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.

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.

to every boy

Amelia Meyer

to every boy

to every boy who ever looked at me like I was crazy
to every boy who ever laughed at my dreams
to every boy who ever acted like I wasn’t there

i am crazy
i have laughable dreams
some days my voice is elsewhere

but my crazy is crazy in love with my life, all smiles when I look around
dreams are funny until you look up and I’m actually chasing them down
the days I seem invisible, trust me, silence is the loudest sound

taking my time, I’m rolling easy
‘cause I know that if you ever have the chance to just be
just be

gotta learn who you are and learn how you’re healing
glass rooms are the only place for a glass ceiling
never will I let your masculinity overshadow my strength
and in this stretch you best turn to look back a length
‘cause boy I’m gonna pass you with a smile on my face

The Way She Burns

Emma Kaplon

Her skin is charred with hot mascara tears.
High heels rub blisters deep into her skin.
Sips sear her throat, her swollen, cotton fears,
But this is what it takes to be let in.

She wonders what they’ll think of her new dress.
The make-up that she stole to make her cool.
He’ll see her shrunken waist and be impressed.
The pretty girls hold fire in high school.

They tell her that the danger makes it fun.
She’ll risk the flames if they will set her free.
But she just has herself when day is done.
So is this how she wanted things to be?

She wipes away her tears and then decides
They cannot tell her who to be inside.

On Womanhood and Sports

Linda Bebeau

Photography and Digital Media by Jess Scott

All of us, especially women, perpetuate and live actively within the bounds of manhood. We are not just bystanders who fall victim to the culture of society, but rather, we are individuals who push it forward. I, too, was not just a bystander to masculinity but rather an active participant in it. I have been skating since I was three years old and have been playing competitive ice hockey since the age of six. Besides my home in Danvers, Massachusetts and the school I attended for eleven years, I undoubtedly spent the majority of my childhood in an ice arena. My hometown did not have a girls program when I began playing, so naturally, I played with the boys. I was one of them, and I loved it. I loved people’s reactions, especially as I got older, when I told them I played boys ice hockey. It proved that I was talented and unique, and in doing so, it validated me. 

Four years into my career, my town added a girls program, though it never even crossed my mind to join the team. I looked down on the team, believing that the girls were not strong enough, fast enough or skilled enough to be worthy of my attention. I held this view against girls hockey until I was forced in eighth grade to make the switch when the boys  began checking. It was only once I had begun to play with my own gender that I gained respect for the girls’ game as a separate entity and work of art. Almost immediately, I was hit by a wave of guilt. How had I allowed myself to perpetuate manhood for this long? I had not only disrespected myself, but the entire community of women in sports. If we cannot respect each other and ourselves, how can we expect to create a society that respects women as their own beautiful and separate entity? Not only as women in sports, but merely as women, we must, at a minimum, support one another. In a field that is disproportionately dominated by men, it is crucial for women to allow other women the space to explore and thrive athletically. In doing so, we must stop comparing girls hockey to boys hockey, girls soccer to boys soccer, girls lacrosse to boys lacrosse, etc. The games are separate entities, inhabited by different groups of people, and this difference is something to be celebrated not shunned.