Tag Archives: femininity

From the Archives: “My Hair Trauma” (1998)

A photograph of two Asian women with big bouffants and miniskirts, probably from the 1960s.

Amsterdam, 1960s via http://www.reisenews-online.de via theswingingsixties.tumblr.com

We received a request for a piece I wrote over ten years ago, from my time in the “olden days” of what we oldsters once called “web journaling.” It’s hard to read some of my old writing without cringing (as I mention in the comments below, I am so on-trend for ’90s nostalgia), and this piece is no exception (I would probably ask more, and different, questions now). Still, the realization that our own hair is political is something of a rite of passage, right?

Earlier today I stood in front of the bathroom cabinet mirror, sewing scissors in hand. I was having hair trauma. (I have hair trauma a lot.) Taking inventory, I glanced down. Sitting on the back of the toilet were the following instruments (of varying degrees) of follicle torture: Royal Crown hair gel. Pantene hair spray. A tortoise shell clip. Ponytail ties. Bobby pins. A year-old plastic container of “Apple Green” Manic Panic hair dye. A blow-dryer/curler. Clippers. Bleach conditioner. A comb.

Standing in my underwear I imagined the possibilities: braids, french twists, a bun, two hair buns (a la anime girlies), the “wet” look, shaved, curled, ponytail, pompadour, mohawk, bihawk, streaks, “Glamour Shots” big hair, gang-girl big hair, buzz cut, mullet, beehive, haute couture. This is the essence of my hair trauma. I got dizzy thinking about it and left well enough alone.

In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”

That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”

What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”

But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.

My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”

The hegemony of white racial bias works both ways: first, to assert an overdetermined standard of Eurocentric beauty and second, to warn against racial inversions or artistry that defy the dominant “white” logic of racial coding and stylization. That is, while we might acknowledge that the first instills a sense of “inferior” worth in people of color, what do we make about the second? I mean, is hair as art, as style, as invention, banned to the Asiatically-follicled? It is already suggested by dominant “common sense” that anything we do is hopelessly derivative: we only mimic whiteness. This is the smug arrogance underlying the issue -the accusation, the assumption– of assimilation: we would do anything to be a poor copy of the white wo/man. Do you buy this? Are you, too, suspicious of “unnatural” Asian hair: permed, dyed, bleached? But if I assert the position that all hair-styles are physically and socially constructed, even “plain” Asian hair, how do we then imagine hair as politics?

Who defines what’s “natural”? Does our hair have history?

What does my hair say about my power? How does the way you “read” my hair articulate yours?

Asian/American women’s hair already functions as a fetish object in the colonial Western imaginary, a racial signifier for the “silky” “seductive” “Orient.” Our hair, when “natural,” is semiotically commodified, a signal that screams “this is exotic/erotic.” As figments of the European imperial imagination, Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, and Miss Saigon are uniformly racially sexualized and sexually racialized by flowing cascades of long, black shiny hair. Is this “natural” hair? Or is hair always already socially-constructed to be “read” a certain way in relation to historical colonial discourse? Is this “natural” hair politically preferable? “purer,” as my interviewer implicitly suggests?

According to a certain culturally nationalist narrative: yes. But it gets complicated once the fetishist acts up and says, yes, I like you better when you are natural/native/other.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when the white folk agree?

When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: “Have you tried an Asian male lover?” “Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!” I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural “pride.” A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, “No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?”

Do I need to be saved?

And because the initial (hair) question is gender-specific, I have to ask: did the interviewer seek to escape scrutiny? I mean, are Asian American men who cut or style their hair participating in an “unnatural” visual economy pre-set by (wannabe) white standards? Why is men’s “loyalty” to racial community not likewise questioned in a parallel scenario? Are Asian American women posed as “culturally weaker,” more susceptible to the seductive lure of whiteness? More inclined to “sell-out”?

I imagine the whispering, the first sign is the hair.

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; that is, what do we do when both (heterosexual) Asian/American men and white folk agree?

It bears mentioning that the interviewer assumed I was “straight.”

So does bleaching our hair necessarily connote a desire to be white?

When I was eighteen my roommate Alicia took a pair of sewing scissors and a stinging, foamy blue mixture of “speed bleach” to my scalp. By the end of the night what was left of my hair was a deep shade of pink, cut close to the skin.

All through high school I had “natural” long black hair. A white man approached me in the park one day, told me he must have been an “Oriental” man in a former life because he loves the food, the culture, and the women. At the mall a black Marine looked me up and down and informed me he had just returned from the Philippines, and could he have my phone number?

I was fifteen. They start on us young.

In Helen Lee’s short film Sally’s Beauty Spot our heroine (Sally) cuts off her long black hair in response to her white boyfriend’s exoticizing gaze. It seems relevant then, that cultural critic Rey Chow notes that the “activity of watching is linked by projection to physical nakedness.” It is an act of violence that “pierces the other” in order to name or own the object-slash-objectified being watched.

I cut off all my hair and damaged it with all kinds of fucked-up chemicals because I was sick of the orientalist gaze being directed at/on me. Having “unnatural” hair was supposed to be an oppositional aesthetic tactic, a “fuck you” to the White Man, not an attempt to be the White Woman. I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle, a bodily denial of the “passive” stereotype, the anti-lotus blossom, because when I was young it was always just a simple matter of “fighting” stereotypes by becoming its opposite. I thought to embrace my difference, to expound upon it, to expand its breadth.

I said to myself, “Now I will be what they least expected. I will be scary, I will be other than the stereotype of the model minority, the passive Asian female.”

In some circles a shorn skull is a sure sign of dyke-ness. I marked myself accordingly.

But whatever we mean for our style choices to signify politically, none of it means that we’ll necessarily be read that way by “illiterate” audiences. For the next four years, my bright green locks were an “excuse” for some whites (male and female) to continue to eroticize my difference without indulging the “obvious” orientalist signifiers. That is, because they did not necessarily adhere to the “traditional” homology of racial fetishes -the long black hair, for one- it was “okay” to exoticize me because I was not a “traditional” Asian woman: “North American,” punk, etc. As a result, the p-rock hair only emphasized a (superficially) different but (structurally) similar re-fetishization of my female Asian body as doubly “exotic:” that is, my “other-ness” factor increased exponentially in relation to the “unconventionality” of being a “bad” Asian/American woman.

Then there were those who took no pains to hide it. There is in fact a punk song that wants to rape me. I am the “bad” Asian female who needs to be disciplined with a little white dick. It excites him/you to think that some violence can surely be anticipated in the act of subduing the black-belt “Saigon Siren” he/you would like to imagine me to be. He/you wants to “do” me: I am unsure if this means fuck me or kill me, or both.

How much do I “own” my self-(re)presentation? How do I account for being “misread”?

Sally’s boyfriend said: “You look different.” But he liked her hair “still, shiny and black.”

I don’t deny that some of us grow up damaged by dominant aesthetics and white mythologies. There are plenty of stories circulated among ourselves about how we wanted hair that curled, blonde hair, red hair, whatever. We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one –convinced of her desirability– grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.

So: I refuse to be pathologically defined by an imaginary lack of “good hair.”

My own bleached locks -when I had them– hardly suggested “white” hair. I took no pains to disguise my black roots and the burnt effect of the peroxide was not a “normal” or white-looking hue. I doubt my hair masked the shape of my eyes, my nose, my face. Nor was it meant to. If possible, it became more obvious: who expects Asian features beneath a ragged shock of green hair? About Malcolm X’s former incarnation as a slick zoot-suiter with a red conk, black gay academic Kobena Mercer writes, “Far from an attempted simulation of whiteness I think [] [hair] dye [was] used as a stylized means of defying the ‘natural’ color codes of conventionality in order to highlight artificiality and hence exaggerate a sense of difference.”

My (racial) difference was exaggerated as a result of my “unnaturally” colored locks, but it was used against my chosen oppositional body politic.

And of course, in punk rock “unnatural” hair is aesthetically conventional for whites and is anyway fast becoming a popular “look” found in clubs, music videos, and Urban Outfitters, so it loses its strategic political meaning as “anti-Establishment” rebellion.

But why mourn the passing of punk aesthetic-as-politics? Purists (most often white, heterosexual, and male) argue that it diffuses their own “difference:” but it’s a difference they so fiercely covet because it is their only difference and for the sake of claiming a marginality, it remains important (to the purists) that they maintain that imaginary line. I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?

What does it mean to dye your hair blue?

Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.

In the context of “radical” racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either “natural” (therefore indicating racial pride) and “white-identified” (“she must hate herself because she’s got a perm”) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation?

Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about “natives:” that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re “authentic.”

How many white people have clucked their tongues at my seeming inauthenticity? Too many.

The white avant-garde likes to think it can break boundaries and transcend the restrictions of that bogeyman called Society. The avant-garde “borrows” liberally from everywhere, plundering our cultural drawers, and pretends it makes something new, but not just new: something more truthful.

In the 1960 Hollywood film The World of Suzie Wong the white American artist is horrified when his model/love interest Suzie, a street prostitute, shows up in his Hong Kong apartment proudly wearing a brand new “Western-style” dress. He calls her a whore and, violently shaking her like he might a child, tears the dress off her maligned body. In the following sequence he gives her an “authentic” Chinese wedding dress and is enchanted by the resulting vision in (virginal) white: restored to a more desirable state of “purity” by the white artist, she is suddenly demure, docile, “properly” Chinese. It is significant that while red is the color of happiness and marriage in Chinese symbology, white is the color of death and mourning.

What kind of death does Suzie Wong die?

What does it mean to be an Asian woman? Or more, what does it take for me to be seen as an Asian woman?

I’ve twice been mistaken for “Amerasian,” or half-Vietnamese, half-white: once by a Vietnamese American girl in a women’s studies undergrad class, once by a white Vietnam vet at a screening of From Hollywood to Hanoi at the Roxie.

And in Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck, trapping dirt & sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as inauthentic as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home,” we are nothing like we might have been, elsewhere. I can’t preserve what’s been irreversibly destroyed, even as possibility, in the process of war, migration, decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity, big-A intact, or more, it eludes me. And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?

It’s still my history too.

Where is my community? Whose identity politics do I follow?

For Christmas I got my mom my hair. That is, I dyed my shoulder-length green hair black. She loved it. It’s been forever. I had been “different” from my mother for too long.

For no good reason I got myself my hair. That is, I took a pair of scissors and cut myself bangs just like Anna May Wong’s, the original Dragon Lady. I aspire to similar great heights, only without Hollywood to script my untimely demise I am intent upon succeeding/subverting.

Do I look Asian enough for you now?

Jaded is a monthly caucus of Asian Pacific queers “+ friends.” This time around I am playing the femme, foregoing jeans and boots for blood-red vinyl and black metallic. Around one a.m. we are positioned somewhere near the stage, our feet numb from sitting on speakers. Hello Kitty flits ghost-like across painted brick walls, her mouth appearing and disappearing according to some silent language she mimes. Across a sea of bodies elevated dancers snake their arms toward industrial piping and disco ball. My also femme-ed friend wrinkles her nose, pointing out one of the club kids in a black bikini and brown velvet pants. Disparaging: “Why is she wearing a blonde wig? That’s kinda fucked-up.”

I shrug because I’ve heard it before. Because she is a queen of the ironic performative herself I am a little cynical about her stance. I promise myself to later show her this really cool piece I’m writing on hair.

Recently I ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore. She is looking for a book on Elvis because she is getting a haircut and is considering a pompadour. Only three inches at the longest, she (a Korean dyke) runs her fingers through her black hair. She tells me, “Some of my friends have been bugging me about it ’cause they say it’s getting too femme-y.” I am forced to consider what my hair, no longer shorn or dyed, relays to other Q&A women.

Is it just a simple matter of becoming the antithesis of the stereotype? Which stereotypes do you choose to not be? Do you affirm the stereotypes even as you (imagine that you) defy them?

We are then confronted with a contradiction we might not like; what do we do when even our friends agree?

We internalize the imperative of surveillance. That is, we police even ourselves, speak our need to be recognizable to the stranger’s gaze, transform our identifications and desires into advertising.

And can you tell I was a refugee by my hair?

In a ‘zine interview conducted between two Asian American women in punk, they make free with the generalizations about how “typical” Asian American women are less daring, less wild in their style choices. This is because (they say) they’re assimilated, unlike the Japanese exchange students who populate the East Village in funky fashions.

They congratulate themselves for being “different” from the “typical” Asian American woman because they are punk rock.

Are there different kinds of “unnatural” hair? I mean, it is qualitatively different to dye your Asian hair pink rather than perming it with Miss Clairol? Why? In either situation, it might be said that you are re-constructing your hair to conform to a certain subcultural standard of what “fits” the respective standards of beauty. If you are going to stake a claim of a “bonus” difference accentuated by punk rock, it’s relevant to ask: what is the qualitative difference when punk and the so-called “mainstream” are both dominated by whiteness, demographically, discursively and follicle-ly?

Question one: Please answer the above in complete sentences or annotated diagrams.

Again: how do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?

Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?

Question two is multiple-choice.
1) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re being radical.
2) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, you’re self-hating.

Or, 3) If you dye/bleach your Asian hair, your politics might not be readily available via a visual evaluation or are not otherwise related to the shape/size/color of your hair at all.

Which hair politic do you follow?

I hate the white avant-garde.

I hate my hair trauma, but not nearly as much.

These days I am thinking of chopping off most of my hair and bleaching it white. Again.

I never said my hair would start a revolution.

Can you really grasp my political agenda, my psychological state of mind, from my style choices?

Question three: Please illustrate the approximate percentage of political choice, psychological conditioning, and visual artistry involved in hair-styling with 1) a pie chart 2) a geometric-algebraic formula 3) a ten-page expository essay.

You will be graded on an arbitrary scale according to how well you explore a) the philosophical mandate of the avant-garde tradition b) “serious” Marxist objections to the performative body politic of feminisms and queer theories and c) your own hair history.

Any questions?

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHIONING RACE, ON BEAUTY

Hanky Pancreas: insulin pump accessories and cyborg embodiment

We’re thrilled to present our first Threadbared guest contributor, and long-time interwebz interlocutor, Alana Kumbier. Alana Kumbier is a femmebot, type 1 diabetic, (radical) reference librarian, and super-commuter. She is co-editor of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, and contributes to Arcades Collaborative, a critical information studies blog. In her free time, Alana performs with The Femme Show and TraniWreck, is a member of the Boston Radical Reference Collective, and co-produces a monthly podcast, Champs Not Chumps.

If you live in the NYC area, and want to see the insulin-pump-burlesque number in person, you can do so this Saturday (June 5), when The Femme Show visits Collect Pond in Brooklyn. If you come, please say hello! I (Alana) ❤ cyborg solidarity!

The "Oyster Soul" insulin pump accessory, featuring a large off-white flower and beaded strands, from the Hanky Pancreas Collection; image at Hanky Pancreas.

My first reaction to Jessica Floeh’s line of insulin pump accessories – cleverly-named Hanky Pancreas – was clear and uncomplicated: those are so pretty and I want them. I imagined myself wearing outfits organized around cascades of shells, feathers, and beads, articulating a personal style concept like urban mermaid, embodying Beach House’s Devotion, or glamorizing my weekend jeans-plus-t-shirt ensemble with elements of burlesque costuming. Knowing that these objects would be anchored by my insulin pump gave the enterprise a sort of steampunk appeal, and this excited me, too (I didn’t immediately recognize the suitability of these designs to shabby-chic, nostalgic Victorian, or popular bridal aesthetics, but looking again, I see they’re there, too). But there’s more at stake in Floeh’s designs than the cultivation of a particular cyborganic aesthetic.

The purpose of Hanky Pancreas accessories seems straightforward: dress up your pump. Or, more to the point: camouflage your robotic pancreas with embellishments – like fake flowers, seashells, feathers and beads – that invoke the feminine, the natural, and the ephemeral. The idea of embellishing one’s pump is a game-changer; doing so in a way that enables an expression of femininity is even more remarkable. Most pump cases, pouches and holsters for adult pump-wearers are designed for function, and little else. With their liberal use of nylon, velcro, and elastic, and their neutral and dark palette, most pump accessories appear to have come from the physical therapist’s clinic, or the paranoid tourist’s luggage. They secure the pump without drawing attention to its existence (and, by extension, to the fact of the wearer’s diabetes). Floeh’s designs pursue a different agenda. In addition to keeping the pump in place, she suggests the holders have affective and transformative potential:

The current collection is for women and represents a series of design solutions that better integrate the machine with the body and mind. By turning medical device into fashion accessory the designs alleviate anxiety, create dynamic communities, and encourage new relationships with medical technology. […] The designs intend to inspire internal change through external change in order to improve overall health.

There’s a lot to unpack here. It may seem that Floeh promises more than an accessory can deliver, but her claims don’t seem so far-fetched when we think about the pump as a nexus for a tangle of (wearer) concerns around gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and personhood. When I went on the pump, my pressing questions weren’t about the pump’s mechanics, or how I’d insert my infusion sets, but about how I’d sleep and have sex, how the pump would work (or not) with dresses and burlesque costumes, and what this would add my mental list of daily diabetes-management responsibilities (i.e., always carry fresh AAA batteries, make sure the reservoir has enough insulin before leaving for work, have spare infusion sets at the office). I relied on advice and support from a queer femme diabetic friend, who helped me articulate connections that made the transition easier: queering diabetes gave me a critical framework for being-diabetic in relation to normalizing social and medical structures, and helped me extend the feelings, thoughts, and politics I’d developed around my queerness to my diabetes: resisting shame and pathologization; making connections across embodied differences/identifications/situations (and committing to an ethic of care as part of this practice); celebrating norm-challenging bodies; and fostering a sex-positive culture in opposition to the dominant cultural tendency to infantalize or de-sexualize people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

I was also lucky to have studied the history of the U.S. AIDS activist movement, to have read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” and Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride. I wish I’d read Michelle O’Brien’s “Tracing This Body,” because it’s helpful to think with as we occupy positions in which we’re both resisting and depending upon oppressive systems (e.g., pharmaceutical development, manufacture, and trade; transnational capitalism) and can’t live in accord with a radical politics of purity. All this is to say that when the time came for me to start wearing the pump, I was lucky to have an amazing conceptual-political-emotional toolkit at the ready. This is not the case for the majority of pump-wearers.

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me a link to a BoingBoing post directing readers to an essay by Jane Kokernak. Kokernak writes about how living with the pump has negatively affected her sense of sexual self. For Kokernak, wearing the pump is an inherently un-desirable way of being. She opens with the claim that:

A $6,000 insulin pump with an on-board computer chip is not alluring. Neither is the white mesh adhesive patch on my naked abdomen or the length of nylon tubing that connects the patch to the pump. There is only illness, and there is no way to make that sexy. After several years as a medical device wearer, I know.

Clearly, the privilege of having access to (i.e., affording the health insurance to cover) the pump is diminished by Kokernak’s experience of de-sexualization. The pump also threatened her sense of gendered self, and meant trading one kind of security and wellness for another:

Although the pump offered me better health and the hope of fewer long-term complications from diabetes, wearing it made me feel fragile and also inexplicably obsessed with doubts about myself as a woman.

The pump effectively introduces vulnerability, disruption, insecurity, and loss of sexual self in her experience. Because I know only one type 1, pump-wearing, conventionally-female-gendered, straight diabetic, I don’t know how common Kokernak’s experience is, or which aspects may be shared (or not) among other diabetic women. A blog post Floeh wrote about the rationale for Hanky Pancreas suggests that Kokernak is not alone – and that the pump threatens many women’s ability to maintain their preferred gender presentation. She writes:

My family friend told me that she would even switch back to injections when she wanted to wear a tight dress. Some women don’t place it in their cleavage because of their chest size. And one woman actually got breast enhancement surgery to hide her pump better.

For these women, the pump is a material obstacle to (feminine) gender expression that demands a material solution – it’s not just an issue of affect or subjectivity. In these instances, maintaining a preferred gender means making choices with serious physical consequences. It’s clear that in this world, wearing the pump doesn’t mean re-making gender in ways that seem liberating or transformative. Instead, wearing the pump creates another barrier to embodying an already-impossible ideal (normative) gender.

The practical implications of pump-wearing also play out in the sexual realm. Kokernak draws attention to the ways in which the pump interrupts (and thwarts) her ability to be sexual. While our experiences of transitioning to the pump may have been quite different, her description of the logistical difficulties one encounters while dressing (or undressing) for sex rings true:

Negligees and nudity are impractical, because neither provides much to clip the device to. Clothes and pajamas, on the other hand, have waistbands or pockets, which keep the pump steady during the prelude of kissing and touching. The pump can even be negotiated during the impatient slithering of fingers into nightclothes. If my husband and I lie on our sides, front-to-front, I can clip my pump against my hip. If I’m on my back and Jimmy wants to lay his full length on top of me, I adjust the pump along my waistband toward my back, so the hard case doesn’t press into his abdomen.

These are familiar negotiations. However, I experience them differently because of the way I have sex, and because of my history having queer sex (and safer sex and sex with toys). When a partner and I are having sex, we pause to accommodate (and often laugh about and fumble with) batteries and condoms and buckles and straps – taking a moment to un-tether myself doesn’t feel disruptive in this context. I was surprised, the last time I had sex with a new person, that I didn’t formally introduce him to the infusion site in the way I had with previous partners, because I felt confident that his first encounter with the small piece of plastic and some medical tape at my infusion site wouldn’t ruin the moment. But that’s a hard-earned confidence, and one that derives from my queer crip affinities and experience.

The "Flower Fairy" insulin pump accessory, featuring beaded strands and hanging flowers, by Hanky Pancreas.

If we understand pump-wearing as a practice in which key aspects of subjectivity and personhood are articulated (and in which sex is had or not, and dresses are chosen or discarded!), the prospect of having a new resource – in the form of Floeh’s creations –matters in some significant ways. And if Floeh’s designs render the pump less of a threat, a disruption, or fashion-obstacle, this seems like an improvement. Floeh’s designs permit wearers to make a strategic double-move around camouflage and visibility, simultaneously hiding the pump and drawing attention to its location (i.e., waist, hip, bustline). When I’m in disability-pride mode, I’m troubled by this kind of hiding, following the logic that visibility is good (i.e., wearing the pump on the outside makes us legible, shows the limits of clothes designed for bodies without peripherals, disrupts conventional, hetero feminine gender presentation) and hiding is, well, hiding, with its affective companions: shame, fear, desire for normalcy, willingness to pass.

But visibility is only one tactic among others, and hiding the pump can also be a radical act – especially if it facilitates feeling-good-while-diabetic (for example: the best act in my burlesque repertoire hinges on repurposing a strap-on harness as an under-dress pump-holder; most of the time, my solution to the dress-problem is a jury-rigged system involving a black garter with small cosmetics pouch from Benefit, bra straps, and safety pins to keep things from sliding down my leg – unless I’m already wearing a garter belt). Of course, in the case of hiding or disguising one’s pump, feeling good can also mean feeling closer to a conventional femininity and mythic norm. I don’t want to elide that possibility, but I also return to the reality of living with chronic illness: that we live in a space of contradiction, that we work with what we have & do what we need to do to claim our (sick, cyborg, incurable) bodies as desirable. In my ideal world – one I suspect Floeh wants, too – we’ll recognize that transformation can (and should) mean more than transforming the pump, or the wearer’s relation to it, to align more closely with a dominant, normate feminine ideal. Creating, enabling, accommodating, and celebrating a multitude of diabetic, cyborg embodiments — and advocating for wider access to the pump (with all of its troubling potential) for those who are uninsured and can’t afford the $6000 price tag — these are the kinds of social transformations that need to happen in conjunction with personal ones.

I’m curious to see what happens when Floeh’s products actually hit the market – who wears them, what kinds of feedback she receives, and how people incorporate them in their daily lives and outfits. Because the designs are not yet for sale, I’m bracketing my discussion of the politics of purchasing these products. I’ll be interested to see how accessible her products are in terms of price, and how other factors – like buying from a diabetic, or buying handmade, or extent of desire – will figure into my decision about making a purchase. Floeh’s personal story and motivating belief in the designs’ transformative potential signal that she’s in this for more than the money; she further supports her empowerment ethos with a free tutorial showing how to re-create one of her designs. By providing open access to these instructions, Floeh encourages the crafty among us to come up with personal interpretations of her concept (I sure hope she makes room for a gallery of Hanky-Pancreas-inspired projects on the site).

Regardless of whether Floeh’s designs deliver on the promise of transformation, she’s doing the important work of drawing attention to the struggles many women encounter with the pump, and to the ways diabetics negotiate social norms around gender and sexuality (i.e., it’s not just a medical issue, an access-to-healthcare issue). And if a woman like Floeh (read: beautiful, stylish, nature-loving) can claim cyborg status, we can hope that women who might be otherwise averse will want to follow her example, and our robotic pancreases will become an extension of our bodies in action, in love, in fashion, feeling good.

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, FASHION 2.0, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, THEORY TO THINK WITH

In Vintage Color

There is a lot to appreciate about Fashion for Writers‘s Meggy Wang, like her recent conversation with her new collaborator Jenny Z on “overdressing.” But one of the things I appreciate the most is how her outfit posts might be alternately imagined as a series of “found” photographs of some glamorous mid-century Asian American starlet, scholar, or secretary — figures of both ordinary and extraordinary womanhood. Elegantly coiffed and impeccably dressed, Meggy poses most often in the familiar fashions of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but with a significant difference.

As an archival imaginary, the sartorial or style category of vintage is often whitewashed in the more accessible forms of visual culture that comprise so much of its popular inspiration, e.g., fashion illustrations, film stars, advertising photographs. Of these we might ask, What are the conditions of possibility that render a subject fashionable, or an object (like a photograph of that fashionable subject) collect-able? What material exchanges structures the economies of image making and image archiving, that allow some images to first become visible through what social powers, and second accumulate value or worth as a fragment that stands in for a history –of a dress, of an aesthetic– and permits others to fade from view? Whose stories are told, whose memories preserved?

Meggy’s photographs permit us to see what we have not been allowed to see. To me, it feels like Meggy renders visible the historical absence of Asians and Asian Americans in American popular culture as fashionable bodies –and through fashion as contemporaneous bodies– and also “corrects” this absence in referencing those bodies we know also lived then and there, and in doing so creating another archive through which we might imagine otherwise.

That’s also why I can’t stop looking at the new style blog b. vikki vintage by Rebecca Victoria O’Neal, “a 22-year-old, African-American young woman from Chicago with gigantic curly hair, and an affinity for books, knitting, and antique malls.” (Thanks, Black Nerds Network!) Featuring a librarian’s thorough excavation of the sights and sounds of black style, b. vikki is a wonderful archive for reimagining mid-century fashion design in color:

This blog features advertising campaigns and fashion editorials from Black/African-American publications, video clips and found photographs featuring people of color from the 1950s-1960s….

I’ve loved vintage fashion for some time (and traditional jazz and pop standards, old movies, Doris Day, et al), and did lots of research before deciding to open a vintage etsy shop and start this blog, because I wanted to do it right. Something I noticed during my research, something that helped me to cement my decision, was the lack of women of color in the online vintage community.

She’s right about this absence and, like Meggy (if differently), hopes to fill in the blanks.




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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, ON BEAUTY, VINTAGE POLITICS

ART: Highway to Heel

Earlier this year, the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College presented the first exhibition to address the intersection between disability identity and female identity in RE/FORMATIONS: Disability, Women, and Sculpture. The following is an excerpt from the exhibition essay, “Leaving Venus Behind,” by Davidson College English professor and co-curator Ann M. Fox.

One corner of [Harriet Sanderson’s] Molt, with Scurs is made up of multiple pairs of high-heeled shoes, lined up against a wall, their heels fashioned from the tips of canes. There’s both kinship and whimsy in this installation. Sanderson’s use of a curved cane tip for the heel of a woman’s dress shoe makes the point that such dress footwear can limit the mobility of even the most ambulatory user in the name of beauty, rendering them fully stopped, as if against a wall. And the high-heeled shoe is, of course, unstable and impractical for the body with limited mobility. But the installation also creates the hybridized cane/shoe as an object of whimsy and playfulness, reminding us that canes and shoes are, after all, paired to create mobility in their actual lives as objects. The normal heels of the shoes have been amputated from the bodies of the footwear and lay scattered about the gallery with other cane tips that seem to have exploded free from the “cane chair.” As the viewer looks at the new shoe/cane creations, there’s something sexy and dangerous about the sinuous hooks of the highest heels, a rendering of disability as vehicle for haute couture. Ultimately, these shoes are not a simplistic reinforcement of ableist metaphors to critique beauty norms; they become a kind of expression of alternate movement and “disability cool.”

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Filed under FASHIONING THE HUMAN, IN THE CLASSROOM, LINKAGE

Handbagging (from lipstickeater)

The daily routines that are inhabited easily by some bodies (choosing clothes, shoes, lip color) are for others acts of political and ideological significance, an archive of complicated feelings. Pulling on a pair of jeans or seamed stockings meant for another body, or that once belonged to someone else, might generate an emotional dissonance, or a sense of something out-of-joint or finally put-in-place, or an awareness of danger, or the thrill of forbidden pleasure, or the controlling embrace of that which offers comfort but at an unpredictable price, or new knowledge about the self, about one’s own flesh.

It is to these possibilities that the Lipstick Eater is addressed, also known as Joony Schecter (after the gloriously troublesome Jenny Schecter on The L Word), also known as Joon Oluchi Lee, an assistant professor of gender studies and English at the Rhode Island School of Design, self-described as “a Korea-born, Midwest-bred, Virginia-groomed, Bay Area-harvested faggotron who is above all a black feminist.”

On Lipstick Eater, Lee chronicles with care the magpie process of creating for himself a femme faggotry, often drawing from iconic figurations of femininity to spin out another, inevitably more complicated story about how to be, and feel, a girl. Lee ultimately describes the norms but also alternate forms of human intelligibility made possible through the instrumentalization of “boyfriend jeans,” a pair of Bettie Page heels, or ripped tights.

The following excerpt from a longer post on handbagging is particularly brilliant, theorizing the complications of seeming submission to the handbag’s alterations to the body’s movement.

Quite recently, I came to the really obvious realization that I’ve been handbagging it.I was standing in a Muni train, just moderately crowded enough to cozily find a leanspace that allowed me to pull out my book (Mary Gaitskill’s beautiful new anthology, Don’t Cry) and read during my ride. But getting out of the train, I was so rushed at by pre-commuters that I didn’t have a chance to put the book back. Instead, I had to awkwardly maneuver the just-closed book from my hands to one hand, then clasp one edge while pulling the pink block of papered stories to my left breast. As I stepped off the train, a sense memory: a flush of babyfaggot femininity.

There were a couple of reasons why I had this flush of faggoty feminine youth, the central one being that in those few clumsy seconds, I was carrying a handbag. Ah, the catcall of the teenage homophobe: “Nice handbag, faggot!” And please, let’s be clear about this: I was not carrying a man-purse or whatever. This was a straight-up lady handbag, and a roomy one that made me feel like a luxe grunger: a red plaid flannel tote from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s second fall collection. Here’s what defines a true handbag, which also produces its awkward bodily syntax: the handles look broad enough to sling over the shoulder, but is actually just narrow enough to prevent it, therefore forcing the gal to wear it on hanging from her fist or the crook of her arm. The over-the-shoulder model of the handbag is actually an innovation in androgyny, borrowing from the technology of army knapsacks. A true handbag, like most traditional accoutrements of world femininity, hobbles the woman wearer. Holding a bag’s straps in her hand, or immobilizing her arm in a right angle to provide branch for the bag, robs the handbagger of the use of one arm.

Of course, we have been taught that such a robbing is a handicap, when I prefer to think of it as a disability. That is: not being able to use one arm is a profound loss if you understand “ability” as defined by a sparkly healthy body. But the tenets of physical health are often tied to masculine notions of physical boorishness. The logic of which is something like, suppose a bully came after you: how are you supposed to properly defend yourself if one arm is locked in the deadly (but delicious) embrace of a designer handbag?

My answer: well, the handbag doesn’t rob you of the use of your legs, does it? Of course, running away is so un-manly, I guess. Which goes along pretty well with how the mechanics of transporting goods has been gendered: if it allows you free use of your arms, you are pretty able-bodied and more aligned with men. But running away is not the only recourse available to a poor defenseless handbagger. There is a great moment in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning in which an attitudinous emcee at a drag ball comments on the evening ensemble of a ball walker: “Everybody knows that an evening bag is a must. No lady is safe at night.” In this pretty natural conclusion, the handbag becomes a weapon—that old adage about carrying a brick in your handbag is no joke. The item that hobbles you into femininity is that which can re-arm you. In this way, I think of the handbag as a pretty rad piece of low-fi technology: it physically handicaps you, but simultaneously gives you the prosthetic by which you can transform that handicap into an empowering identity of “the disabled.” The handbag is the ultimate feminine prosthetic.

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LINKAGE: More Responses to Sarkozy & Co.

In “Feminist Theory: The Dos and Don’ts of Defending Muslim Women” at altmuslimah, Fatemah Fakhraie writes: “While I personally believe that women should be able to wear what they themselves want and face no cultural, religious, or other repercussions for it, assuming that changing clothing brings liberation is misguided. Clothing is a symbol of repression for a reason: it is not the cloth itself that oppresses, but the complex legal, social, and economic issues that enforce the cloth. Campaigning for Afghan women to have the right to remove their burqas will not change the issues that stand in their way and enforce a dress code.”

In “How Do You Soak Yours,” Safiya responds to a Guardian essay asserting that the “burqa is a cloth soaked in blood:” “I have to admit, that my initial response to such a statement was to think, ‘Only if you’re not wearing enough sanitary protection and that could apply to any item of clothing.’ Sadly the article did not go on to tackle laundry issues, instead it focused on the not just tired, but narcoleptic topic of Muslim Women are Suffering in Their Scarves and I Care About Them More Then You Do.”

Shabana Mir in “Take It Off, Or We’ll Make You,” satirizes the Enlightenment directive to Muslim women: “Be bold. Make your own decisions. How do you know when you are making your own decisions? Your decisions can be recognized as peculiarly yours when they are strikingly different from the will of those other guys. At that point, they will also be strikingly similar to ours. If you would only choose to step out of the mold that your little community enclaves create for you, and step into the mold that the greater community of the state creates for everyone, you’d be in a safe place. A free place. Your own place.”

Keven Tillman says “Enough Psuedo-Feminist War-Mongering in the Name of Islamic Women.” “When it comes to neoconservative claims that we have to occupy far-flung lands in order to defend Islamic women from their sons, brothers and husbands, it’s nothing short of striking. After all, any mention of the ‘plight’ of women in Christendom is dismissed by the very same conservative bobble-heads as the incoherent rantings of hairy-legged ‘feminazis.'”

Nuseiba in “The ‘Enemy’ Within: Muslims in France” offers some historical notes to the French commitment to secularism: “French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that it is fear that drives such criticism of ‘foreign’ (Muslim) dress. The justification for protecting a secular identity is a front to undermine Islam in France, and this is closely tied with another part of France’s history: the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. The country suffers from a pathological fear of a ‘Muslim threat’ born in the Algerian revolutionary struggle against French colonialism. The hijab in its haik form was used as a form of national assertion and a reclaiming of a Muslim and cultural identity. Thus, the same French mission to civilise Muslim women persists today. French Muslim women are being ‘unveiled’ as part of a contemporary French colonial mission civilisatrice, in order to ‘teach’ the Muslim Other the superiority of Western knowledge and culture.”

In “Banning the Burqa Isn’t the Answer,” Rushda Majeed argues that the politicization of the hijab by “modernizers” has consequences: “Secular governments of Turkey have banned the headscarf (a garment that in no way minimizes or erases the identity of a woman) on university campuses and in the public sector. It has had the opposite effect: an increasing number of Turkish women wear headscarves in defiance of a political system which they believe treads on religious turf. Tunisia is another example, if a less publicized one. Three years ago, its government, fearing resurgent Islamism, began going after headscarf-wearing women with particular ferocity. Many women consequently began to cover their heads as a dissenting gesture.”

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Another Look at Hillary Clinton’s Cleavage

During last night’s Visible Vote ’08 Presidential Forum hosted by Logo Network and sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, there was no mention of clothes, cleavage, or coral jackets—for nearly an hour and a half. This may be a record given the recent maelstrom of attention to political sartorial choices and female bodies sparked by Robin Givhan’s article in the Washington PostHillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory” that commented on the Senator for New York’s modest display of décolletage on C-SPAN2 and reinvigorated by Senator John Edwards’ remark during the CNN/YouTube Democratic Presidential Debate a few days later: “I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America, what her husband did for America [but] I’m not sure about that coat.” Perhaps making a slight dig at Edwards, Visible Vote ’08 moderator Margaret Carlson greeted Clinton last night with this praise, “I like the coral jacket.”

All of this attention on Clinton’s clothes and cleavage has many political pundits crying sexism. Ann Lewis, Senior Advisor for the Hillary for President campaign, has publicly taken Givhan to task: “Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting.” Of course Lewis is right. In a patriarchal and sexist culture like ours, women’s bodies are often viewed sexually while her accomplishments are hardly viewed at all. In the 1970s, feminist film critic Laura Mulvey described this gendered practice of looking as “scopophilia” (pleasure in looking) and argues that images of the female body “are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.” She goes on to say that “[a]ccording to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” This would explain why Clinton’s cleavage and coral jacket have become part of our political discourse while Barack Obama’s bare-chested photo in People magazine provided nothing more than a brief diversion from his politics and Dennis Kucinich’s yellow tie (a fabulous alternative to the tedious palette of presidential red and blue ties) has garnered nary a word (except by me). But what Lewis and Mulvey’s accusations of sexist looking don’t explain is how Givhan’s observations about Clinton’s cleavage differ from Edwards’ consideration of her coral jacket or Obama’s defense of said jacket. In other words, they don’t take into account the different ways of looking at women.

Givhan’s observations don’t make the only woman running for President a visual punchline (à la Edwards) nor do they patronizingly turn one of the most powerful women in the world into a damsel in distress by a needless act of chivalry (as Obama does). Instead, her point that Clinton’s cleavage is a “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative—aesthetically speaking—environment of Congress” actually had little to do with cleavage as such and more to do with institutionalized sexism. “After all,” Givhan notes, “it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor.” Following up these comments, Givhan compliments Clinton by saying, “To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”

While our culture gives us many opportunities to look at women sexually, not all acts of looking are sexual and/or sexist. Givhan’s historicization of political cleavage and her quiet admiration for Clinton’s self-assured sartorial choices offer insight into the multiplicity and complexity of looks exchanged between women (of all sexualities and races). Women do look at each other sexually but they also look at each other with appreciation, contempt, and indifference. When I’m at the gym or on the streets, my eyes are drawn to women’s bodies—specifically, their toned biceps and triceps—which either triggers envy or hopelessness depending on my mood. (After a year of concerted work-outs, I still don’t have the covetable pilates arms that some women seem to achieve so easily.) The inclination women have to compare themselves with other women has to do with the attention our culture gives to the physicality of women’s bodies in general. The surplus of images we see of other women in magazines, TV, films, and online teaches us how women “should” look and we’ve learned these lessons well—too well. But women don’t just look at other women they also look to other women. This seems, to me, to be a vital distinction.

This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of Clinton (Kucinich’s progressive politics, his emotional honesty and, yes, his bold yellow tie are hard to beat) but I do like that she’s running—if only because having a strong woman like her in the public eye may have the collateral effect of refocusing discussions about women and their bodies. The goal shouldn’t be to stop looking at women but, rather, to change the terms and conditions with which we look at them.

Now, if only Clinton would stop using the slogan, “I’m your girl!”

Postscript: The attached photo is of a sculpture called “The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States,” which was unveiled in New York City’s Museum of Sex last year. The artist Daniel Edwards said he wanted to depict Clinton “with her head held high, a youthful spirit and a face matured by wisdom . . . Her cleavage is on display, prominently portraying sexual power which some people still consider too threatening.”

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Filed under (AD)DRESSING GENDER & SEXUALITY, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS