In the Eye of the Beholder

I grew up feeling so inexplicably, overwhelmingly, excruciatingly ashamed of my body. Starting from the age of eight, I swam competitively for seven years of my life. Training twice a day, six days a week, I spent what felt like every moment of my life in the pool. And I looked that way too. Giant shoulders, muscular thighs, and a back full of tan lines, I presented like an overexaggerated caricature of a young swimmer, and I hated myself for it. But more importantly (at least to me), my Chinese community hated me for it.

Chinese women are supposed to look a very specific way: skinny, lean, demure, and pale. To be considered beautiful, you must present as delicate and lovely, and delicate and lovely I was not. But it wasn’t just the build of my body. It was also my color. In China, a clear sign of poverty was the intensity of one’s tan. Only poor people worked outside in the fields so only poor people would be in the Sun so only poor people could be tan. So, if you were tan, you had to be poor, right? And being poor was something to be ashamed of. Being tan was something to be ashamed of.

At the age of eleven, I quit dance because my Chinese dance teacher made me cry after calling my exposed, tan-line-crossed back ‘disturbing’ and ‘ugly’ in front of the class. At the age of twelve, my Chinese art teacher told my mother that my shoulders belonged on a man and that she should be embarrassed to have a “man-girl” as a daughter. At the age of thirteen, I thought about running away from home, not because I had issues with parents, but because I loved them too much to bring them shame because of my body. I did not want them to experience any more embarrassment because they had an ugly, muscular, poor-looking “man-girl” as a daughter.

When I went back to China, my body became something to be rejected. Although I hadn’t seen my extended family in four years, my grandfather greeted me with narrow eyes and a scowl accompanied by the horrified question, “Why are you so dark?” Sometimes he would refuse to walk with me because “someone of his stature could not associate with someone that looks like…this…” I was banished to the other side of the street with my mother because women in our family shouldn’t look like “…this…” But even though his words lodged themselves in my throat, I understood where my grandfather was coming from. It was completely my fault that I looked like “…this…,” and it was, indeed, something to be ashamed of. Who could blame him for wanting to maintain the prestige of our family? What he was doing had to be done. It was, undoubtedly, the right thing to do.

Five years later, I no longer swim, but I have still maintained the general physique of a swimmer: still the broad shoulders, still the muscular thighs. And I know better now. I know that the strict body standards are sexist and hurtful and wrong. But it is still there. That shame. It won’t go away.

In fact, the shame I felt of my body has morphed into a different type of despair. I am now in a position where I advocate for other women and I do my best to empower the disempowered. I tell other women that THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL no matter their body type or color. I love seeing the confidence women have in themselves, but all I can do is watch with brimming jealousy as I cheer on other women to reclaim their bodies. I no longer simply hate my body. I hate myself for hating my own body. On most days, I avoid mirrors because I hate the way I look, but every time I divert my eyes to my feet to keep from catching a glimpse of my reflection, I feel that shame pulsing like my fervent insides are trying to escape through my skin. The shame of “how the fuck are you supposed to tell others to love their bodies when you so inexplicably hate yours?”

But no matter how much I project my insecurity onto others as I convince them that they are beautiful, I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t have permission to think of myself the same way. Permission from whom, you may ask. Maybe it is my old dance teacher or my old art teacher. Maybe my grandfather or my parents? I really, honestly, truly do not know.

It feels like that game I used to play with my swim team. We would jump into the diving well and see who could reach the deepest corner of the pool. When you go deep enough, your lungs start to hurt, your chest feels like it’s being crushed, and your brain feels like it’s trying to escape through your ears. When it’s your turn and you’re desperately trying to reach the bottom, you can’t help but look up at the rest of your teammates treading above you, and at that moment of pain and pressure, a wave of silence and isolation hits you. The only sound is the ringing in your ears, and the only thing that exists is the pain of your chest and the submergence of your body.

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