In fourth grade, I begged my mom for an American Girl doll, one of those ME! dolls that are designed to look like you, or your little sister, or your future daughter. She came packaged in a big red box, and I named her Mia. I brushed her dark hair and stared at her eyes, big and brown and coated in a rigid set of lashes. I pushed her eyelids up and down, her dull pupils looking at nothing in particular. My eyes were not quite right. The boys in class liked to squint at me, pull back their skin and laugh. I stared at Mia and wondered what was contained in the gap between me and her. At that age, I didn’t know that Mia— who was supposed to be me and my sister and my daughter— was white, and I didn’t know that the rest of my life would be a continuation of this moment, of the white doll and the Asian reproduction. Already at that age I felt alone.
Through makeup videos on YouTube I learned that my eyes were called monolids. They were, these beauty gurus contended, perfectly fine on their own, but if I so chose out of my own volition, I could take a couple of paths to make them wider, larger, less strange. I was still young, so I could massage my fingers over them twice a day, pinching a lid into them so that they might take one on naturally. I could buy eyelid tape, tiny white sardines coming 50 to a package, and glue my eyes open. I could get surgery, let a doctor run a knife over the thinnest skin of the body, the tissue splitting open red and shiny and then sewn back together. The recovery time was ugly, but who said beauty wasn’t ugly. I watched these videos in the dark of my bedroom at night, screen brightness turned all the way down. In the morning, I woke up hoping my eyes had changed overnight, and that if they had I might be seen differently.
When I look into my eyes now, the overhead fluorescent lights of my dorm bathroom casting dark circles, I do not see myself through myself. My gaze has been permanently polluted by these beauty gurus, by my dolls, by the men who stare from their trucks as I try to cross the street in peace. I see myself through the only boy I have ever loved, who joked my eyes were squinty. I see myself though every pair of eyes but my own, and I tumble out of my sight bitten raw. I do not want to be beautiful. I want to escape from beneath the weight of people gazing. I want to go unseen.
My apprehension of being seen swelled into fear last spring. Six Asian women were shot and killed at their jobs in Atlanta. Something cracked in me when I heard, and I sat crumpled at my desk, the Times article on my computer screen beaming a cast of light over my limp body. The white male gaze is a deadly weapon, one that distorts the Asian female body into a platter for their plundering. As I read the news of the shootings, a vile understanding began to course through me: my body was always going to be distorted through that gaze, that gaze which was now also my gaze. In the gap between me and myself and me and others would always be my Asian-ness, female-ness, and Asian female-ness.
Reeling from the shootings, I decided to regain a sense of agency over myself by researching how the white male gaze understands the Asian female body. I scoured an Alt-Right, white supremacist website and their coverage of the shootings, and read up on scholarship that used big, lofty words to describe my existence. The appeal of the Asian woman, I discovered, lies in her hyper-femininity. This desire for the hyper-feminine stems from the greater conservative desire to re-feminize women in light of the modern white woman, whose feminist leanings threatens the masculinity of the men around her. Indeed, as the masculinization and de-sexualization of feminists evince, the ideal of femininity in the conservative imagination is inextricable from elements of subservience and passivity. As the history of Western imperialism in the East built an understanding of the Asian female body as inherently subservient and docile, the Asian woman arises in the modern white understanding as the perfect candidate—Asianness aside—for the idealized, feminized woman: fragile, weak, and non-threatening to their male partners. This femininity consumes their humanity, as Robert Long’s shootings crudely illustrate, turning them into a body, which can be taken, or used, or discarded, or killed.
But where does this knowledge leave me? Instead of freeing me, it has made a forest of my everyday life, left me to timidly walk among the trees, paranoid of the eyes pressing into me from the dark. It has given me no path out, and I have begun to distrust myself—how do I navigate my relationship to femininity now that it is fraught with my Asian-ness?
I avoid school-girl clothing like the plague, but I never liked pleated skirts anyway. However, I do have an affinity for dresses with square necklines, tight busts, and long skirts. I adore feeling pretty and mulberry lipstick. I love baking, sewing, and listening. Painted nails and sentimentality. But was my femininity forced on me, the only feasible result of a life grown around dolls and children’s books? And if it was, can I extract the real me from the womanhood pushed onto me, the womanhood I spent my adolescence striving for? And in my striving, am I feminizing myself, leaving myself open to exploitation? The more I learn the more I feel like retreating, away from a world that is soaked through with violence. I cannot live in my body without fear that what I love is what makes me vulnerable to attack.
The prospect of motherhood, which I shouldered so fondly in the 4th grade while taking care of Mia, now fills me with dread. I do not know how to live in my body, let alone understand what it means to nurture another person within it. But if I were to have a daughter, I would tell her to be kind. I would tell her she is beautiful, and that others cannot touch or even comprehend her beauty. I would brush her hair while weaving tales of a far-away land. This land mirrors ours in many ways, but in it, girls do not play with dolls. They roam out of the house, unafraid of anything, of bees and bears and mass shootings. There is no room for fear in their hearts, and no room for the gaze of other people in their eyes.