Femme is always a racialized performance
Facebook’s new “memories” function recently presented me a picture taken in high school of my friend Avani. It shows her fanatically running with an entire lilac plant in her hand. She had pulled it out of the ground moments earlier, dazzled by its beauty, eager to present it to a boy she was meeting for coffee. Maybe this moment indicates some manic, destructive tendencies that I should be slightly concerned about, but the first thing I think of when I see the picture is how passionately my friends and I consume and perform femininity. We show our love in lilacs, unpack heartache in Taylor Swift lyrics, form friendships by pooling money to buy Sephora glitter eyeliner.
Since our crazed flower-killing days, my friends and I have all found our ways into scenes full of progressive thinkers passionate about social justice. Often, the conversations in these circles focus on the dismissal of femininity in alternative communities. While these frustrations are completely valid and need to be stated, too often I leave feeling even more alienated from these white-centric discussions, as they rarely acknowledge the ways in which femininity becomes an especially difficult and confusing performance when brown.
My closest friends and I are all the children of Asian immigrants. Our parents heavily emphasize academic excellence because it had played a large role in their ability to “make it” to the United States. Because of our parents’ high expectations, throughout high school, we delegated one night a week to making crafts and convincing each other that our crushes really liked us, spending the rest of our time studying or thinking about studying. Relatively speaking, our math-filled, romance-depraved existences weren’t so bad. There is an immense privilege in feeling comfortable performing the gender the world expects us to perform, and in living in a community where no one physically harmed us for our difference. There are people who are murdered and ostracized for their race, gender, and sexual identities, and the daily fear and danger that these people live in cannot be overstated. Our experience is certainly not that of all people or women of color. I write only to widen the spectrum of stories.
The specifics of my non-white body and the perceived strangeness of my cultural conditioning have made it difficult for me to be read as feminine, even when that is my intention, the way I identify. White women discussing the dismissal of femininity sometimes focus on the disempowerment of femme, where feminine women are written off as too attractive. But, this experience of feeling suppressed because you are a woman who is read as feminine and attractive is itself tied to privileges arising from beauty and gender norms that hold white women as a standard. When people with atypical bodies and identities perform femininity, they too are seen as weaker, more emotional, less serious. But unlike white women, they are not celebrated as desirable.
When people with atypical bodies and identities perform femininity, they too are seen as weaker, more emotional, less serious. But unlike white women, they are not celebrated as desirable.
I have always been acutely aware that my body is read as different, and for much of my life, I took gruesome, painful steps to try to lessen this difference. South Asian bodies, for example, are typically hairier than white bodies. And, as we are all constantly reminded, having any hair below your eyebrows makes you a burly, masculine, and undesirable woman. When I entered 6th grade, my naturally long, dark arm hair became problematic in my mother’s mind. She tore old kurtas into strips and, once a month, smeared hot wax across my arms, telling me to hold my breath as she ripped the cloth and hair off. I had always liked my arm hair. It was soft, and I thought the way it grew across my arms looked delicate and beautiful. But after a few of these arm-waxing sessions, it became painfully clear that I had to try harder to pass as feminine. It was impossible not to feel that this struggle was proof of my inherent ineptitude, that even while I was already seen as less for being feminine, I was also somehow not feminine enough.
Of course, I don’t blame my mom for wanting this assimilation for me. She was doing what she knew would make my life easiest based on her own experiences being ridiculed for her Indian clothing and accent. If she could help me avoid the emotional pain of having a non-normative body by simply removing my arm hair, why wouldn’t she?
I remember sitting in an anatomy class in high school gossiping about the events of the previous weekend with Avani. Two people we knew had allegedly had sex, and we were loudly whispering the details of how and why it had happened, when a boy in our class who had misheard us turned around, wide-eyed, and said, “Did you just say that one of you had sex?!” We quickly assured him that we were talking about someone else, to which he responded, “Good. Some people aren’t supposed to have sex.” For him, it was a passing comment, a casual, harmless observation he didn’t question, stated with a certainty that left me feeling trapped. Something about the role we filled in this boy’s mind meant that Avani and I should remain seated safely at our “nerd” end of the lunch table. Women with hairy arms and brown skin and intense academic focuses weren’t supposed to be attractive, and we surely weren’t supposed to have any desire or agency of our own. This moment comes back to me often, making me feel like every academic achievement inherently lessens my desirability and femininity, while every sexual behavior is an inconceivable disruption, a trick I am playing on the world.
When I tried pulling a femininity tailor-made for white women over my brown body, of course it looked funny, sagging in the wrong places, clinging uncomfortably in others. Observers expecting a custom-made couture piece were confused by this gnarly hybrid, unable to understand or accept what it was I was trying to do. This situation created a toxic cycle where I was denied the validation I was conditioned to believe comes in response to certain performances of femininity. I felt and feel a strong desire for this validation and a corresponding deep guilt for wanting it, as if I am too dependent on the opinions of men or on beauty as a marker of my self-worth, as if I am therefore complicit in my own oppression. This is not to say that we should conflate femininity, sexuality, and attractiveness to men. Theoretically, my friends and I should have been able to find senses of “femme” that were personal and complex, independent of the opinions of men. But in our heteronormative society, it is nearly impossible at the age of 15 to be aware of any of these nuances. Instead, an inability to fit neatly into a structure meant for a different body became a personal failure.
When I tried pulling a femininity tailor-made for white women over my brown body, of course it looked funny, sagging in the wrong places, clinging uncomfortably in others.
I don’t think I’m hideous or unworthy all the time. But when my Indianness is the obstacle defining my lack of romantic success, my underconfidence, my perceived inability to perform femininity, then I can never truly “bloom” as expected. To bloom would be to unknow the way the cumin in my mom’s chicken curry clings to the fibers of wool sweaters, to redraw all my first grade illustrations of princesses with a brown crayon, to lose my intellectual rigor, remove the melanin in my skin and the hair on my body, all of the intimate intricacies and experiences that define who I am. To bloom would be to reconfigure myself in a way that erases the painful memories but also some of the best parts of my character.
Even now, though we went to fancy schools, joined alternative scenes, and learned a whole array of words to explain and justify each and every type of hurt we feel, my Asian friends and I rely heavily on one another for emotional support. We still encounter racism in the form of compliments from parents of friends who call us “dark beauties,” qualifying our appearances in a way that keeps the term “beautiful” safely reserved for white bodies. We are routinely mistaken for one another by our white peers as if the brownness of our skin makes us physically indistinguishable. And, even when surrounded by accepting, supportive friends, we experience powerful imposter syndromes. This feeling that we don’t belong in white-dominated scenes, that we are tricking everyone with our presences, runs deep. After a date with someone I really liked, I came home feeling anxious to the point of tears that, as time passed, he would realize that I wasn’t interesting or attractive, that I didn’t belong in the scene in which he seemed so comfortable and confident. Afterall, some people aren’t supposed to have sex.
My friend Niha and I have an ongoing joke where one person texts the other something mundane, and after a few minutes of small talk, eventually says “I’m feeling sad.” The other person always responds “There it is”, a somewhat perverse joke that acknowledges the emotional distress that is a big, inevitable part of our bond. These moments of total vulnerability, of admitting exactly how and why we feel unwanted, happen often with my community of Asian friends as we all try to make sense of the reverberations of our traumas, of how our stories are not shared enough for us to even recognize them as valid, of how every feminist discussion centering on the difficulties of being too beautiful leaves us wondering why we are not able to be part of that conversation. I don’t have the emotional distance from these ongoing experiences to have any answers or resolutions, just a certainty that they are real, and a sense of simultaneous reassurance and sadness that they are not mine alone.