Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
A Kind of Skinning
Nikko Harada – 1999
I wrote this essay as a response paper in Gordene CJ, Mackenzie and Shawn Hayward’s class, Transgendering the millennium: 50 Billion Galaxies of Gender. This is my answer to a comment in our class: “Femininity is natural to women.”
ONE: THE ART OF IMITATION
When I was in seventh grade, my mother had her friend, Jeanine, come over to teach us the art of makeup and Jafra. My mother’s explanation of this visit was my “improper” use of makeup. (Picture me, seventh grade, fourteen years old, cholita style makeup: i.e., slashes of blush, black-outlined lips with fire-engine-red lipstick, and baby-doll-drawn-eyes.) When Jeannie showed up with her briefcases of makeup, my hostility and aggression came out. First, I objected to the makeup colors in my color family. I was classified as warm toned. The colors I associated with “girliness” were all in the cool tones-purple, blue, green and pink. But inside, my real objection was that this all seemed incredibly foreign to me. I considered the makeup I wore to La Washa (Washington Middle School) a form of war paint.
I conjured up pictures of the kabuki artist and Mac West’s smirking mouth when applying the makeup. For me, this overtly “female” presentation was my defense against the attitudes I sparked the year before in sixth grade. When I first went to middle school, I was the only girl in the entire school who wore Converse, and had short hair and glasses. The first months are blurred. I remember being endlessly accosted in the halls by girls and boys asking me, “What are you, anyways?” The girl in my gym class became silent as 1 entered the locker room. They changed like soccer players, hiding as much skin as possible. One girl even called me a Joto. My name caused even more questioning because 1) Nikko is an “androgynous” name, reflecting no gender in standard American speech, and 2) the school was bilingual and in Spanish the masculine ending is “o,” as in chico for boy, and “a,” as in chica for girl.
Eventually, there were girls who befriended me as a sort of lost lamb. They began my tutelage in the art of being female, at least in the socially constructed meaning. Michelle showed me how to take cheap, Wet-n-Wild, black eyeliner and heat the end with a lighter before applying it. “It will sting a little, but don’t worry, you get used to it,” she said. I bought my first grown-up skirt at Merry-Go-Round. I remember trying it on in the dressing room, entranced with the lace-up front. l bought it, thinking to myself “I’ll trick them into thinking I’m a real girl.”
That Friday was my first school dance. It took two hours to repeat all the techniques that I had learned: curling hair and spraying it with hair spray while it was still hot; putting on my eyes, my mouth, my cheeks; dressing in a black undershirt and my Merry-Go-Round skirt. I went to show my mom and he said, “You’re going to wear that? You look like a prostitute.” I wasn’t sure how to react. I felt found out. I got angry and decided to flaunt my new female-sexual persona. I danced with many boys that night and everyone said I looked much better now that I was dressing “properly.”
Two: GENERATION OF TOMBOYS
After Nancy Nangeroni came to speak to our class, my mother and I talked. It really wasn’t a new discussion. The “Merry-Go-Round-Skirt-Issue ” as my mother calls it, came up during my treatment for singular-episode depression last year. My mother was a tomboy growing up. She lived in Vermont and expressed her masculine tendencies through physical activities: lacrosse, hiking, and skiing, but she performed these tasks in an almost hyper-masculine way. In her words, “I outdid the boys. I would take a guy who wanted to date me on a hike and if he couldn’t keep up, or whined, then he was immediately out of the running for involvement with me.”
We talked about the makeup session. My mother confessed that she had wanted someone to teach me because she felt incapable of instructing me in female presentation. Now, I, at the age of twenty-two, and she, at the age of fifty-one, are schooling ourselves. The act of female presentation has become highly ritualized in our house. It has become a sort of mother/daughter inside joke. “Today we’re going to go be girls,” my mother tells my father when we go to the mall to get makeup or shampoo. Often, my younger brother, Kiichi, is the gauge of how well my female presentation is coming off. Many times his objection is that I am overdoing it, and I probably am. To me, femininity is still a mysterious process, an individual interpretation and a continual balance between frustration and Halloween-like elation.
THREE: BOILER ROOM
When I got accepted into The Albuquerque Academy for high school, my entire “girl-sham” that I had going backfired on me. The codes and skills I had learned for passing as a girl at a middle school in the Valley did not apply at this private, elitist, Heights high school. I was read as “slut” not only by the boys, but also, by the girls. In gym class, a pretty, imp-looking girl came up to me as I was changing and pointed at my breasts. “Your body is obscene,” she said. I developed more slowly than most of my contemporaries in middle school, many of whom experienced sex, pregnancy, and older boyfriends by the time I was decoding girlness in seventh grade. In this new environment, many of the girls had slender, androgynous features: small breasts, slender necks, smooth legs, and blonde coloring. I had large breasts, thick quads from soccer, height, and dark coloring.
There was one boy in particular who taunted me every day in English class-Tate. Every day I would come in and sit down (after the teasing started I tried to keep eye contact minimal) and every day he would pull out a dictionary and say, “Let’s look under Nikko–it says “Whore’!” or “Under ‘Whore’ it has Nikko’s picture!” As soon as the teacher came in, the verbal assaults would stop. Tate would just mouth the words “slut,”. “bitch,” and ‘whore” to me. My anger and frustration came mostly from confusion. In the space of four years I had gone from “fag,” “Pat,” and “It” to “Whore.” I wasn’t sure if l should be happy that I was finally being seen as a “girl,” or if the deeper hesitance at these words was not just because: of their vulgar meaning, but their particular sexual-gendered meaning.
I stayed after school to talk with my history teacher. The freshman locker bay was adjacent to the teacher’s room. After the teacher left, I was in the classroom, still putting all of my books into my backpack. I carried all of my books and notes with me so I wouldn’t have to go to my locker which stood out in the lightly-packed locker bay. It was the only one with words scrawled all over it. The same words Tate kept using. The same words that girls whispered loudly behind my back in the halls. I tried to go out the door. l couldn’t push it open. I thought I was locked in at first; then I saw Tate wedging the door shut, with his foot. I kept slamming up against the door, pleading with him to let me out. He finally let the door open just wide enough for me to squeeze my body through sideways. Once I got out, I saw it was not just Tate but six or seven other boys who formed a circle around me.
“We aren’t going to let you leave until you admit what you are,” said Tate. l tried to get away, push out from their circle, but they would not let me. As I looked for exits, I noticed the boys’ bathroom and the boiler room behind me. As they contained me in their circle, I waited for them to drag me into one of those two rooms. I braced myself for kicking and biting, screaming and howling. Part of me was scared that no matter what happened next, I would be blamed. Many of these boys had parents who were important. Many of these boys’ parents endowed money to the school every year.
“Just say you’re a whore and you can go,” reiterated Tate. The others said nothing. They just laughed.
I finally said, “I’m not going to call myself that. If you don’t let me go, I’m going to scream and you’re going to get in trouble.”
“There’s nobody here,” he said. “It’s after school, everyone’s gone.” Maybe someone said no one cares.
“I will scream,” I said. Finally, the other boys started to disband. Tate and I were in a kind of standoff. I looked in his eyes, telling myself, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t show weakness. Don’t be a girl. Don’t show him you’re a girl. Be strong. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” He moved aside. I left.
FOUR: BODY AND DESIRE
After my freshman year, I began to gain a lot of weight. I ate and ate while I watched the rush of girls to the bathroom after lunch every day. I tried throwing up once after I had eaten an entire bag of Oreos, but it didn’t take. Now I can say that I ate to make my body unnoticed again. I ate to keep from being called a slut. I thought if I were fat I would be left alone.
What I didn’t know then was that it wasn’t housed in my body; it seemed to become the contradiction between my physical presentation and my personality.
I thought if I made my body less pleasing, people would leave me alone, but it only seemed to heighten my sense of being, wrong. I insulated myself by operating on a casual sex basis with men and intense friendships with women. I only knew that my body didn’t feel wrong around my close, female friends. But I transgressed again; I didn’t even know how. When my relationship with a woman named Rachel broke up, I wrote her a long letter, confessing my feelings for her and my need for her. I did not even think of our relationship in sexual terms at that time. I just wrote how I loved her and I could not function without her. She showed the letter to everyone. Now I was greeted with “dyke” and “lesbo” in the halls.
Even now, my desire is still mitigated by early fears. The way I operate sexually is still couched in terms of those early interactions. I am always the aggressor. I take the “butch” role in bed. I am the one who ends the relationship and plead suffocation, watching my lovers flash through sites of betrayal, confusion, anger, and hurt. Sometimes I am the “guinea pig” or “converter.” I still prefer sex in the dark, under covers, because I am afraid of showing my body. My logical mind knows that my lover feels my body and seeing it shouldn’t be a problem, but I am still afraid of being discovered. I am afraid that mv lover will sec that I don’t know what my body is. There are instances where it is my body, but more often than not it is a stage where past recriminations and slights are performing constantly. I am afraid they will see my large breast and belly. I am afraid they will see my female body and think I am a woman. I am afraid they will know that all this time I have been approximating.
This process of identification was disastrous for me. The meanings with which I was allowed to identify, as well as the way my body was read by others, was inverted and painful. So I acted out sexually, trying to both escape that pain and re own something lost inside me long, long ago. The process of unlocking has been neither brief nor easy. What I see in the mirror still occasionally distresses me at times I see the ‘me’ in the locker-room, and it hurts. Riki Anne Wikhins2
Becoming comfortable in my own skin is a lifelong goal. It has taken these past twenty-two years just to realize I had a skin and the last couple years to make it my skin. I’m sure it will take the next twenty or thirty years to be comfortable in this skin. After depression and Zoloft prescriptions, lots of sex, and no sex, I have returned to the fortress of my childhood: Hapa.
HAPA: Originally a Hawaiian pejorative term for biracial individuals of one Japanese parent and one Haole (White) parent. Has been taken over by the Harada family to denote anyone who stands between, outside, or cusp in a binary model. Fill in the blank____ (transperson, omnisexual, bisexual, multi/biracial, code-switcher, spy, foreigner, over-sexual, asexual, etc.)
My father has been telling me since I was a little girl that someday, “‘The Hapas will rule the world.” I didn’t really believe him until 1 started this class. It is the larger definition of Hapa that seems to sweep over and disrupt everything into a lovely chaos. It is the process of naming ourselves, whether sexually, racially, gcnderly, economically, erotically, socially or otherwise. When I got my first (and so far only) tattoo on my lower back, I could not explain the significance to my father. Only mother understood and even came to watch me get it to decide if she wanted one. It was my own kind of brand, marking this body as mine. ‘There is a protective scab that forms over a tattoo the first couple weeks; after a tattoo is healed this skin falls off. I watched my back in the mirror as my tattoo shed its covering and I shed some of my body hatred. There it was, the I-Ching character for fire in light-green with a black outline. It claimed this body as mine, like the canister of names at the top of Everest, my own personal symbol of before my body was mine-the battle.
It is a kind of skinning. It starts as an itch where we feel the distance between. We pick at layers lying against real selves beneath layers of signifiers. We are children ripping open recently-scabbed knees to watch the mending. We face the complexities that wake us, cold and silent, from a nightmare that has become our own bodies. It is then that we may say this skin is ours.
1 Pejorative In chicano/mexicano Spanish for homosexual male.
‘ Wikhins, Riki Anne. Read My Lips, Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books, 1997.p. lci6