The social standard of appearance that directs people to be presented a certain way pressures individuals both in Korea and the US.
To liberalize oneself from such patriarchal corset, Womenlink put liberation of women’s body as its main theme of 2017. The organization hosted numerous body positivity programs on diet and plastic surgery. During their ‘head shoulder knee toe action’ project, they discussed specific body parts each month. The topics they covered include armpit hair, nipples, and wrinkles.
“We used to hashtag weight chronology to have people discuss about weight control and diet,” Hong said. “We have ‘Dadareum Network’ every year to promote body type diversity.”
PPGA members also further opened up about their personal experiences of gender discrimination.
Sugano views herself a feminine bi-racial ciswoman. Cisgender refers to those whose gender identity corresponds to their birth sex. Raised in an empowered family, she took for granted the need to express herself in a way she wanted. Yet, as young as 11 years old, she got asked to leave classrooms by teachers who viewed her outfits too provocative.
By the time she was 13, she stopped noticing catcalls because she had been berated with so much street harassment that it became a part of everyday life.
For Maisel, on top of the street harassments, she experienced serious verbal abuse merely months ago by a stranger who viewed her androgynous and thus, not acceptable. In high school, her guy friend told her that he was uncomfortable with her wearing high socks which was what a lot of boys wore at the time.
“Part of controlling a person is controlling – not only what to do – but how to look,” Maisel said. “If you present yourself in a way that is deemed attractive, you are then harassed. You suffer because of the consequences of being attractive in certain people’s eyes. Even if you aren’t attractive in the way that is expected by social standards and not take on that burden, you’re still harassed in similar ways.”
Women are not alone under such patriarchal pressure.
“Men are hurt by the system too,” Salwen said. “When my brother worked for a camp, he painted his nails and everyone made fun of him for it. He just did it one night for fun and it became this huge thing.”
Salwen added that identifying oneself differently from what the society expects from each sex has influenced her negatively since at a young age.
“It’s a big cultural problem, wanting women to be a certain way: straight and feminine,” Salwen said. “I’m bi-sexual but people would just assume that I’m gay. Growing up I’ve been less feminine than most girls. I got made fun of a lot for that even though the direct ridicule ended in middle school. I had still internalized all these messages as if not being straight was a bad thing.”
Members of PPGA also expressed regrets on the fact that people often conclude on what others’ attributes, based on slim facts that often direct itself to stereotypes.
“I usually don’t introduce myself as gay, right from the get-go not because I feel uncomfortable doing it, but because it goes to show that people shouldn’t assume from people’s looks of what certain type of orientation they are,” said Jesus Garcia, the treasurer of PPGA. “People have a misconception that all members of a fraternity are heterosexual and do bad things to women so I try to break that stigma by going into fraternity myself. It’s just about being yourself and teaching everybody at a subconscious level.”
Maisel explained how she uses small actions to rebel against the system that demands individuals to look a certain way. During the summer, Maisel worked at an engineering corporate office in Seattle. In the beginning she wore her hair down to hide her shaved sides which some people may deem it inappropriate in business settings.
When she realized that she did not care how people viewed her, she wore her hair the way she saw fit. At the end of the summer, a coworker complimented her haircut and shaved part of her own hair too.
“I don’t care if anyone thinks that I’m attractive,” Maisel said. “If you think I’m ugly, I don’t want to be talking to you anyway because you’re judging me only based on how I present myself and that is just a waste of time for all of us.”
Sugano emphasized that one’s appearance should not indicate anything about one’s beliefs either.
“I could have blue hair and 25 piercings and be a republican – I’m not but I could be,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a weird thing to think about. You can control your own appearance to tell people about who you are and what you believe in, or let other people control your appearance to tell you what you should look like and what you should believe in."