What do I look like? To linguistically dissect the parts of my body, to cut it apart with words, means to twist and twine it with conjunctions.
This is my physical appearance: I am on the shorter side of the human height spectrum at five feet, two inches (well actually, five feet and two and three-quarters, excuse me). I am thin. I have a small nose, small ears, and small eyes with epicanthic folds. I have a round mouth. I have small hands with stubby fingers, and medium small-ish feet (an American size seven). I have small breasts. I have light skin that is olive in hue. I have dark hair and dark eyes. All of this with the qualifier: because I am Asian.
What about the parts of me that don’t fit those racial expectations? Ah, they are still qualified with a conjunction! I have broad shoulders for an Asian girl. I have brawny calves for an Asian girl. My nose is more of a slope than a button, so it’s “not quite an Asian nose.” My butt, my friend jokes with me, is “bootylicious for an Asian girl’s butt—though that still means not very bootylicious at all!” Another friend jokes, “Asians are all really skinny, so Julie would be considered a fat person in Asia!” Even parts of me I didn’t realize had racial stereotypes become partitioned.
If I think about the comments people have made about each part of my body throughout my life, it is infuriating how many of them were grounded in race. This happens not only to me, but to all people with racialized bodies. I will speak largely on the experience of Asian people because I can speak from personal experience.
Racialized people cannot escape the “for/because” clause of their bodies. A tall Asian person is “tall for an Asian person.” A short Asian person is “short because they’re an Asian person.” A white person, however, gets to be “tall” or “short.” White people get the privilege of being seen as “people,” sans qualifier. This is one of the reasons why many white people feel uncomfortable with the phrase “white people.” They are too used to just being “people.” Yet people of color must always bear the burden of their race.
In this system, the bodies of people of color cannot exist without adjunct captions. Asian people cannot be thin, fat, tall, short, etc. without the implicit addition of “Asian.” An Asian person with creased eyelids is “an Asian person with white eyes,” and an Asian person with epicanthic folds (also known as monolids) is “typical,” and therefore subject to a whole slew of racist caricatures and epithets. Therefore, my body image is inextricably tied with my race.
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It doesn’t matter whether someone means to compliment or insult me; the presence of the “for/because” qualifier is oppressive. “Cute/pretty/hot/ for __________” is rudely offensive, and “cute/pretty/hot because ____________” is fetishization. Both are racist. Both take my self-identification agency away from me and impose an outside criterion on my existence.
My race is a hugely important factor in my identity, but it is not the only factor. Because of systemic racism, it plays an overarching role in my life experiences, as well as in others’ perceptions of me. Even with people who care about me, and even with people who share my background, that dissection of my being happens.
That dissection also happens when the physiognomies of multiracial people or white-passing people of color are analyzed. My husband, who is in both of those categories, gets this kind of segmentation: “How much Native American are you?” “Oh, I can see it.” And as proof, they’ll point out some feature of his that was previously coded as white.
Inevitably, someone will wonder why these statements are even a problem at all. Some “devil’s advocate” will start wondering why we have to be so “politically correct.” They will use the logic of stereotypes—that since it’s generally true that Asian people are small, why is it wrong to associate that descriptor with that race? Why is pointing out differences a problem?
The problem is that, systemically, these differences are not horizontal differences. The problem is that “different” in this case does not mean “different from each other.” It means “different from the white Eurocentric beauty standard.”
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The problem, furthermore, lies in the trap of expectation and identity. It should seem an obvious, common sense fact that human beings of all kinds come in all different shapes and sizes. We are not binaries. Asian people (and all people) can have dark skin or light skin or in between; we can be short or tall or in between; we can be fat or thin or in between. We can have large breasts, small breasts, in-between breasts, no breasts. We can have large hips, slim hips, round bellies, flat bellies. We can have hair of all textures and colors. We can be muscular, soft, et cetera, et cetera.
These descriptors have no bearing on our value as human beings. Nor do these various descriptors have any relevance regarding “how [insert group here]” we are. Curly hair on an Asian person is still, by definition, Asian hair. A large nose on an Asian person is still, by definition, an Asian nose. Our identities are not contingent on other peoples’ perceptions.
The “for/because” qualifier is forced on body types and body parts, but it is also shoved onto all of the ways in which we present ourselves to the world. It creates preconceived notions of who people should be because of race. These notions manifest in oppressive actions, such as the devaluation of Asian masculinity and the fetishization of Asian femininity.
These conjunctions create harmful expectations. They cause every part of the non-white body to be racialized, both the physical and non-physical parts. When I was a kid (and even now, I suppose), I was a daredevil. I was also brash, opinionated, and often rowdy. More than once, someone (always an adult) would take a look at me—while I was careening my bike at full speed through the neighborhood or at my Band-Aid covered legs as they leaped off the second story porch—and comment on the fact that I “wasn’t like other little Asian girls.” Always, afterwards, despite my brashness, I would feel scared and uncomfortable. Was I not being who I was supposed to be?
The “For/Because” qualifier on my body goes beyond annoyance at physical generalizations. I am not simply irritated by the expectation that Asian bodies are slim. The harm manifests in dehumanization because we declare certain people to be people, and others to be people with qualifiers.
I am an Asian person. I am also a whole lot of other things that may or may not have to do with my race. “For” and “Because” from others’ mouths have no place on my body. I am not anybody’s to cut apart. The more conscious we are about not using these conjunctions on racialized bodies and declaring our bodies our own, the more we fuel radical love.
[Headline image: The photograph shows an Asian woman with black hair cut chin length. She is staring at her reflection in the mirror. ]