2021 Blog Posts

Diet Culture

Susan Stinson’s collection of writings explores the relationship that society holds on women’s bodies. Today, young people are spending an alarming amount of time browsing and posting on social media platforms and being exposed to unrealistically edited bodies.  Social media has become such a prevalent aspect of culture and the accessibility to online platforms has spread to a much younger and susceptible audience, it has made it harder to make distinctions between edited and unedited photos. In regards to Instagram specifically, it is an extremely unregulated platform; there are no guidelines and anyone can post essentially anything. This also means that it is up to individual participants to decide whether or not they let photos influence their own body image. Women try their best to make themselves look pretty in order to cater to social expectations. Therefore, digitally manipulating one’s body and photoshopping imperfections have become habits that women depend on in order to feel beautiful online.  Stinsons collection of readings made me feel extremely empowered as an individual who has struggled with diet culture. Two weeks ago Professor Ambwani came to one of my classes and spoke about the effects of diet culture. As I have gotten older I have noticed the vicious effects that social media can have on someone’s body image. I have compared myself and diet culture feeds body shame. We live in a society where living in a thinner body increases value and will help you live a happier lifestyle. Diet culture places thinness as the pinnacle of beauty and success. Stinsons and Professor Ambwanis’ messages are extremely important. Both encourage women to find love through their bodies, identities, and self worth. 

 

Fatness and fitting in.

“My blouse gaps. My zipper may not close. I make my fingers sore forcing it up. My sides and belly have a deep red ridge in them after a day of that. My pants wear out on the inseam, thinning and splitting where my legs rub. I have to walk delicately, as if that were possible, as if I met only at the crotch, as if the whole of my legs weren’t intimate with each other, rubbing together just as my arms rest on my breasts and my breasts rest on my belly. The clothes can’t get into every fold and separate every layer of flesh from itself. The dark blues can’t camouflage me, the vertical stripes can’t hide me, and no foundation garment can keep me in.”

This passage is one that has resonated with me, more so than any other in our class. As someone who has struggled for years with bad relationships with food and my own body image, this paragraph speaks volumes. My fatness depends on who you ask about it. If you ask the small cartoon version of myself that lives in my mind, she’ll say go look in the mirror and find out. If you ask my father, he will say something that when you read in between the lines, means yes. If you ask my mother she will say no. If you ask my sister, I suppose she will say no (we are basically the same dimensions so i’m not too sure how she would see me). If you asked my grandparents (when they were still living of course), they would say no. If you ask one of my female physicians, she would say “well she was fat 20 pounds ago”.

I would see other girls my age who looked so different from me and it would just fester in my mind. I was also an early-ish bloomer in comparison to some of my friends. I was also genetically burdened (or blessed, depending on your outlook) with larger breasts than most of the people I know. This meant I got more dirty looks from a younger age. Moms at the pool would glare at me because my chest looked a little too grown in bikini tops. For the majority of my adolescence I was trying to figure out how to make my body look like those of my friends, who were all at least 5 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than me. Getting told “are you really gonna eat all of that?” or “do you really need to be eating right now?” are some phrases that echo in my mind, even though they were said to me almost 10 years ago. These comments seem to materialize whenever I dress myself or look at my laundry. My ungodly tight Madewell jeans seem a little tighter than usual. I look in disbelief that my shorts are a size 12 when my leggings from the same store are an 8. I notice that most of my wardrobe is loose fitting clothes in neutrals, to distract from my body underneath. I pose myself as to hide the parts of me I don’t like, which gets hard when you don’t have much of yourself that you like anymore. From whenever we form a conscience, we are shamed out of ourselves. These negative ideals swarm you like mosquitoes until every positive thought has been evicted. You are reminded of your shameful body every time your thighs chafe, or your clothes are left in the dryer too long. This body is harassed from doctors, fathers, mothers, friends, as well as internally. You try to drown yourself in black or navy blue, wearing sports bras to bind your chest, “shaping” spandex to reign in your flesh. You skip a meal here and there, take the stairs more, drink more green tea. But no matter how well you try to conceal it, something always ends up spilling out. I like to think that when you become a womyn, is when you can climb back into the mind you got shamed out of so many years ago. You finally realize that you are fat, and simply don’t give it a second thought.

The Unattainability of Absolutions: How Growing up Catholic has Shaped my Queer Identity and my Relationship with Literature & Writing

“My mothers daughter who at ten years old knew she was queer. Queer to believe that God cared so much about me, he intended to see me burn in hell; that unlike other children, I was not to get by with a clean slate. I was born into this world with complications. I had been chosen, marked to prove my salvation. Todavia soy bien católica— filled with guilt, passion and incense and the inherent Mexican faith that there is meaning to nuestro sufrimiento en el mundo.” (Moraga ix).

When I set out to write a blog post based on option C, I was determined to make it joyful or somehow celebratory relating to my queer experience. As usual when I set out to write something contrived, it was a miserable experience, and I sounded more miserable on paper than joyful anyway. I don’t know why I felt the need to write something uplifting; maybe to avoid getting too personal, or to refute the widely held conceptions that all stories of queer identity need to be wrapped up in shame and guilt and trauma. But this is not fiction; this is truth, something that used to come so easily to me.

I think a lot of queer kids learn to lie at a young age, learn shame and guilt so early and hold it so close to their chest that it gets all tangled up in their innermost identity. I believe guilt is largely cultivated and valued in the Catholic Church. I don’t at all think that Catholicism is an inherently bad religion. I think there are parts of it that are absolutely beautiful. I still feel the swell of my heart at church when the scent of my childhood is released from the thurible. I still pray to God every day, multiple times a day, and feel the guilty prickle of my skin when I tell someone I am no longer Catholic, that I don’t know if there is a God. At night, I shut my eyes tight and complete the same ritual I’ve done as long as I can remember, because if I don’t pray for the safety of every person I love in my life, something bad will happen to them overnight. I feel silly doing this and sillier writing it out. I turn 20 this week, and I still revert to a child in prayer.

Like Cherríe Moraga, I knew I was queer at a young age. I did not have words for the identity, but I did have words for the punishment. I had always been a truthful child to a fault; I would tell my mother when I did something wrong, so much so that she would tire of my constant admissions. I craved my mother’s forgiveness like she was God herself, even if the matter at hand had nothing. When I realized that I was queer, it felt like a lie by omission. It felt like that sticky feeling of sin, where usually I would run to my mother and beg her to absolve me, I could not do that this time. I had to make a home in that terrible sensation, hoping either it would go away or God himself would come to me in a dream and console me, tell me it was allowed, that the priests and the Sunday school teachers and even my parents, with their offhand remarks, were wrong. 

The only way I have ever known to quell the voice in my head that acts as a twisted, condemning Jesus is to see my thoughts on paper. I write all of my terrible thoughts out as fiction and read them back. Once it is in the world, even just sitting quietly in a notebook, no one can take the thoughts away from me or make me destroy them. The only other way I know to feel absolved of the “sins” of the thoughts is through reading the words someone else has written, that affects me so closely. It is important that Moraga published this piece. It is important for queer people, especially queer children who may not have a label for their identity yet, to see themselves in the words of not just their  own, but of others. God is always in my head, a manifestation of the guilt I had internalized and cannot get around to this day. But he is quiet when I am writing, or when I am reading something that absolves me like my mother used to. 

MALE PATTERN FATNESS

Reading through Belly Songs by Susan Stinson makes me think a lot about the gendered nuances of fatness. As a male identifying person, I can’t quite relate to the experiences depicted in Stinson’s book because of how it is specifically about more female experiences in regards to being fat.

However it’s hard to still discuss the concept of body image and fatness without talking about it in terms of gender and different experiences. The goal of Belly Songs is to capture the female experience of fatness in a positive manner. We see moments like poems with the words whale (possibly the lowest hanging fruit insult) being used positively, helping to reclaim fatness as a positive experience and regain agency of their body image perception. Poems like “Ways A Whale Gets Hungry” and “Passing” use the word ‘whale’ in the opposite way of its intended insulting use.

The interesting bit to me is that whale is often thrown at fat women, and fat men are perceived (negatively) differently. Fat men are stereotyped in media from every way to unwanted nerd to comic relief. In my own personal experience, I’ve received a fair amount of backlash for being fat. I’ve received comments about not being attractive as a chubbier male, and told to go gym/exercise to get back into shape. I notice a distinct disconnect between the current body positivity moment and fat men, because while on one hand a lot of fat men don’t get the same experiences like Stinson describes in Belly Songs, but there’s less positive reinforcement in our appearances. There’s a culture of toxic masculinity surrounding being fat, but also tropes like the “dad bod” exist which can be sometimes portrayed positively in certain cases. But fat men still serve as punchlines in real life and media, I mean, look at how Jack Black’s entire career consists of fat characters serving as the butt of the joke in most movies. And without positive reclamation of male fatness, we end up with many men wanting to be slimmer in order to be perceived as more masculine, specifically more ‘macho’.

I think there’s a lot of work to be done in talking about male body variety, especially for plus sized men and make the effort to shift the narrative to something that makes it more acceptable to be comfortable in their own skin. I would love to see a male version of Belly Songs , where we not only discuss the reclamation of male fat bodies but also talk about male queerness and fatness, because that’s another layer of dynamics that could’ve been its own discussion topic. Either way, my conclusion is that there’s a lot of ground to be covered here in regards to the male fat experience.

Book Club

“Other times I sat with my book, quietly reading, but secretly waiting and hoping for this special treat. Even if I had already just eaten the same food, or even if it was some dish I did not particularly like, these tastes of my father’s food from his plate in the back room of his office had an enchantment to them that was delicious and magical, and precious. They form the fondest and closest memories I have of warm moments shared with my father. There were not many.”

My relationship with my parents, particularly my father, was always shallow. Reading this section of Zami made me have to look away from the page and breathe. An action that multiple of the texts we have read this year has compelled me to do, but this breath was particularly deep.  It was always the small memories that clung to me the hardest, and especially after his death, it is interesting to examine what remains in my mind.

I feel that every child that has a slightly estranged relationship with their father has a common thread that runs through all of their memories, an immortalized place they travel to where smiles and understanding prevailed over darkness and disconnect. For Audre Lorde, this place was her father’s office at lunch time, and for me, it was Sunday morning, sun streaming in through my mother’s lace curtains, both our feet propped up on the coffee table. My father figured himself to be a blue-collar philosopher and knower of all things important, and unsurprisingly he read voraciously. I, too, read considerably when I was a kid, but this tapered off in high school at the onset of his cancer diagnosis and the increasing severity of my schoolwork, leaving him to always complain on the weekends when I opted to go out with my friends to see a movie or get breakfast, rather than spending the morning with him in contemplative silence. But sometimes, when my plans fell through, or I felt like trying to break through his gnarled and protective exterior, we would sit on the couch and read. He favored historical fiction, Thomas Pynchon or Erik Larson, whether I would usually go for fantasy or poetry. The book itself really didn’t matter, all that did was that we were reading together, a scholar and his protégée. After a certain period of time had passed, he would mark his page, slowly turn to me, and ask, “So Lily, what do ya say?”, with a mischievous grin on his face. Then we would exchange our insights on the morning’s prose, and maybe, if I was lucky and if he was in a good enough mood, some stories. I coveted the times where I managed to squeeze a few details from him about his life before my existence and devoured every word he managed to spit out. I had to harness reading, use it as a bargaining tool in order to get what I wanted, because if he saw me expressing similar interest in the activity, it created a common ground from which to bond.

The term father can be abrasive and impassive, as illustrated by Audre’s relationship with her father and the experiences I’ve had with my own. It prioritizes family power dynamics and superiority, rather than emotional connection. The last time I referred to my father as ‘Dad’ was when I was just leaving childhood, as ‘Dad’ was far too casual for his now adult daughter to call him. Nevertheless, although my negative memories with my father tend to outweigh the positive, when I think of him, it’s always on some sunny Sunday morning as I read my latest literature, the sun pouring in to keep me company.

empowered in their powerfulness.

Out of all of Audre Lorde’s beautiful words in her biomythography Zami, one stanza particularly captured my attention. In shedding light on the manner in which her mother encompassed power, Lorde continues by stating, “This was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost unexpressable in the white american common tongue”, highlighting the sexism and misconstrued idea of what women could and couldn’t be (Lorde 1982, 15). Although Lorde’s italicization of the words “woman” and “powerful” could be a grammatical choice, I interpreted them as Lorde using italicization to slant the words and indicate the weight both carry in their pure definitions and selves. Women have been burdened by power structures, historically and still today, and forced to carry the weight of sexism and abuse and expectations on our shoulders, permanently molding us into bent and leaning positions. 

This magnitude and extremity of power relations that impede a positive connection between the terms women and power is further stressed by Lorde referring to the word combination as “unexpressable”, highlighting the inability for society to recognize women as empowered in their powerfulness. Furthermore, by saying, “in the white american common tongue”, Lorde pinpoints the cultural significance of women as powerful as being strictly tied to the United States and to American culture (Lorde 1982, 15). However, the concept of female power is not simply ignored or oppressed in American culture and does not remain isolated as its own marker of inequality. Lorde further states, “except or unless it was accompanied by some aberrant explaining adjective”, indicating how the word “powerful” was used to single-out and degrade people, and specifically women, who didn’t fit the societal view of “normal” (Lorde 1982, 15). By using the word “aberrant” to explain society’s manipulation of women and power, she indicates the “otherness” aspect of women who didn’t fit into the white, cis, straight stereotype of “normal”. 

Lorde extrapolates on these adjectives by saying, “like blind, or hunchback, or crazy, or Black” (Lorde 1982, 15). The words in this sequence are words that are too often attributed to “abnormal” in American society — abnormal in one’s ability to see, in one’s posture, in one’s mind, in one’s skin color — all four words share the commonality of being perceived as lacking a certain ideal, as being inferior to everyone else. However, the word “Black” stands out as the only word in the sequence that has the first letter capitalized, attracting a certain attention to it. This capitalization contrasts with the all-lower-case words of “white” and “american” that Lorde states earlier in the passage. I interpreted this stylistic choice as a statement of the long-overdue respect and attention that must be brought to Black culture and, specifically, to Black women, as opposed to the whiteness with which American history attempts to be remembered. 

So, why does this matter? It matters because stereotypes around what women should and shouldn’t still exist today, and must be acknowledged and addressed if we wish to progress towards equality. When women speak up and express themselves, they are often seen as “acting out” and “being unreasonable” and “too over-the-top”. However, when their male counterparts behave in the same way, they aren’t reprimanded and are even admired for their behavior. And, the further a woman is from the image of ideality, whether that be differences in sexual orientation, appearance, or race, the more her power will be twisted into ugliness by a society that values sameness over diversity.

My Fear of Standing in Line

Growing up fat, I connected a lot with what Susan Stinson wrote in Belly Songs. A lot of things she experienced, especially in her youth, were things I also experienced. While I was able to relate to quite a few of the stories she wrote about, what struck a chord with me the most was the poem “The Line.” Reading this poem really brought back painful memories from my childhood of standing in line dreading upcoming activities.

In elementary school, at the end of each year we had field day where all the students in the school went outside to do fun games and team building exercises. Being one of the fatter girls in my grade, I was always terrified of doing an activity where I had to fit through a tight space within an obstacle course or fall back on one of my classmates during one of those trust fall exercises. The events changed each year so I never knew what to expect, but when the time came for field day, I was always petrified of having to do some activity that would make my larger size more obvious to the rest of my classmates. However, these daunting activities didn’t end when I left elementary school.

In middle school we also had a version of field day. Once again, we all had to participate in events that I sometimes couldn’t do as well as my skinnier classmates because of the size of my body. I had pretty bad anxiety in middle school and having to endure the embarrassment of my peers seeing me struggle at seemingly easy activities for them was too much for me. The week leading up to field day when I was in 7th grade was a week full of anxiety. I didn’t want to go, and I found myself dreading every second leading up to the day everyone else at my school seemed so excited about. When the day was finally upon us, I knew I just couldn’t go through with it. The thought of having to go outside and flail my fat body, panting as I tried to run alongside my skinnier classmates was mortifying, so instead, I pretended I was sick. Thankfully, my parents let me stay home and for once I didn’t have to endure the terrifying sporting events for the day.

I thought my fear would be left behind once I got to high school because the “field day” was now optional and I wouldn’t be participating. Instead, I found myself faced with the same anxieties on my first day freshmen year. We were put in small groups and had to do teambuilding exercises, the first of which being trust falls. To say I was scared would be an understatement. I knew none of my classmates would be able to catch me and that I would face the embarrassment of being too fat to participate in the activity. In Stinson’s poem “The Line,” she writes, “The air fit me/ like my jeans./ The line moved up./ I slipped/ with grace/ out the back (Lines 50-55). In my moment of standing in line to do trust falls, I wished for nothing more than run out of the room. When I read that part of the poem, it remined me so much of my own fear and I wished I too were able to escape from the line.

“The Line” and How my Queer Identity Has Influenced my Body Dysmorphia

tw: eating disorder/body dysmorphia

In the poem “The Line” from Belly Songs: in Celebration of Fat Women by Susan Stinson, she writes “’if he pulls me, the sack will rip. / if he pulls and I don’t move, / the earth stops, too, / hung with us, solid, breathing, / me a weight, unfit / to slide on grocery sacks / to God and Love.’” (7). When I first read this poem, I had to take a break from the rest of the poems before rereading it and reflecting on my own similar childhood experiences. Although I was not fat as a child and was in fact underweight for most of my life, I related so much to this last stanza of the poem because of the internalization of this thought process about how other people perceive my body. grew up in a household where diet culture and body shaming were prevalent things, which has affected how I view my body for as long as I can remember. For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of my weight and how I am seen by others, often seeing myself far differently in the mirror than I am told that I look by others. Although I still struggle with my body dysmorphia as an adult, I had forgotten how vicious and anxious my thought processes as a child were – in games like the one Stinson is describing, I was terrified to be perceived by others, especially by the boys in my class (as I found they were often the most critical).

A lot of my body image issues have also been affected by my sexuality – before realizing I was a lesbian, I based a lot of my gender expression off of how men perceive me because I had seen so many women in my life do that. However, now that my life is not only influenced on my attraction to women but also my lack of attraction to men, I realize that a lot of my body issues had been tied into the ideas of the male gaze and very heteronormative thought processes. This in a way also relates to my alienation of womanhood because of this lack of relationship with men that defines what womanhood is to so many women. “The Line” has made me consider not only how early very harmful thought processes were instilled in my life but has also given me the space to feel able to explore the interconnectedness of my eating disorder and body dysmorphia with my identity as a queer person.

Queer and Diasporic in Vietnamerica

I used to equate whiteness with unrestrained homosexuality. I grew up in Vietnam with a murky idea of the West as all white and liberated. I absorbed these reductive ideologies from Western media and porn. My childhood ranged from the 2000s — 2010s when Vietnam had reestablished its relation with the US after the Vietnam war; so typical Vietnamese TVs and the internet enabled access to American representations.

When my (homo)sexual reckoning occurred in middle school, I was isolated and desperate, in a similar vein as the rural queer narrative evoked by Eli Clare. I believed that Vietnamese culture is inherently homophobic, for homophobia was/is internalized and reinforced in terms of gender roles within my family and in any aspect of my life. The interesting twist is that it is the Western media, cinema, and porn that affirmed my sexuality around this time. I watched the trend of ‘coming-out’ videos on youtube (where white people say things like “I’m gay and it gets better”), any American movies, and free-range gay porn (anything other than heteronormative is censored; however, Vietnam fosters a culture of illegal online streaming, so I could find any Western movie for free online). I experienced a shock of existence to see unrestrained flesh and desire on screen. All of them were white. At the same time that occidental media and gay porn affirmed me, offered me a masturbatory outlet, and a lexicon to identify myself, they also let me internalize unwitting racism.

Vietnam is racially homogenous, so I did not understand race or why it mattered. I thought extremely naively of America as white and gay. For the latter half of high school, I secured a scholarship to study in Maine as my family was progressing from middle-class to upper-class in Vietnamese standards and could afford my education abroad. Yes, at the time I was convinced the only solution to my sexuality was moving to another country.

I had a very reductive binary idea of racism as well. The racism I experienced in America confused me. A Black man threw racist slurs on me on a subway train; a truck full of white boys drove past me once, hollering “Go back to China”; a Turkish man shouted in my face “Corona” as I walked by on the street. I never questioned these incidents, because I didn’t know how to. I was a teenage foreigner, fresh in a country, which I was still glamourizing, knowing not how to navigate the complexity of America’s racist and multi-phobic bones. To make matters worse, the year I arrived in Maine, Trump was elected and I had shingles (it is rather funny to think of it now).

Then, when I started to have sex, it was only with white men. I tried to assimilate into the script of the model minority and white homosexuality without realizing it. One of my female friends remarked once: “You only like whiteboys, don’t you;” I defended myself, saying I am attracted to everyone, and it was true, I found myself attracted to different men, but when it came to actual sex, I always chose white men. I was conditioned to whiteness as the ideals from my media introduction to America. I started to distance myself away from any other Asians, hated my skin, wanting to be “normal,” the way Eli Clare was determined not to be one of the “special ed” kids (108). Clare calls this “horizontal hostility” because it is easiest to enact oppression within one’s own community (108). Like Cherríe Moraga, later, I found it “frightening to acknowledge that I have internalized racism and [homophobia] where the object of oppression is not only someone outside my skin, but the someone inside my skin” (46). This is not about renouncing whiteness, this is about me. About recognizing myself, recognizing the “primary source” and understanding “the meaning of [my] own oppression… and that [my] oppression of others hurts [me] personally” (Moraga 45, 49).

While the Western media first affirmed my (homo)sexuality, giving me a sense of community, it also conditioned me into racism, which I come to enact within my (homo)sexuality and my racial community. Even while I’m delineating all this, I’m still trying to make sense of my experience, for it contains too many interlocking and competing spheres; it is a diasporic queer racialized reality which I am never finished with. Leaving Vietnam and entering America has disrupted my leaving and entering into any place, physically or psychologically or sexually; I find myself in constant liminality, liminal futurity, though it’s not inherently bad. This post is only a small chaotic contemplation.  Recognizing all these maneuvers leaves me to find alternatives to thinking and being, not just assimilating or resisting any script but towards something more ambivalent, liminal, radical, something new.

Do I Have Any Right to Say I’m Black?

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Kersh received a very convoluted and emotional email from me all because of this line in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “the quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand” (Whitman stanza 15, line 16). I had never heard or read the word “quadroon” before, but from the context of the quote, I figured it was some sort of label for one’s right to blackness – a label I’ve been searching for my whole life.

According to Google, the definition of “quadroon” is, “a person who is one-quarter black by descent,” and right next to its classification as a noun, it says, “offensive / dated.” In the moments before it hit me that this was just another way for white people in the era of slavery to reduce a human being’s worth by literally reducing their status as a person to only a percentage, I was ecstatic because I finally thought I had found a word that described me – a girl whose father is fully white, whose mother is half black, half white, and whose skin tone and hair texture provide no clues to curious strangers as to what race I actually am. My entire extended family is white because my mom didn’t know her dad too well, my education is white, taught to me by white, Catholic women in the context of white-washed American textbooks, my speech is white, my name is white, and even my little brother (who has the same parents as me) came out with blonde hair, blue eyes, and nearly translucent white skin. And yet my skin is just brown enough not to be white; it’s more of a beige color, like that of certain cardboards or toothpicks. Ultimately, what this means is that everything in my life is white… except my skin color, my mom’s skin color, and my mom’s kinky black hair that she still despises. My mother never taught me how to be black, she taught me how to explain to people, when I am asked because I’m always asked, that I’m not fully so.

“When I was a child I lived wrapped in secret words, words that no one spoke in ordinary conversation. These words terrified and thrilled me; I pulled them close to imagination… Whenever I found clues that others used these words I hid the clues under my bed, between my books. Those words must not escape, no one should know I even knew them, much less that I felt them, held them in my hands, cupped my hands over my ears until the forbidden words were all I could hear, pressed the words to my eyes until the images the words made were the only ones I could see” (Dykewomon, “Introduction to Belly Songs”).

If I were born only a few centuries before, I would not have had the privilege to explain away my blackness. I would’ve been labeled a quadroon, placed on that auction stand while Walt Whitman, who considers himself beyond human, observes from afar and makes me part of himself as if it’s an honor, to be sold away to some white man who is considered wholly human, while I am literally and metaphorically deemed less than. In a way, the word “quadroon” is what “fat” and “lesbian” are to Elana Dykewomon in the passage above.  But I’m not sure I want to reclaim this word just yet; I’m not convinced I have any real right to. For now, I am simply adding this forbidden word to the expanding mirage of images I have to understand my identity in the confines of my imagination.