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Cheongsams, western clothes and the over-politicised feminine body

11 Apr 2018

Shoving my legs into a pair of dark khakis from Old Navy, I tried to convince myself that because they fit around my calves they would fit around the rest of me. But whenever I sat down, my fake leather belt would chafe around my hips as the trousers fell down. These khakis had the oh-so coveted pocket space given to men. I couldn’t stand always having to carry my phone – not putting it in my pocket. Being my fix-it self, I started buying men’s jeans. Buying men’s jeans often means a little more effort finding a brand that cuts better to fit wider hips. Some of them fit great, like my dark hunter green Uniqlo ones. Others – like my navy khakis – were bad purchase.

I often mention iPhone sizes and women’s jeans pocket size when the topic of clothes comes up in casual conversation. The angst at the fashion patriarchy is immediate, and it is easy to sympathise. After buying men’s jeans and mentioning the solution to other women, a hesitation and glances ensue. The odd glances I get when mentioning my alternative jeans purchase is worse than the chasm of going to the opposite side of the store to buy jeans. The politics of buying different jeans never struck me till the long silences some women gave me when I suggest it. I’m not supposed to be on the other side of the store unless it’s for a boyfriend or male relative, and if I am then I must be questioning my gender identity. The answer is much more mundane yet still radical – I am a pragmatic woman trying to go out with a phone and not have to carry a purse.

“The same hips that were too small for the Old Navy jeans were too big for the cheongsams I had inherited”

Growing up, I rarely, if ever, wore non Western clothing. The same hips that were too small for the Old Navy jeans were too big for the cheongsams I had inherited. Cheongsams are long tight, form-fitting dresses that developed in early 20th century China as colonial and Chinese cultures met. I own two – one in a retro yellow showing Western influence and another in a more traditional Chinese print. I have a picture of my petite grandmother in the 1950s wearing a cheongsam with flawless makeup and short hair – the epitome of grace. I’m a little taller and wider, and I can only zip the cheongsam halfway, definitely not graceful. There are only so many ways I can suck in my stomach trying to get the zipper up.

The jean pockets meant for women can’t hold everything I want, and the cheongsam hanging in the closet can’t hold my own body. I am exiled from the fashion culture that raised me, and the fashion culture I’m supposed to claim if I am to be a decolonised person. I am always trying to find clothing to cover my political body. The politicisation of my body comes from all my thick dark hair , my brown skin reminds me of my grandfather and his clouded dark eyes behind big glasses. My part-monolid and part-double crease eyes don’t fit into any makeup tutorial about how to apply eyeshadow. It all comes together as my bag of meat and bones.

“Every time reproductive rights are policed, the dragon lady myth is perpetuated, and brown bodies are violated, my own body is dealt a blow”

Nothing is going to feel quite right on my body. Even the most comfortable wireless bra will always have straps that fall down my shoulder, reminding me of the clothing standards enforced upon women. Some will tell me that my body houses me, but I am not just my body. I can’t set aside my experience that shaped my politics from my body. My body has carried me throughout my entire life, and it has taken every blow and joy. My body also takes the tolls of my community. Every time reproductive rights are policed, the dragon lady myth is perpetuated, and brown bodies are violated, my own body is dealt a blow.

The men’s jeans are not going to be cut quite right for my hips and large thighs. The cheongsams are meant for my small great-aunt, not for someone raised without war rations and with a Western diet. My existence and the body that carries me through that existence are inherently political for surviving and thriving. Unsustainable synthetic fabrics and plant fibers harvested with unfair labour practices can’t peacefully exist on the same plane as my free body. The earth and my body are connected, just as every other living being. Until my body is just another unpolitical fleshy thing, clothes will never fit or feel quite right.