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.


Safi Zenger

Mixed Media by Sam Yoon

There is salt on your fingers as you enter. This salt, born of wounds, aged by generations. It is the salt of your mother and her mother, her husband and their parents. But not your father. His salt is of a different kind, that of which salts food left to mold, food dropped from raided skies, food for pale skinned blonde babies. A baby which you are not. But a baby, that yes you are. For this salt that came with you out your mother’s womb. It has hindered you from growing up and yet also quickened the process of age.

You are wise beyond your years. Black cakes your fingers like chalk. Maybe you’re Basquiat. Maybe the chalk is pastel. Black is pastel in the right light— the right eyes. Your eyes.

Why the red line under his name. It makes you wish you were a Donahue, but no Michelangelo could paint your curves through the roses in your glasses. All they see are is thorns. Thorns used to build a throne. Your throne but never your bosom.

It is your time, you sit upon the gold put there by your ancestors for the other side of your tree. And you look at your hand and there is no more salt. For the salt has been rubbed in the wound, dusted off by the sweep of a generation.

The Things They Don’t Tell You

Shira Wolpowitz

Photograph by Shira Wolpowitz

The 45-minute drive with my mom from my viola lesson to my brother’s hockey practice was silent, as usual. Having sat through that car ride every week for years upon years, I had memorized the names of every single street we passed, and the different shops along the sides of the road.

Two weeks prior, one of my best friends had just gotten a new pair of UGG boots with bows on the backs. It was late November, and my winter boots from last year were definitely too small. I had grown three inches that year and was now one of the tallest girls in my fourth grade class. I really wanted a pair of matching UGGs, but I was too afraid to ask. My mom was tired, you could see it on her face, and I knew that anything I said might set her off.

As we drove through suburban Newton, I felt the words on the edge of my tongue. I had been wanting these boots for a while, but I just couldn’t get the words out. Growing up as the only girl in my whole extended family, I wore hand-me-down clothes from my older boy cousins and played with blocks, trains, and stuffed animals with my younger brother. In elementary school, I had always seemed like a tomboy. But something deep inside me still wished for the barbie dolls and the sparkly pink dresses that all of my classmates used to wear. I felt ashamed of my desire to be more girly and fit in more with my classmates, because my mom had always had an aversion to that.

I stared out the window of our car, watching all of the familiar houses pass by. The late November wind blew crisp brown leaves up from the ground and through the air. A leaf landed on our windshield and slowly slid up to the roof. My mother said nothing. I wanted her to say something, anything. I wanted her to ask me a question, ask me how my day was. But she said nothing, and I felt the weight of the question fall into the pit of my stomach.

I never ended up asking for the UGGs. It wasn’t like we couldn’t afford them, and maybe my mom would’ve said yes, but I just had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t say anything. From an outside perspective, a moment like that might seem insignificant. Thinking back to it now, I probably should’ve just asked for the boots. Maybe I was just reading too far into the situation.

Someone recently asked me if I wanted to have kids when I grew up. “Of course!” I answered, not thinking too hard about the question. When she asked me why, though, I didn’t really know how to answer. When I think of motherhood, I think of how much work it takes. I think about setting a good example for my children, but I also consider how my actions will affect their behavior, the things they won’t tell me. The idea of being a mother still scares me a lot. Something that I feel is a really important part of motherhood is maintaining open communication between parent and child. I don’t want my children to worry about how their actions will affect me, or to make false assumptions about how I want them to behave. I want them to feel comfortable expressing their feelings, even when it’s for something as insignificant as a pair of sparkly UGGs.

When All We Have is Eachother

Amelia Cheng

I remember how my mama cradled me that night. I couldn’t sleep alone with the roar of Daddy’s car as it sped out of town still hanging between my ears. I remember her clinging onto me, fingertips digging into my skin as my back warmed against her belly. The bed still felt too cold, too big for our two small bodies. Her chest trembled, jerking as staggered breaths ran between her lips. I didn’t need to check to know her pillow would be wet for a long time.

We lay there for hours, awake and holding onto each other. It was only when her sobs melded into the patters of the rain splattering our windows that I felt my eyelids droop, heavy with the weight of packed suitcases and a Goodbye. With the ache in my heart, I let myself succumb to sleep, sheltered in my mama’s arms. Only now do I wonder who needed the other to overcome the howl of the storm that night.

I’ve lived nearly half of my life since that night. My mother never looked back, and neither did my father, never looked behind him, the smell of gasoline trailing his getaway until I couldn’t follow the tail of smoke any longer.
Until it all faded into the sky.

I sat there in my brother’s room, staring at the highest window of our house until the night engulfed our little corner of the earth. I wondered how the stars could still shine tonight. Could they not feel the earth tearing itself in two as I could? Did they not feel the fire that burned through me, coursing in my veins like the blood that he abandoned the moment his foot hit the gas pedal? Did the stars not weep for us? My lungs blazed until Mama peeled me away from the window. I didn’t realize I wasn’t breathing.

Warm arms enwrapped me, barricading me from the audacity of the night sky as we rose up to our feet, stumbling into harsh reality. My fingers latched on, cementing to her waist as she steadied me, and I felt myself lean into her strength. I held on because she was all I had.
She hasn’t let go of me since.

now that the men have stopped reading

Ariel Wang

Photograph by Thania Martinez

Tomorrow we wake in the dark
A few feet away from yesterday’s
Pools of blood. My mother tells me to get ready
Like I’m in the military—packing cubes, and white, and grey,
No smiles. You’ll follow my instincts and doubt them,
But no one likes listening to a 911 call.

And tomorrow we leave at dawn,
The sun opens up the sky, forces
Our eyes open to our determination
And to the future full of exactly what you planned,
Follow each other and hide in the shadows
But at this point, does it matter if we’re seen?

And tomorrow we will live
Until the sun burns right above us
At least, that’s the goal.
Sleepwalk through the desert onto the throne.
She should have died hereafter
There would have been a time for such a word.