This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
Growing up in an Asian American household, I was always judged by my family. My parents always noticed flaws with things I did, especially with my body and clothing. I was either perceived as oversexualizing myself and my body or I was seen as being too tomboyish and “dressing like a man”, there was never an in-between.
As a child, I was often told to dress appropriately around others. It wasn’t just a matter of “dressing for the occasion”, but also not dressing too “sexually” or “scandalously” for their standards. In some cases, I’d be told to change my outfit because the outfit I picked would be inappropriate to wear in front of my cis male family members. I was never allowed to wear clothing they viewed as too liberal, as they said it would imply that I wanted things that I didn’t.
Although these concerns often came from a source of love and care, they often felt a bit extreme to me. When I was in 4th grade, I was not allowed to wear tank tops to school during extreme summers, since both my parents and the school would view that as inappropriate. When my sister and I were in elementary school, and even now, the outfits they considered as too inappropriate to wear to casual family gatherings were leggings and a loose t-shirt because the t-shirt wouldn’t cover our butts completely. We were often told to tie a jacket around our waist to cover our butt, implying the idea that not covering our butt would lead to bad consequences. This created constant insecurities for both me and my sister as young impressionable kids. We believed that not covering up most of our bodies would mean that people would take advantage of us, and we ended up wearing long-sleeved shirts/jackets or long pants to school during the summer. Any development of our bodies during puberty, including increased curviness, was seen as sexual and made us feel ashamed of our bodies, even though these were perfectly normal changes. As we got older, our mom wouldn’t even need to tell us what we couldn’t wear anymore, as we started holding that level of judgment to ourselves by ourselves.
These ideologies still stay with my parents, as I am not allowed to wear certain outfits outside or even within my household. She had told me multiple times that I shouldn’t wear crop tops or eyeliner or else I will scare the 7th graders at my school. I found this as an absurd excuse, since many 7th graders are exposed to media with similar fashion styles, along with some wearing those things. Just this year—I’m currently 15 years old—my parents had a talk with me about the issue with how I dressed by making the claim that teenage boys would see me as a “piece of meat to conquer and throw away” if I were to dress as I did. I was wearing a cropped tank top, leggings and brought a jacket that day, but forgot to tie my jacket around my waist when walking from my dance studio to our van (which was about 2 cars away). I do agree that clothing might have some sort of effect, but there is much more to it than that. Usually, sexual assault and rape are tied to dynamics in power more so than types of clothing that a person wear, which is why it is fairly common for the victim to know the rapist/sexual assaulter, so it’s not as if the type of clothing I wear can prevent those types of events as much as they may think.
According to the CDC and NSVRC, “Where female victims reported rape, 51.1 percent of the perpetrators were intimate partners, 40.8 percent acquaintances, 12.5 percent family members, and 13.8 percent strangers.” A lot of these positions allow the rapist or sexual assaulter to have more control and power over the person and make them feel as if they are unable to tell anyone without receiving something along the lines of “What do you mean, they’re a good person.” or “[insert name here] would never do something like that.” Matthew Hall, Assistant Director of Health Promotion for Sexual Assault/Misconduct Prevention stated, “When you have someone who’s in an authority position, or someone who has positional power, whether that be a professor or like a boss, do you actually ever feel like you can say no?”, which I completely agree with. Based on my own personal experience recently, a lot of the sexual assaults I’ve experienced are from friends since I am generally a more shy and passive person. The clothes I wore wouldn’t have changed any of those situations and I am fortunate enough to have friends who believe my story and are willing to support me through these times.
As I have grown up, I’ve started seeing the toxicity of trying to control what women wear instead of having men control themselves. Within the current patriarchal society we live in, AFAB (assigned female at birth) people are often taught as a child so many rules to avoid bad things from happening when in reality, AMAB (assigned male at birth) people should be raised to not sexually harass women. When it comes to any issue in general, trying to solve the root issue is better than trying to prevent a side effect from the root cause. By telling women to wear less exposing outfits, it doesn’t prevent men from sexualizing a woman, but rather enforces the idea that these women should live in fear of what could happen. Although I do see that trying to change the clothing these women wear is an easier “solution”, it doesn’t fix much and allows AMAB people to grow up not needing to respect women they do or don’t like.
Asian American women are especially oversexualized and fetishized. In extreme cases, fetishization results in death, such as the Atlanta spa shootings. During the Atlanta spa shootings, eight people had died in a total of three different spas in the Atlanta-area, six of them being Asian American women. The shooter, Robert Aaron Long, claimed that he had a sex addiction and he had to “take out the temptation”, referring to the people who he had killed. Captain Jay Baker defended the shooter, saying, “He had a bad day, and this is what he did.” Not only did this man’s fetish cost the lives of several Asian women, but his actions were defended by Cherokee’s County Sheriff’s Captain, showing the lack of care for the blatant sexist racism of this event. Christine Liwag Dixon, a multiracial Filipino American writer and musician, responded to the situation of the Atlanta shootings on Twitter talking about her own experiences, saying “I've been cornered on the street as men say ‘me love you long time.’ I've been offered money for a ‘happy ending massage.’ I've been hit on because I'm Asian and told it's a ‘compliment.’” She also added on saying “Asian women are so often seen and treated as objects, as trophies and this very real problem is often seen as a punchline i.e. jokes about mail order brides, the portrayal of Asian women in Hollywood.” (In Hollywood, there were two famous depictions of Asian women, one being the “dragon lady,” which portrayed Asian American women as sexual tricksters, and the other being the “lotus blossom lady,” which portrayed Asian American women as obedient, feminine, and weak.)
More than any type of clothing women wear, these harmful stereotypes make AAPI feminine presenting people especially vulnerable to sexual assault. As I had mentioned previously, sexual assault and rape are generally tied to power dynamics, as the sexual assaulter or rapist seeks control over another person and targets people who seem more vulnerable. The solution that many propose is to dress more modestly. Instead of forcing AAPI women to dress even more modestly, the more ideal--and probably more effective--solution would be to stop the spread of these stereotypes to prevent creepy men from believing that they have the right to assault and rape women.
In 6th grade, I started experimenting with bigger, baggier, and more masculine styles of clothing, but my parents still didn’t approve. My change in style was a consequence of being sexually harassed online by a friend, which made me find disgust in my body. I started to have these occurrences happen more often, which led to my growing discomfort. My mom noticed that I was constantly dressing masculine, and highly disliked this idea. Instead of asking me about the change, she decided to force me to wear clothes she picked for me. I often opposed the outfits she chose, but she always won, since she was the parent of the household. Whenever she told me to dress more feminine, I often responded by saying that many girls around my age were dressing similarly so it’s not that big of a deal, leading to her talking about the importance of standing out through the expression of clothing. I had always found it ironic since she had prevented me from doing just that for most of my life.
The more my mom pushed the ideals of being a feminine skinny lady, the more I hated my body. At some point, I began to develop disordered eating habits. When she found out about my eating habits and how I was talking about being depressed online, she responded by passively shaming me in front of my family for the first few days. Later, she got in contact with my teachers to have them make sure I ate, which only made me feel sick and nauseous every day. She also asked me if I wanted a therapist to talk to, and said it would help because she said I “felt like I wasn't receiving enough attention”, but I declined the offer as I felt like she was calling me attention-seeking. I, instead, had wished that she would’ve just talked to me about my changes in attitude and asked me what I was experiencing, along with how she could help get me to a healthier place. I do appreciate her now for asking me if I wanted a therapist, but I feel like the way she responded beforehand swayed me a lot to not want to accept anything she offered. I wished she was more understanding and tried to listen to me and what I wanted to say, rather than making choices for me with the purpose of following her own agenda. Her solutions often stripped away my freedom and didn’t help me work through my problems.
I eventually began dressing in a more traditionally feminine way, mostly for the sake of my mom's comfort, and over time no longer found discomfort with it. During the summer of 2020, I heard a lot of people talking about internalized misogyny and how many women have a masculine phase due to the misogyny’s distaste for anything feminine, and I had assumed that was just the case for me in 6th grade. However, around August before freshman year, I started to question if the way I was dressing was truly me and what my gender identity was. In other words, I started to experience body dysphoria. I felt uncomfortable with some of my body’s sex characteristics and wished I had smaller/no breasts, shorter hair, deeper voice, more muscles, etc. I decided to identify as nonbinary, specifically agender, because I wanted to present more androgynously with my body and clothing and experienced dysphoria from the idea of being perceived as a man or a woman.
During October of freshman year, I came out as nonbinary to my mom, and she had a very different response than I expected. My mother was confused by the term so I explained it to her, telling her that nonbinary people are people who feel like they are neither a man nor a woman, but another gender or lack thereof. This includes agender people, who do not have a gender, genderfluid people, whose gender fluctuates time by time, and so much more. These people sometimes use they/them pronouns or neopronouns but not all nonbinary people do so. Although she was still somewhat confused, she was fairly understanding and said she was willing to look into it more. I later mentioned that I wanted to cut my hair shorter as an expression of my gender identity and she took a lot of offense to that. She told me that cutting my hair short was selfish as I didn’t consider other people’s opinions, including hers. She believed that she owned the rights to whatever I decided I wanted to do with my hair, which caused a lot of confusion for me. I ended up cutting my hair myself, which didn't turn out as good as it could have been, but it helped me express myself and experiment with what I liked and didn’t like. My mom ended up having to deal with it but I could tell she wasn’t extremely interested in this new style for me.
I know that a lot of my mom’s strict attitudes are out of concern for my well-being, but the lack of permission to express myself is something that has impacted me hugely mentally. Not only did I feel separated from my peers, but one of the only ways I found happiness was stripped from me. Fashion isn’t just clothing, it's often an art form that allows people to express themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin. By not allowing your children to wear the clothing they want or the styles they want, it's a prevention of expression and often leads to a lot of self-consciousness. Setting these boundaries with the purpose of controlling what your child can or cannot do is a very toxic mentality, as it causes your child to feel uncomfortable around you and possibly find ways to go around these rules. Fearing the sexualization consequences of wearing certain clothing is a valid fear to have, but I personally don’t think the tightness of pants, length of hair, or even length of eyeliner wings play a huge role in whether or not someone gets sexually harassed. There are a lot more factors that are at play with those things and the best thing to do is to teach your children to be respectful and confident. Isn’t that also what it means to love your child?