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A Problem

calamityschild's picture

“And if unity on the basis of sexual oppression is something natural, then why do we women, the majority people on the planet, still have a problem?”

My mother kept a stool underneath the bathroom sink when my sister and I were short enough to need it. I usually used it to comb my hair or brush my teeth, but once I was old enough to be self-conscious, I used it to put on makeup. Standing tip-toe on its bouquet of watercolor petals, I leaned against the glassy porcelain and clumsily painted my lashes with the mascara I purloined from my mother’s cosmetic bag. I was determined to try anything that might make my thin, straight eyelashes resemble the ones I saw in magazines and on my friends. My reflection showed a girl with inky stains around her eyes, far from the image of maturity I wanted to achieve. I felt ridiculous for believing that the same products that flatter the almond-shaped eyes of the people I know might suit me, too.

A back to school shopping trip found me in a claustrophobic dressing room, re-adjusting a satiny skirt, one that is not very becoming on me, but one I thought would elicit a few compliments, if only I had the right figure for it. Sighing, and blaming myself, I turn sideways. My stomach is not as concave as the manufacturers of Abercrombie had hoped, my unflared hips cannot fill the space provided in the folds of the skirt. I lacked the classic womanly features that I saw others were given by nature. I felt ridiculous for trying to fill the mold of a woman, when I still lived in a girl’s body.

On the night before winter formal, I watched my friends congregate in front of a well-lit vanity. I watched them clamor for elbow room as they juggled curling irons and straighteners. They rimmed their eyes in dark kohl and lacquered their mouths with pink and red, while I stood behind the group, useless, with nothing to do. They all knew who they wanted to dance with, and they all knew just which perfume to choose and which dress to wear to accomplish that. I would join the rest later to take photos, standing on the stairs in a lineup that gave an effect not unlike that of a pageant. I felt ridiculous for choosing a dress that wasn’t black, and so I stand to the side, hoping that when these pictures end up on Facebook, I won’t be front and center.

Those beautification rituals that are so inexplicably tied to being a woman were not made for all of us to benefit from. My girlhood is characterized by my determination to modify my looks, so characteristically Asian, that stray from the normative idea of beauty that my classmates, my friends, and my family have accepted. While my friends struggled to come to terms with their own inadequacies and their own imperfections, I was, too, but my fight was exacerbated by the pains it took to understand my position as a woman of color. The trials and tribulations of my own girlish need to feel secure were inherently different from the ones of the girls I grew up with. I felt limited in the spaces I could occupy in society, not only as a female, but as a minority. When I make my entrance into womanhood, it will be shaped by my race.

The thing that felt the most natural to me, when confronting these shortcomings, was to make myself smaller. If I diminished my voice and my personhood, maybe it would blunt the things that made me stand out so sharply in a crowd. Though it seems childish to be so afraid of individuality now, what remains of those juvenile insecurities is the need to feel a sense of approval from some audience other than myself. To me, this is symbolic of a greater problem that women everywhere face: who will empower me to overcome oppression that I must face because of my sex? Who will legitimize my identity when I’m ready to accept it? Who will support my bid to become a melody and not background noise?

Women still have a problem, because we cannot expect women to assemble in solidarity despite their other differences; it is unfortunately not that simple. Womanhood is not a universally shared experience. There is no one sisterhood that embraces us all, try as we might to draw those connections between each other. The degrees of separation that distinguish woman from woman could be as straightforward as age, as deep as race, as superficial as beauty, or as problematic as social class. If the women of the world were asked to discard those labels that identify them as anything in addition to a “woman” in some attempt to unite us all, it would be neglectful. It would do a disservice to the endless other battles that are being fought in the meantime. The fight for women’s rights belong to every woman, of course, but every individual fight cannot be reduced to one common denominator.

When I was a little girl, I needed the help of a stool so that I could see myself clearly and wholly, and before I could begin to confront my reflection. I had to overcome one obstacle before I could face another. I treat this experience as a metaphor for the way I encounter the issues that are attached to being a woman, where that additional layer of race compounds the adversity I already face. My orientation in society defies categorization. I’ve put years between the person I am now and the self-conscious girl I was, and there are years separating the person I am and the woman I want to be. There are greater problems to face than the fit of my clothes and the risk of standing out in a group. My understanding of womanhood and of race is that the two are connected experiences that exist simultaneously. They cannot be treated as disjoint events, because my life as a woman and as a person of color are actually one and the same. I can relate to other women by virtue of identifying as one, but my position of being Asian as well puts a spin on my interpretation of womanhood. Femininity is a continuum, a spectrum, of so many different narratives, and it encompasses issues of women who are more than just women.