I took a graduate level feminist theory class for fun, and we had an interesting discussion about the false dichotomy of gender. Basically, my professor was stating that the concepts of “man” and “woman” were more socially constructed concepts than they were a reflection of reality.
New to the field, I posed the question to my professor: “There are actual physical differences between men and women. So how can we say that gender is a false dichotomy when those physical differences do in fact exist?” In other words, I was just pointing out the simple facts that men and women were definitely different physiologically and even psychologically. There are even differences on the genetic level. How then could she argue that “man” and “woman” were just socially (made up) concepts humans just came up with?
Her answer? The physical human is not a simple “male” or “female”, there is a spectrum of genders, many shades of gray that lie in between the two perceived extremes. On top of that diversity, the physical body is alterable, and not just in terms of plastic surgery or other forms of bodily alteration.
To illustrate the fluidity of the physical body, she used herself as an immigrant example, explaining that when she returned to England, her family there was significantly physically smaller than she or her other American family counterparts were. Though she was from the same genetic background, the actual expression of her genes was heavily affected by the place, culture, climate, and diet in which she grew up in. Genotype is not phenotype. Biology 101. This immediately made perfect sense to me because I had the exact same experience with my relatives back in Asia. Asian Americans are not just culturally, linguistically, and psychological different than Asians. We are also very much physically different.
Currently, I am 35 years old, 5 feet and 2.5 inches tall, and 160 pounds. At a recent physical, my doctor reported me in pretty much perfect physical health, my only area of concern was a deficiency in vitamin D (I drink milk and swim in the sun, what gives?). My doctor didn’t mention it, probably because it wasn’t extreme enough, but I consider myself at least 15 pounds over weight and am aiming to lose 20-30 pounds to ease up some weight on my joints that have had it rough with all the martial arts and other sports I’ve done.
But let’s talk about me in my prime. At 17 years old, I had just finished 4 years of competitive high school swimming, burning an estimated 5-7 thousand calories a day from 2.5 hours of swimming and 1 hour of weight lifting daily. I was the same height, but I weighed 140 pounds. In my senior year, I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Body Builder”. I was no Clarissa Chun, but I was heading in that direction.
Around that time, I was visiting family in Taiwan regularly, flying there at least twice a year. When I went back, I was quite the alien. I didn’t even need to make a peep. As soon as I walked into a restaurant, they would remove my chopsticks and replace it with a fork and spoon.
“How do they know I’m American?” I’d ask my cousins. I thought since I was from the same gene pool as them, I should blend in just fine in Taiwan society. Apparently not so.
“It’s the way you walk, the expressions on your face, the way you carry yourself,” my cousins would explain.
I could understand that. My mom says I saunter like a cowboy. But there was more to it than mannerisms. I was bigger. And not in a rotund way. Remember, this was me in my prime (not the current middle-age flabby me). I was a fit as a fiddle American teenaged high school jock, pound for pound much more muscle than fat. I could bench press 125 lbs (with a lot of motivational screaming from my coach).
It wasn’t even just my musculature that was larger. I would hold my wrist next to my cousins’ wrists, my genetic blood relatives, male and female, most of whom were older than me, and my bones were just thicker. I could fit their wrists in a ring between my index finger and thumb, tips touching, but I couldn’t do the same with my own wrists. All the clothes there were way too small for me, and I had to search for the mega extra large size there (which would be petite small or medium here in the U.S.).
My aunts (blood related or not) were ruthless in their comments on my body. Many Asian immigrant families’ kids will tell you that relatives in Asia will say “you’re too fat” right to your face. A couple years back, NPR interviewed publisher of Hyphen Magazine Lisa Lee about Asian American women and body issues. The whole “you’re fat” to your face and the demand for a toothpick body was a cultural thing, but as a result, a lot of Asian Americans I know develop some serious body image issues as a result of the constant “bullying” they receive from their own relatives, because chances are, being Asian American, we’re just larger, even when we’re not overweight.
“You’re too fat,” one of my aunts said to the 17-year-old me. Seeing the peeved look on my face, she added, “I’m just saying that because I want you to be thin and beautiful and healthy.”
“Auntie, look at this,” I rolled up my sleeves and flexed my biceps, triceps, and deltoids. “I’m not fat. I’m muscle. I am healthy.”
She then poked my arm and said, “Oh, ji rou (muscle).” She never commented on my body again.
It’s been about a decade and a half since I last went to visit relatives in Taiwan. I don’t know if maybe diets and customs and lifestyles have changed, and now we’re all the same size. But the experience coupled with the feminist theory discussion on the socially conceptualized human body caused me to realize that I wasn’t just American in culture, language, and customs, I was American in body. Regardless of my size, my very flesh and bones were built from the food grown in the soil of this nation. I can say without a doubt, I am of this land. Makes me kind of feel like Wonder Woman, birthed from the clay earth of her homeland. I think I’ll go have some apple PIE.