Waiting for Approval: Bodies in Swimsuits

[I’ve been on a bit of a body-image/fitness kick lately. Maybe because it’s summer. Not sure.]

I am waiting for a man to approve of my body. How did I get here?

That’s what kept running through my mind a few days ago. I was laying on my couch feeling a weird mixture of rejected, angry, and confused. I had submitted for a job, and knew my ability to do it would be based on whether “the client” approved of my “look.”

For context: I occassionally am a promo girl. Nothing crazy, but sometimes I dress in cute outfits, put on make up and hand out fliers and samples. I also get paid $15/hr to do it, which is comparable to what I made as a tutor for a large test-prep company. Plus, student loans.

For the most part, I like my body. It’s not perfect, but (especially after the last post) frankly, I am generally feeling myself. I put hard work into it, and beyond aesthetics, I just like what it is capable of doing. So, when I submitted to work a job for a large sun screen company, I wasn’t concerned. I had worked for them before and it had been a shorts-and-tshirt deal. Easy.

Then, I discovered it was actually a bikini job.

I’m not particularly conservative (I live in Hawai‘i, and swimwear is pretty common around here), so I don’t have qualms about being seen in a swimsuit, but I also don’t have a “typical swimsuit model body.” My stomach is toned, but not always tight. I have short legs. I have smaller boobs for my frame.

The marketing company that I work for asked me to send photos of me in a bikini to send to the client (standard practice). Oomph. It was mid-afternoon on a day where I felt bloated and gross. Still, I changed, took the photos, and was waiting for someone to approve of my body for work.

A part of me wanted to be full of indignation: how dare these people get to pass judgement on me? How dare they feel as though they can decide if I’m “good enough” for the job?

Here’s the thing, though: I had agency and choice throughout this entire process. I submitted for the job initially. When I found out it was a bikini job, I could have said no, or that I wasn’t comfortable, and my employer would’ve been totally fine with that. If, when they asked for photos, I had said no, no one would’ve been salty.

So what do you do when the agent forcing you to validate to your body is no one but yourself? How do you battle all the voices screaming at you to look a certain way when their only yours? If “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” as Elanor Roosevelt is quoted on millions of magnets and tshirts around the world, what do I do when I’m not just giving consent, but I’m the one with the megaphone to my ear yelling, “Stop eating that caramel corn!”?

I spent much of the rest of the day waiting around feeling sorry for myself. Finally, my boyfriend surprised me with a rose and banana lumpia, my favorites. He lovingly listened to me rant all the way home, as I tried to figure out who I was angry at. Then, he said something enlightening:

“The thing is,” after he heard me rant about parts of my body (like my thighs) that I knew wouldn’t change, “most swimsuit models aren’t super ‘ethnic’ or even muscularly built to begin with  especially when they’re Brown. They’re white or, here, maybe Asian, and their the stereotyped versions of that: thin, small…”

“…willowy,” I filled in, a word often used to describe Asian female bodies.

“Right,” he said.

I wasn’t sure, but then I remembered that I was also going to flat-iron my hair for the job, since my curls didn’t “fit the look.” Now, it had me asking “whose look was I trying to fit?”

As we push to become more “diverse,” it’s important to remember that diversity isn’t just shades of color on our skin. It’s all aspects of loving and valuing different, perhaps cultural, parts of our bodies: including hair curls, thick muscular legs, and the softness of hips. We cannot keep letting society exoticize brown skin in advertising without accepting the fact that the brown bodies inside it may not match the shape that mass consumption thinks is “right.” I wasn’t the only one yelling in my ear to look a certain way, it was my voice backed with decades of cultural indoctrination that has told me I should look this way.

In some ways, though, I think the work starts with us. I think the work is internal, as it always begins.

If, as Tatum says, racism and its beliefs are the smog we breathe, that means we also have to know when to look at our bodies after a big, heaving breath to clear out our lungs from the toxic beliefs we’ve taken in. If I’m believing societal things about what my body “should” look like in a swimsuit, then they’ve already won half the battle. It doesn’t start with me raging at a company for making me feel this way, it takes me finding the strength to tell anyone that they don’t get to make me feel this way. It takes me choosing to not make myself feel that way.

So some of it starts with me, internally doing the work and perhaps unabashedly going out in a swim suit or a sports bra and being okay with that. I love that other women are out there, doing this. Hopefully as it happens more, it will mean that advertisers catch on, and at some point the “look” will expand far beyond what we’re already seeing. We have to be able to challenge those negative thoughts when we have it, though.

As for my “approval,” I was asked to be a back up for the job. I laughed after finally getting word, bemused at how riduculous I had been about the whole situation. I respectfully declined (and it wasn’t a problem) and got up to look in the mirror. Above it, is a race-medal hanger PJ got me that says “Run Like A Girl.”

Thank you legs, I thought, thank you thighs and feet and arms. Thank you grandma for the hair and mom for the eyes and family for the caramel skin and generations back for this body that runs, that moves, that works. Thank you Lord, for the blessing of a working body at all. Thank you. Thank you. May it always be glorified, just as it is.

The Paradox of High Expectations

Recently, I received an invitation to a group on Facebook that filled me with a strange joy and abject terror.

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Yes. It is, in fact, time for my 10-year reunion. Time seriously flies.

I do want to make something clear: I loved high school. I had a great group of friends, and thankfully still have many of them in my life. I had great teachers who pushed me, challenged me, and also humor me with a visit when I come back. All-in-all, I was very, very lucky, and look back on high school with great fondness– a privilege I know that not a lot of people have, even at my own school.

Still, I dealt with taunting– some of it the normal high school stuff, but some, as  I’ve written about, around race. In middle and early high school, I remember quite a bit of racially charged taunting, and I know my older brother faced similar things. Anecdotally, I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb– one of a small handful of dark-skinned kids in my classes.

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#RaceTogether and Speaking with Your Ears

So, I just found out about #RaceTogether, a partnership between USA Today and Starbucks to begin conversations about race because, apparently, “we are all one human race.”

And… I appreciate that sentiment. Like lots of things, I think it is well-intentioned, for sure. Still, I am a strong believer that intent < actual impact for those you may want to help. And while this is well-intentioned, I worry about the actual impact of this for two big reasons:

1) The concept itself assumes that people of color are not already talking about these issues, or that these concepts are new. It assumes we need help talking about race from a large corporation that’s likely not where we come from.

If you’re not from an oppressed background, it’s easy to forget that many PoC are thinking about these issues all the time. We are often navigating these issues, whether with others or silently and subconsciously. This means you’re sort of deciding to come in and tell us how to do something that we’re doing.

2) You’re asking a bunch of folks to jump into conversations about race, which can bring up a LOT of emotions and be difficult for both parties. I worry that micro aggressions, misunderstandings, and defensiveness will abound. In fact, I know they will, because that’s what conversations about race do: they unsettle the status quo we’ve come to accept about our implicit and explicit biases. Stuff is gonna come up.

So, normally, you prep for that. You read some stuff. You prep emotionally. You come to terms with things. I don’t foresee that happening in a 5 minute interaction after waiting in a too-long line for coffee.

You really want to know how I developed identity and race from my parents? How they had to teach me how to deal with oppression? You want to ask Black men how they try and explain what it is to grow up Black? Is that something we’re willing to share with strangers? Are we ready to also talk about my own internalized racism?

More importantly: is that something the baristas are willing to listen to? That Starbucks is ready to hear? Because it’s going to be really hard. I hope so. The way this has started out doesn’t lead me to think so.

So, Starbucks, if you want to talk about race, that’s ok. That’s great. I encourage you to remember something a mentor and colleague told me when I started teaching: speak with your ears, not your mouth.

Instead of forcing us to talk race with a hashtag and forced conversations starters, you might want to listen, learn, and ask how we start these conversations first. You may learn that the loudest thing you say to us is providing your intentioned, focused, listening silence.

A quick addendum (3/20/15):

Thanks Teaching Tolerance for sharing my piece! I’ve had some good discussions since.

Here’s the thing: I think hope is good, and like I said, I appreciate the intention. My concern is that a “small stumble” or “fine tuning” that needs to happen in the execution of this could lead to big, negative ramifications on a community or individual consumer.

So I ask: wouldn’t it have been better for Starbucks to partner with or donate to a community organization that serves this purpose, instead of assuming they know best and forcing the conversation in the way they see fit?

Part of being an “ally” to communities of color means asking what they need and really listening first, instead of just jumping in and assuming you know how to fix the problem. While I love them, this is an issue that my former employer, Teach For America, ended up having to face. You’re not really allying with our communities if you’re not willing to listen to us first.

So. Here’s to hope, and here’s to the hope that the future includes much listening, THEN doing.

Yo No Sé Que Hablar — I Don’t Know What To Say

The man sitting behind me at the restaurant last month was speaking Spanish.

So was the park worker the other day, which was a surprise.

There was the couple wearing “Great Aloha Run” shirts, asking each other about rain, parece que va a llover. Their accents were wonderfully soft, elongated, melodic and tripping. Dominican, I think, like my friend Carolina’s.

When I lived in LA, hearing Spanish was a given. It was everywhere– on buses, at the bank, on signs and on my radio in the car. Even though I lacked fluency when I moved there, it was omnipresent.

Now, living in a state with under 10% of a Latino population (a huge increase from before), hearing Spanish is a rare treat, something that immediately makes my ears perk up. I remember each time like a small gem, holding it close as a reminder of home.

I love living in Hawai‘i– I really do. People see me and know I’m part Filipina, which almost never happened before. It’s an exciting rush– “yes! You see this part of me! You get me!”

Like I’m sure lots of mixed kids deal with, though, I always have a hard time trying to navigate both cultures. I love living here and being seen as Filipina, but now I miss part of my Latina culture. I miss speaking Spanish with people. I miss hearing mariachi on the radio when I would scroll through channels. I spent all of McFarland U.S.A crying. Not just crying, really, but sobbing. From the quince scene on, I was a mess. The hand-painted signs selling aguas de fruta and the casual mix of Spanglish made my heart ache for something that I still don’t know how to fill. Continue reading

I Am Tired: Marathons and Sprints in Conversations Around Race

So, earlier this week, I wrote this piece about asking to know versus asking to win.

There was a whole middle section that I just… cut out. The topic didn’t just stem from being involved in debates, but, to be honest, very specific kinds of discussions around race and privilege.

Namely, that sometimes I feel that folks (especially folks with gender/race privilege) will come into a conversation about tough topics on my page with all kinds of questions. Something about some of the questions felt off, which is when I realized: they weren’t asking because they wanted to know, they were asking because they want to win. They want to push buttons or have a debate, and perhaps prove that all my rambling about privilege and power is invalid.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Learning that you might be wrong, or that you are complicit in something bad feels gross (I certainly have my share of privilege that I and others have have to check often). Feeling guilty can make people get defensive and makes them want to win, to prove that they are clever/smarter/not bad.

My issue with that, though, is that if you are the one with power already and asking all the questions, you already have the leg up in this “fair fight” of a discussion. Those who lack that privilege and power bear the burden of being oppressed on the regular. They are often tired of explaining to themselves and to others about their culture, their life, and sometimes even why their voice matters. That shit is tiring. 

Now, it is way more tiring for folks other than myself– I have quite a bit of privilege in my sexuality, SES, etc. So, please know that I know that (and check myself for the below too) as I say the following:

When someone comes demanding I (again, because we have to do it all the time) explain thoughts about race/privilege/power to them, that is not a fair fight or an equal debate.  That’s them racing me for a 5k section of what is the marathon of my life. I am coming into this with a ton of emotional baggage and frustration– most folks from minority groups have it– that makes these “fascinating discussions” some folks want to have sometimes feel like another frustrating bump on what is an already tiring course.

Then, at the end of the discussion it is very possible that, if whoever asked do not live that oppression, they will be able to let that conversation go. They get to finish the race, and go on with life thinking that this was an interesting intellectual detour for them.

People living that struggle will have to relive that conversation– with others and internally– over and over again with new people, each time asking themselves if they were “too harsh,” “too real,” or upset someone’s feelings. Those who come from outside dominant culture, who “constantly [juggle] the power asymmetry of the two worlds, two cultures, and two languages” don’t get to finish the race.

So yeah, we might have a lot of strong, passionate thoughts about it— we think about it a lot and some of us are kind of tired

Then, all of a sudden, if we dare show that, it’s “why are you so mad?” and “I’m trying to talk about this with you!” and “You’re coming at this with so much anger, it’s unfair/unsavory/unprofessional.” In doing so, they show that the opinion and voice of whoever they asked don’t matter to them as much as their own need to “win” and feel good about themselves. Is it maybe possible that we’re angry with good reason? 

I almost didn’t write this post because I was preemptively tired from the explaining that might come from it. I’ve had white male acquaintances tell me that it feels like I hate white people, or that my arguments make all their #notallwhitepeople feels come up. And… I get that. I clearly don’t hate all white people, and I’ve had my own privilege checked on things and it feels gross (name about sexuality, which you’ll see I’m not mentioning as much mostly because I know I have NO idea the oppression that comes that struggle, so I won’t try and speak to it).

But man, like John Stewart said, if you’re tired of hearing about privilege and oppression, imagine how tiring it is to live in that oppression. All. The. Time.

I’m generally happy to talk about these things with folks who want to have an actual discussion. I am not always right, and if you actually want to listen to what I have to say, I am more than happy to do it right back. I have no issue getting pushed or talking about these things, but I do have an issue consistently having to defend my lived experience, and the lived experiences of folks who have felt similar or worse struggles.

So, I’m not really interested in sprinting to try and “win” with folks who are not interested in making each other stronger. I hope, maybe, that they’ll just want to run with me instead.