Body Outlaws, published by the woman-friendly Seal Press, is a collection of essays by women attempting to rewrite body image outside of conventional beauty standards – and not just white, middle-class, straight women, but women who experience all forms of oppression, including racism.
The first essay is “My Brown Face,” by Mira Jacob, an Indian-American woman who constantly finds herself fetishized by white men. Most women of color are familiar with this experience – the ‘positive’ counterpart of racist degradation – when men tell you how ‘beautiful’ and ‘exotic’ you are. This can be accomplished either through ebullient and chivalrous praise, or through crude and fetishistic verbal harassment; Jacob describes instances of both. These anecdotes are presented as contained sections of the essay, without direct commentary – and yet her indignation and disgust towards her ‘suitors’ is palpable.
I love this essay for the clarity and energy of the writing, the juxtaposition of caustic anger and humor, but also for the personal nuances that Jacobs provides, which are so gratifying to read because they echo my own experience. Very few voices from women of color are heard in the mainstream conversation on body image, and it was comforting to read things that were familiar to me, but so often overlooked by standard (white) analyses.
Living in the U.S., Jacobs is not a native to India, and when she visits relatives there she is reminded of the divergence in their experiences, the fact that her “bones and flesh hold the precious truth of a history I can claim more in blood than experience.” I, too, have spent my entire life in the U.S., away from my ‘native’ country of China – and beyond that, I have lived outside of Southern California, where the majority of my relatives live and where the Asian-American culture is strongest. Raised in primarily white, upper-class suburbs, I find myself ignorant of things even my younger, U.S.-born and bilingual cousins know. I don’t speak Chinese, which many of my relatives do; or Burmese, which most all of my relatives do. My life has been largely white-normative in many ways.
And yet. This fact is rendered invisible by white people all of the time, white people who ask, “What are you?” to my face, or white men who silently ogle me because I’m an ‘exotic’ Asian woman. Jacobs captures this perfectly when she says, “Funny that some men can latch on to a part of me I’m still trying to locate.” Most of the time I doubt the ‘authenticity’ of my Asian-ness – while many white men believe they can pinpoint my racial identity by the color of my eyes and skin. Not to mention the resultant, assumed shape of my vagina.
Further on, when Jacobs talks about “the puzzle of how to let myself evolve in a world that will never stop assuming my identity,” I think about this same issue. Self-change is a question that is always asked within the context of cultural meaning; how I respond to and shape my racial identity is informed by how the outside world interprets the meaning of that identity. Do I want to do more Chinese/Asian activities – learn the language, wear the clothes, study the history – because it’s part of my ‘real’ identity, or because this is what the outside world defines as ‘true’ Asianness? Am I really interested in that aspect of my cultural background, or do I merely want to use it as a way of expressing solidarity with Chinese-Americans against white racism?
Of course, the answer is not going to be one or the other; there is no ‘pure’ individual racial identity, nor is racial identity wholly defined by outside forces. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to navigate these choices I face in the constant, ongoing construction of myself as a Chinese-American woman.
One final topic that Jacobs mentions, which might not seem as important in light of the overall essay and yet stuck out in my mind, is the notion of silence. She opens the essay with a description of her own silence, her inability to respond to the sexualized, racist verbal harassment she faces on her daily commute to work. Further on, she presents silence as a powerful tool, wielded by her mother to express disapproval to her children, as effective or perhaps moreso than noisy anger.
Silence is not commonly considered the weapon of the powerful – thinking of influential politicians, business moguls, the socially popular, I imagine people who are vocal about their opinions and desires (and, relatedly, male). Jacobs knows this, too, for she notes that “the intent behind my mother’s deadly quiet, a calm I’ve seen replayed across the features of many of her other female relatives, isn’t often recognized by American men.” Often it’s interpreted as acquiescence instead, because “that’s what we’re known for, we Indian [and I could insert here 'Asian'] women: bent heads and shut mouths, quiet grace, the Eastern-girl works.” In one of the most powerful lines of the essay, Jacobs says, “I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize.”
How often, I wonder, is my silence understood as the conscious refusal, the stubborn exclusion, that I intend it to be? When I am assailed with verbal sexual harassment on the street, when I feel anger at racist ‘jokes,’ when I am surrounded by racist and sexist ignorance and choose to reject it – is that recognized? Or, instead, do people interpret my silence in the common manner: as weakness, as acceptance, as defeat?
How many times, when I shut my mouth as a way to express, No, absolutely not, is this interpreted as, Yes, I accept it?
Jacobs doesn’t offer an answer to this question, or the more pressing one of how to solve the problem. Any attempt would have been inadequate and condescending. Instead, she talks about “My Indian woman,” and how she is “a work in progress.”
That’s the best answer she could give, I think: an acknowledgement of the constant process of constructing her identity as a woman of color. And, of course, the sharing of this knowledge with other women experiencing the same, the value of which should not be underestimated.