When I was 17 years old I shaved my head (2007) and made a documentary about it for my high school’s film festival. Now after nearly a decade of reflection, I can reflect on what that means to me today.
Just last Sunday I went in for a very short haircut again, and I think for some of the same reasons that I went the distance the first time.
Even in high school, before I had the vocabulary to speak about what I was breaking free from, I didn’t like the box that I was placed in. As a Chinese American teenager I felt defined by people’s expectations of me. I was automatically assumed to be a pre-packaged Asian girl. That meant I was a cute, delicate, sweet girl. These weren’t things that were inherently bad, but there was no room for me to be myself, or anything outside of that image. There was no room for someone to meet me as I was. It was forcing others to recognize that they didn’t know who I was and that they shouldn’t assume. I felt my humanity was at stake. I was being reduced down to something small. I wanted to tear down the cardboard cutout of who I was supposed to be from people’s eyes so they could see me as fully human – complex and unique.
Cutting my hair was a space where the world looked at me with scorn for not fitting into one of two boxes. During that time I experienced perhaps the most discomfort that I have in my entire life. A woman at Michael’s (the craft store) looked at me horrified exclaiming, “You know this is the women‘s restroom.” and I had to reply, “Yes, and I am a woman.” A table full of men at school openly pointed and laughed at me. Nearly daily I was mistaken for a boy. Instances like these became common place as well as fielding questions every day for why I did what I did to my hair.
But it allowed me space to figure out how I felt about myself as well. I was able to distance myself from the constructed femininity that was handed to me by virtue of my birth. I could explore that in a gender-neutral space where I found I was very comfortable. It was like breaking free from my own skin and being able to breathe. It was exploring the world of endless possibilities where I could be anything I wanted to be. I wasn’t constrained to be that pre-packaged person because people would look at me and not know what to make of me. I could be a bold adventurer; a world-changer. I could be a better man than you, or a better woman. I could be that girl, and I could be so much more at the same time. At a time when I was trying to figure out who I was, this was exactly what I needed to dream big for what my life could look like.
Now, nearly ten years later, I find myself constrained by a much more sinister box. One that I think my high school self didn’t have the words for. Given a certain presidential nominee’s “locker room talk” on women, a twitter hashtag #notokay was born where women shared their first experiences with sexual assault. Most experiences women posted were when they were fairly young, frequently pre-pubescent, and it is something that follows us our entire lives. With an increasingly vocal minority of racist people in the US as well (perhaps also a symptom of a certain presidential nominee) the hashtag #thisis2016 has also appeared when a New York Times editor was told to “Go back to China” despite being, like me, an American. People shared their experiences as Asian Americans feeling unwelcome in their own country. For me, these things are a daily reality on top of the intersectional experience of being both a woman and an Asian American. Asian women are highly sexualized and fetishized as exotic and subservient, making me feel like I walk around with a target on my back at times. While I was not immune to sexism or societal expectations of how I should look or dress by any means in Korea, coming back to the US has been a shock to me with the reintroduction of being the “other,” and a different set of ignorant expectations of who I am, unique to America.
So I try to find myself in there. Whether I do or don’t fit the stereotypes of women, Asian Americans, or Asian American women, I don’t care. The desire to be seen as fully human as my own being is still there. I’m still alive and kicking, and want people to see me. And in my own little protesting way, I reaffirm my humanity by cutting away my hair perhaps this time less to find myself, and more to show myself. I do it by writing and talking. I do it by making you look at me as a personality rather than a caricature. I do it even though I am exhausted by the effort because the alternative is suffocating.
It is damaging to be treated like an object, an outsider, and a one-dimensional being. It makes it easy to use a person for what they can do for you. For women very frequently it’s for sexual gratification. It makes it easy to exclude people you don’t see as human – from the work place, from housing, education, or even the country. It makes it easy for people like me to be dismissed for being just your pre-packaged expectations and nothing more. Not only does it make this world more dangerous in very tangible ways in terms of harassment or mistreatment, but it keeps people like me reduced to much less than what we are, and what we can be.
I have a decade more of living life in this body since my little experiment, and a decade more of tearing down a wall that is constantly being rebuilt. I have a decade more of things that are #notokay and in 2016 this is still reality for many people including myself. These things make it so much more important for me to express myself. It makes it so much more important for me to defy expectations, and tell the world it can’t consume me like its morning coffee – convenient and disposable. I am anything but convenient or disposable, and I sure as hell am not just your pre-packaged expectations. So on this 9th anniversary of my hair cut, more so than most years, I am defiantly celebrating my God-given humanity in all of its glory.