The stiff spine of my dusty college yearbook crumpled as I opened the book to my graduating class section. I scanned the rows of faces of people I no longer know, to stop short at my own portrait. From the big square blue glasses to the lime green polo shirt, I don’t even recognize the photo in my college yearbook anymore. From birth until the ninth grade, my life was centered around video games, books, and cartoons. Needless to say, I couldn’t have cared less about fashion. I was perfectly happy wearing everything my mom found in the sale section at Old Navy. I mean, most boys my age didn’t care much about appearance, so I didn’t care. My prepubescent self walked around high school dressed in khaki cargo shorts and oversized shirts, without a hint of shame.
However, when I started high school, I realized that the high cadence of my voice and aversion to anything sport-related took me away from my male classmates. It didn’t help that I also realized I was gay. I was already not very popular, and I absolutely did not want to stand out from the rest of my class. When other boys started to develop a sense of fashion, I copied their plaid shirts and cargo shorts to fit. However, I was fat, which added an additional barrier preventing me from assimilating. The tight cuts of the shirts were unflattering and accentuated my rolls. My shorts almost cut off the circulation to my lower body. My insecure and scared teenage self desperately wanted to blend in with my peers, but the flesh I wore was inherently – for lack of a better term – old-fashioned.
In order to escape the lonely and critical real world, I spent a lot of time on the Internet. My eyes stayed on my Instagram crawl page for hours every day, fantasizing about an alternate universe where I could be straight and thin. In the midst of my endless scrolling, I stumbled upon the @tokyofashion Instagram account, a page dedicated to capturing fashionable passers-by on the streets of Harajuku, Japan. Monochrome black outfits accented with chains and metal jewelry, fairy-tale-inspired dresses adorned with pastels, and modern clothing mixed with vintage kimonos were all commonly featured on the Instagram page, though they looked so completely different from each other. Each outfit was so fascinating to me, especially since the Harajuku fashion scene was unlike anything I’d seen in public and on TV growing up. As a fifth generation immigrant, the threads that tie me to my heritage have become scarce. My family never ate Japanese food when I was growing up, and we didn’t celebrate Japanese traditions either. I did not speak Japanese at all, and I have still never set foot in Japan. Even though I am ethnically Japanese, I sometimes wondered if I was “really” Asian if I knew almost nothing about my culture.
I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I was too gay to assimilate to manhood. Too fat and Asian to be wanted and accepted by the massively white and thin queer community, but not really “Asian enough” to feel Asian. Every ID tag I wore collided with another, making me as bewildered as a mismatched outfit. I just wanted to blend in with everyone around me, but I always ended up sticking out like a loose thread.
As I browsed @tokyofashion, I started to pay attention to the people wearing the outfits. Across the wide array of styles, most of the people featured were high school kids not much older than me who thrived in on-camera attention. As a shy person, I yearned to have their trust and was determined to replicate it. If these kids like me found so much confidence in clothes, then maybe I could do the same if I followed suit. I chose to swap my plain check shirts for bright colors, swapped my cargo shorts for jeans, and started styling my hair. Immediately my classmates noticed my makeover – and for the first time, I loved the attention. Over the next few years, I searched for new outfit ideas to keep the spotlight on me.
However, every day when I came home, when I got rid of my meticulously prepared outfits, all of my confidence would emerge. None of my internal conflicts have been resolved; I was always insecure that I was fat, insane because gay and out of touch with my Asian heritage. My problems were never sewn into the stitches of my clothes, they were woven into the fabric of my soul.
The truth is, my confidence has never been limited to the limits of society’s definition of beauty. Every day I wrapped my belt around my stomach so tight it left lasting red marks on my body just to look slimmer. Even though I wanted to get the attention of others, I was still so scared to show my true self. If I wanted to have full confidence in myself, rather than forcing myself to adapt to beauty, I had to force beauty to adapt.
However, beauty standards weren’t the only social expectation I had to overcome. At the same time, I understood that my release as a queer person could only be achieved by challenging assimilation into a heterosexist and patriarchal society. I realized that there was no “correct” way to be Asian and that I was free to define my own identity. I walked the halls with my head a little higher, not only secure in my cloth armor, but confident in my own skin. I’m not a patchwork of labels, but more of a mix of fabrics that all work together to excel in everything. It was only at the crossroads of my identities that I found the courage to break the mold of society. If I could never be accepted as I am, then I would have to accept myself.
When I think back to my clothes in college, to tell you the truth, they were ugly. However, I don’t back down and regret wearing them as I know I was authentic with myself and felt great wearing these outfits. Just like in my pre-teens, instead of trying to look good, I now aim to dress how I want, because I know in my heart that I’m beautiful, whether I’m wearing flip flops or Doc platform shoes. Martens. I’m always grateful for every compliment I get, but I no longer rely on them to feel confident. I have found strength in fashion, but now I know I am my strongest asset.
MiC columnist Andrew Nakamura can be contacted at [email protected].