The stiff spine of my dusty middle school yearbook creased as I opened the book to my graduating class’s section. I scanned across the rows of faces of people I no longer know, only to stop dead at my own portrait. From the thick blue square-shaped glasses to the lime green polo shirt, I don’t even recognize my middle school yearbook picture anymore. From birth until ninth grade, my life was centered around video games, books and anime. Needless to say, I couldn’t have cared less about fashion. I was perfectly content wearing whatever my mom found in the clearance section at Old Navy. I mean, most boys my age didn’t care much about looks, so I didn’t bother. My prepubescent self strolled into high school decked out in khaki cargo shorts and oversized shirts, without a hint of shame.
However, when I began high school, I realized the high-pitched cadence of my voice and aversion to anything sports-related pushed me away from my male classmates. It didn’t help that I also came to realize that I was gay. I already wasn’t very popular, and I absolutely did not want to stick out from the rest of my class. When other boys started to develop a sense of fashion, I copied their plaid button-ups and cargo shorts in order to fit in. However, I was fat, which added an extra barrier preventing me from assimilation. The tight cuts of the shirts were unflattering and accentuated my rolls. My shorts nearly cut off circulation to my lower body. My insecure and scared teenage self wanted so desperately to blend in with my peers, but the flesh I wore was inherently — for lack of a better term — unfashionable.
In order to escape the lonely and judgmental real world, I sunk a lot of time into the internet. My eyes stayed glued to my Instagram explore page for hours each day, fantasizing about an alternate universe where I could be straight and thin. Amid my endless scrolling, I stumbled across the Instagram account @tokyofashion, a page dedicated to capturing fashionable passersby on the streets of Harajuku, Japan. Monochromatic black outfits accented with chains and metal jewelry, pastel embellished fairy-tale inspired dresses and modern clothing mixed with vintage kimonos were all commonly featured on the Instagram page, despite looking so completely different from each other. Every single outfit was so fascinating to me, especially since the Harajuku fashion scene was unlike anything I had seen both in public and on television growing up. As a fifth-generation immigrant, the threads tying me back to my heritage have worn thin. My family never ate Japanese food when I was growing up, nor did we celebrate Japanese traditions. I couldn’t speak Japanese at all, and I still have never set foot in Japan. Even though I am ethnically Japanese, sometimes I questioned whether I was “really” Asian if I knew next to nothing about my culture.
I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I was too gay to assimilate into manhood. Too fat and Asian to be desired and accepted by the overwhelmingly white and thin queer community, yet not really “Asian enough” to feel Asian. Each identity label I wore clashed with another, rendering me as discombobulated as a mismatched outfit. I only wanted to blend in with everyone around me, but I always ended up sticking out like a loose thread.
As I scrolled through @tokyofashion, I started to pay attention to the people wearing the outfits. Across the wide range of styles, many of the people featured were high school students not much older than me who thrived in the attention of the camera. As a shy person, I aspired to have their confidence, and I was determined to replicate it. If these kids just like me found so much confidence in clothing, then maybe I could do the same if I followed suit. I chose to trade in my plain plaid shirts for bright colors, swapped my cargo shorts for jeans and started styling my hair. Immediately my classmates noticed my metamorphosis — and for the first time, I loved the attention. For the next few years, I hunted for new outfit ideas to keep the spotlight on me.
However, every day when I got home, when I shed my meticulously curated outfits, all of my confidence came off with it. None of my internal conflicts were resolved; I was still insecure about being fat, alienated for being gay, and disconnected from my Asian heritage. My problems were never sewn into the stitches of my clothing, they were woven into the fabric of my soul.
The truth is, my confidence was only ever limited to the confines of society’s definition of beauty. Every day I would wrap my belt around my stomach so tight that it left lasting red marks on my body just to appear thinner. Even as I craved the attention of others, I was still so afraid to show the real me. If I wanted to fully become confident in myself, rather than forcing myself to fit into beauty, I had to force beauty to fit me.
However, beauty standards weren’t the only social expectation I needed to overcome. At the same time, I came to understand that my liberation as a queer person could only be achieved by defying assimilation into heterosexist, 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 through the hallways with my head held a little higher, not just safe in my cloth armor, but confident in my own skin. I am not a patchwork of labels, but rather I am made from a blend of fabrics all working together to excel in everything. It was only through the intersection of my identities that I found the courage to break through society’s mold. If I could never be accepted as I am, then I would have to accept myself.
When I look back on my clothing in middle school, truthfully, they were ugly. However, I do not cringe or regret wearing them, because I know that I was authentic to myself and I felt good wearing those outfits. Much like in my preteen years, instead of trying to look good, I now aim to dress however I want, because I know in my heart that I am beautiful whether I am wearing flip-flops or platform Doc Martens. I am still thankful for every compliment I receive, but I no longer rely on them to feel confident. I found strength in fashion, but now I know that I am my own strongest asset.
MiC Columnist Andrew Nakamura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.