For the past six years I’ve been unpacking and healing internalized racism, sexism, and heteropatriarchy I absorbed as a queer mixed kid growing up in Whitelandia (Portland, OR).
One of the primary ways in which these internalized isms manifested themselves was through an eating disorder. In my mind, I saw my end goal as a thinner, Whiter, more accepted version of myself. Pretty fucked up, I know, but that’s really what I saw.
By the age 10 I was taller and weighed more than my “classically beautiful” (by eurocentric beauty standards) mother. I was teased about my weight by peers and shamed by femme family members with their own body issues, and from that age on I lived in constant paranoia. I literally thought that every person looking at me was guessing my weight and thinking I was fat - which in my mind was the end of the world.
As a chubby, (non White passing) mixed kid, I did not meet the U.S. standard of beauty of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
My mother is Euroamerican - German, Polish, Russian-Jew, Romanian. My father was born and raised in Japan and migrated to the states in his early twenties. While my mother’s family has been in the U.S. for multiple generations, my father’s side of the family are all still in Japan.
We had the privilege of spending every summer and some winters in Japan with our family there. I soon learned, as early as 8 or 9, that Japan had it’s own standard of beauty that I didn’t fit into either.
Unlike in the United States, in Japan, people were loud about my body and would publicly shame me. I remember being traumatized by my grandmother’s public comments about my body, constantly comparing my body to my sister’s who is five years younger than me and built very differently.
On my last visit to Japan, before my 12 year hiatus, I went through an incident of cyberbullying and fell into a depression. Over my 3 week visit I gained an exorbitant amount of weight and my grandmother made sure I was aware of it.
After that trip, I didn’t return for 12 years.
I spent the next four years of high school trying to disassociate myself from my Japanese heritage. I just wanted to be “normal” - which by my understanding meant straight, thin, and White. I didn’t want to return to Japan until my weight was “acceptable” enough to not be ridiculed. I threw myself into intense dance training and told the world I was too busy with dance to return - a lie I told for so many years I began to believe it myself.
In college I began to gain context and language to begin naming, examining, unpacking my experiences as a queer, mixed, WOC. Through this time, I felt a growing hunger to return to Japan, one of my ancestral lands, and learn more about the side of myself that I had hated and denied for so long.
So after 12 years, in December of 2016, I was ready to reconcile and I returned to Japan.
The trip in December didn’t fully satisfy the hunger and I knew I needed to return. I felt deep down there was so much more important healing work to be done.
So six months later, I booked a last minute flight, packed my bags, and headed back to Japan for the second time in the same year.
At the end of my first week, my grandmother, sister, and I were out to dinner when we ran into one of my grandmother's friend. This elder was fiery, spunky, and animated as hell. She spoke so fast, I could barely understand her, but by her body language I knew she was making some sort of comment about my body.
After we left, my grandmother asked if I understood what her friend was saying. When I said I didn’t fully get it, she confirmed and agreed with her friend that I would look more beautiful if I lost weight and that they were both concerned for my health.
Again, the fact that I did not fit into either Japanese or U.S. norms was thrown in my face. Blatantly and harshly. But this time was different.
This was a pivotal moment - for many reasons. First, when I didn’t burst into tears, I realized how much healing I had actually done. Had this been 10 years ago, even 5, this incident would have catapulted me into a downward spiral of self hate and dangerous behavior. Second, I understood that this comment about my weight meant nothing about the content of me - all of the energy and brain space I used to spend on dieting and worry about my weight is now dedicated to anti oppression and equity work. And third, I recognized that these women were making value judgements about my body and my health without knowing anything about me or my lifestyle. This was their deal, not mine. They were born and bred in time and place where “a quarter-century ago, Japanese women were twice as likely to be as thin as they were overweight; now, they are four times more likely to be thin.” Their ideals and standards of health and beauty are drastically different from my own. Their words were a reflection of their own experiences steeped in unexamined patriarchal and colonized standards and norms.
The body positivity movement is just beginning to show up in Japan. Model and comedian, Naomi Watanabe, is leading the body positivity movement in Japan called “pochakawaii” which translates to “chubby and cute.” Beyond her, the movement is still in its infancy. I asked a family friend, who is big in the Tokyo modeling world, about body positivity. He assured me body positivity was totally a thing in Japan, as there is a growing population of plus sized people, but then cited the show “Diet Village” (Japan’s equivalent to The Biggest Loser) as proof of the movement... And just so we’re clear, weight loss shows are not body positive by any means. They are the antithesis of body positivity.
Through my time in Japan, my grandmother continued to shame me about my body. Whether through seriously concerned conversations about my overall health, or mean jokes, she would not let it go, but I didn’t let it get to me. Instead, I felt a great deal of compassion towards myself and my journey. Again, realized I would never fully belong to any one place or culture, but unlike before, I realize now that that doesn’t mean I do not belong. I belong to myself. I belong amongst a cultivated community of radical friends with whom I can witness and practice self love. And I am part of a large community of mixed kids who feel this same exact way.
I have spent the past six years unpacking my shit and deeply examining the structures of patriarchy and colonization that taught me to hate myself and feel shame about my existence.
I find peace in the words of an elder - my teacher and mentor - Arisika Razak, “we find solace in small communities of likeminded people.”
I’m further inspired to continue cultivating a community and spaces where people can show up wholly and authentically - because seriously, what’s the point in shame? Why make people feel shame about any part of themselves? Who benefits from our shame?
So to my friends on their own journey of healing and reconciliation: keep going. Be patient with yourself and your process and know that you are evolving. Cultivate your sacred community, keep unpacking, keep unlearning, and know that you are incredible, valuable, and worthy just as you are. Thank you for being you.