I learn to grow, which is by definition the process of being more, when I have lived my whole life being told that I should take up less space?
I have a memory of standing naked in front of a full-length mirror. In my teenage years, hours of weekly soccer and gymnastics lent itself to a slender ‘feminine’ physique corded with reliable muscle. It was a body that I could rely on; it was warm, it was healthy, it was mine. I should have been proud. But instead, I found myself breathless with terror. It is rare that I remember my thoughts in excruciating verbatim, but I remember this one: I need to gain weight to make myself less of a target to men.
The problem here was more than just the passing discomfort of a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality. I live in a world where every woman that I know has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault, where one woman in Australia dies every week at the hands of male violence. Their names are left to the sands of history, as though they are just words and were not once whole people with lives, families, and dreams. Irrefutably, the true problem is that this world is so hostile to women that a child felt that she had to damage her body to make herself undesirable and thereby safer. The safety mechanism of ‘unattractiveness’ is a lie as well; we know damn well that the way that women dress or look does not determine the likelihood of being sexually assaulted. Yet, the sexuality of my sixteen-year-old body felt like a threat to my life.
My sixteen-year-old body found itself as the bedrock of many repeated traumas. That sixteen-year-old understood the word ‘anorexic’ to be synonymous with ‘beautiful’, a learned vernacular which was borne of the glamorisation of mental illness amongst my young, naïve peers. And like all other areas of my life, race followed me in this too. My Chineseness engendered a nickname that followed me for years: “anorexic panda,” my schoolmates would sometimes call me.
My coloured experience of gender is one fraught with gaslighting, most painfully from my close family members. Chinese beauty standards – skinny, pale, demure – are saturated with internalised Westernness and its exotification of my people. I did not fit comfortably into any of those expectations. When I was younger, dinners with our family friends would see my grandmother build me up with humble brags about me being “too skinny”. When I gained weight as I passed into adulthood, my weight became my family’s silent shame. I was underweight for most of my teenage years and though I am a healthy weight now, I still struggle to see myself as anything other than chubby and undesirable. The voices of my Chinese family are always in my head, speaking to me about the shame that I bring to them, and they are joined by another voice that tells me that I would be prettier if there was less of me, if I took up less space and made people less uncomfortable.
If I dig deeper into the annals of my past, there is one memory that I return to over and over, because it leaves me feeling unspeakably violated and at a loss for a nameless something that I have been missing for so long that I never even realised it was gone. If I were to try to name it, I might call it Innocence.
I am maybe eight or nine years old. My parents have taken us to a family friend’s house, where he tells my parents that he has some clothes to gift to us; my parents accept these gifts gratefully and with humble thanks, because any new clothes were a luxury. I am told to try these clothes on to make sure that they fit. I change in the bathroom, and go out to the living room where the adults are talking in animated Cantonese. The room goes quiet when I enter, and all eyes are on me. In front of my parents in this silent room, this supposed family friend says: “Wow! So sexy!”
My parents laughed, and the conversation moved on. I knew without a doubt that they could see the visible discomfort in my face as I stood there frozen with equal amounts of shock and learned discipline – I had not been dismissed by the adults and it would embarrass my parents if I were to behave in a way that did not reflect the quiet and dutiful girl that they had raised me to be. That girl could not speak, so I will speak for her; in what horrific world would the sexualisation of an eight-year-old child be acceptable?
Looking back on this moment, I am ashamed to be Chinese. To clarify, it’s not that I hate where I come from, the language of my proud ancestors or the rich traditions of my motherland; simply, I am ashamed that the Chinese patriarchy that raised me had inevitably betrayed me. This was a patriarchy that only understood honour and pride; it would erase me without a second thought if I compromised its perfect world. I have been terrified – of intimacy, physicality, sexuality, love – ever since.
I’ve always found it hard to distinguish where exactly the Chineseness in me stops and where the Westernness begins. I have never had the white privilege of considering gender apart from race. I am young, but my perceptions of this world are already crystal clear. This world is already unfriendly to women, non-gender-conforming people, trans people, intersex people. It is especially unfriendly to women of colour, indigenous people, non-English speaking migrants and refugees.
As a woman of colour, I have been discouraged from taking up space from the moment that I began to understand gender. I have been discouraged from taking up space in conversations, on the street, on sidewalks, in classrooms, in my own home. Imagine if women of colour had the same confidence as men – white men in particular. The middle-aged white man next to me is manspreading on the bus, pressing me as a result into the cold glass of the window, in stark contrast to a brown woman sitting two seats in front of me looking for all the world like she wants to shrink into herself. The likelihood is that she too, like me, has lived a life that told her to take up less space. Imagine if women of colour felt that they were able to take up space in conversations. My dad, a conservative Chinese man in every sense of the tradition, has told me on numerous occasions that I am too opinionated, too loud, too much. How different this world would be if women of colour had the confidence of white men, buoyed by the dual privileges afforded to them in an all too white world.
As much as I would like to excavate the relics of my cultural past, I know that there is no way to divine the true genesis of my traumas nor is there a way to sever them from the person I am today. Yet, my takeaway from this experience is that I owe it to myself to at least attempt to understand the root of my personal gendered trauma. Only then will I be able to begin the long arduous process of healing.