Growing up in a conservative Chinese–Australian family, the power of shame in manifesting and reinforcing bodily rituals and standards of modesty can leave a lasting mark.
When I was two weeks old, a bright red mark appeared on my right shoulder. My parents were told the strawberry-shaped growth was a hemangioma, and that the redness would fade with age. And so it did, but not completely – I still have a red and blue mark on my shoulder that tracks the presence of blood vessels and veins. My parents, probably concerned about the attention it would generate, made sure I never wore any sleeveless clothing if they could help it. I don’t think there are even any photos of me as a child that show my bare right shoulder.
My parents’ concern regarding the opinions of strangers was at odds with the jokes they’d make about my mark among friends. Sometimes, with a big smile on his face, Dad would say that he must have hit me a little too hard. I’d usually go along with the ruse, laughing and shaking my head, pushing aside memories and experiences of genuine corporal punishment (but that’s a story for another day).
As I progressed through adolescence, my parents’ censorship of my body spread outwards from my shoulder. They imposed their conservative, Chinese values – values they still hold to this day – in, on, and through me. They didn’t (and don’t) think I should show too much skin; nor should I acknowledge the fact that I have breasts, that I have feminine characteristics. But in classic Chinese style, none of this was ever said outright. It was all implied, with raises of the eyebrow, a grimace, or a loaded phrase tinged with judgement. I grew to be ashamed by the slip of a bra strap, copied Mum’s strategies for testing clothes for transparency, and would not even entertain the thought of venturing out in public without a bra. I learned quickly what was considered appropriate, and what would get me into trouble.
I learned quickly what was considered appropriate, and what would get me into trouble.
My mother, in particular, has always been critical of the way I dress. She never criticised any specific part of my body, but took it upon herself to dictate my stylistic choices – she had the money, so she had the final say. She convinced me that I didn’t look good in V-necked shirts (I look fine), and actively discouraged me from trying on or buying outfits that were ‘too revealing’ in any way. I think that in some way, she thought I might be tempting the gazes of the men around me – that a glimpse of my cleavage would be a signal to men that I was sexually available. And so, for the majority of my childhood, I wore knee-length skirts and dresses, or tops (sleeved, of course) with embroidered jeans.
I was eventually allowed to venture into the world of shorter skirts, and even shorts – a natural progression, it seemed – but upon reflection, it might just have been my parents’ way of quelling any overt rebellion at the time. They needn’t have worried too much, because I was never really comfortable with miniskirts, or anything that showed off too much skin. I didn’t go out very much, and mainly only dressed up for church, so I felt obliged to maintain some semblance of modesty. Even so, there were times when I wished I could pull off the clothes the other girls were wearing, let alone convince my mother to buy them for me in the first place.
Strangely, my unease around clothing was never – and still isn’t – connected to my body image. I went through a couple of years of ‘I hate my thighs’ as a teenager, and I often had to brush aside snide comments about needing to eat more, but I’ve generally always been quite comfortable with my body and the way I look – there have been times when I’ve forgotten I even had a mark on my shoulder. But when clothes and (supposed) social expectation are added to the mix, I suddenly become hyperaware of my clothing choices, or worried that other people will think less of me because of what I am (or am not) wearing. Mum’s seemingly innocuous verbal criticisms – a comment here, a comment there – became my version of ‘social norms’.
Mum’s seemingly innocuous verbal criticisms – a comment here, a comment there – became my version of ‘social norms’.
Financial independence helped a little, and it was nice to be able to go shopping on my own, without the spectre of my mum lurking outside the change rooms. But ultimately, while I was still living at home, Mum was in charge of the laundry. She was particularly vigilant when it came to noticing any new additions to my wardrobe, and would not hesitate to tell me what she thought of my purchases – or indeed that I shouldn’t be spending money on such frivolous things as clothes. It got to a point where I became accustomed to leaving the house in unremarkable clothes, my preferred outfit stashed in my bag. I’d change at the nearest public bathroom, feeling guilty that I had to trick my parents this way, while also afraid of being seen or forgetting to change back on my way home.
This guilt, while annoying, and at times, even crippling, wasn’t new. I suspect my mother’s control over what I was allowed to wear was closely linked to her desire to maintain control over my life in general. Chinese children (especially girls – we’re not considered women until we get married) aren’t supposed to leave their family homes until they meet a nice boy and settle down. But after years and years of trying to push back, of trying to have my voice heard in my own family, I was exhausted. I didn’t necessarily want to wear crop tops and show off too much skin – but I wanted to have the choice to do so, without feeling like I’d betrayed my family or my culture. I wanted to be a woman on my own terms, not a girl-child being continuously trailed by her parents.
By the time I moved out of home and had the ability to wear whatever I wanted, the damage had already been done. My newfound freedom to experiment with fashion was counteracted by the anxiety I’d internalised from years of shame and parental conditioning. I was comfortable wearing whatever I wanted in my apartment, but it was somehow different in the big, bad world – even in outfits I knew to be uncontroversial, I still felt as if I would be judged for that strip of skin separating my crop top from my shorts, or that pop of cleavage I had somehow managed to conjure. I bought a backless dress a couple of months after I moved out, but didn’t have the courage to wear it out in public for over a year – even then, I had to fight off the urge to wear a jacket over it, just in case something untoward happened. (I was fine.)
I wanted to be a woman on my own terms, not a girl-child being continuously trailed by her parents.
Slowly, surely, I became more comfortable with my own clothing choices, and learned to trust my own instincts, as opposed to what had been drilled into me over five, ten years. Still, whenever I go back home, or meet my parents for dinner, my outfits are usually chosen based on the amount of criticism I am willing to endure. I know they mean well, but it is far more painless to choose my battles than explain yet again why I should be allowed to wear whatever I want – especially to my father, who seems convinced that any kind of visible cleavage will turn me into some kind of witchy temptress.
I now wear sleeveless dresses, blouses, and tops without shame. Some friends have expressed concern about the ‘thing’ on my shoulder, thinking it a strange type of bruise. Sometimes I’ll get the occasional lingering stare. Just recently, one of my friends’ children asked me what was on my shoulder, and I was a little confused until I actually turned an eye toward the motley pattern of red and blue. A seemingly small victory in the grand scheme of things – in the grand scheme of my body, even – but a victory nonetheless.
And so here we are. Here I am, having won the battle of shame against my shoulder, but half terrified at the fact that the rest of my body – when I’m at the beach, in a bikini, or even wearing a crop top that shows off my midriff while I’m at the shops – has yet to be conquered. Every so often, I try to force myself out of my comfort zone, a true test of mind over body. And every so often, I surprise myself at my success at doing so. But baby steps, right? Chipping away at this mental block will take time, courage, and patience, and I can only hope that I have enough of all three to regain control of my body.