CAAMFest 36, May 10-24

Model Minorities: Real Talk From the Real Bodies Manifesto

September 10, 2012

I was honored to be selected as one of the models for Retrofit Republic and Thick Dumpling Skin's Real Bodies Manifesto Fall 2012 Lookbook. A video
featuring personal testimonies from all eight models about body image
and media representations of Asian Americans was released on August
28th. The lookbook debuts this week. I decided to
recruit fellow models Manish Vaidya and Laury Thammavong to write about
their photoshoot experiences. Their voices, just like their bodies, are vulnerable, critical, loving -- and real.

- Terry K. Park

* * *

Fifteen years of anorexia + Last Kid Picked In Gym Class syndrome + racism-homophobia-ableism-patriarchy soup told me I couldn’t possibly be (straight/Asian/pretty/white-assimilated/able-bodied/etc etc) enough to model, even if it was for a campaign to redefine who and what was Asian Pacific Islander American and beautiful. And even if I did get into the Real Bodies Manifesto, I questioned whether I deserved it because media representations of “good” South Asians are often, like me, light-skinned Hindu men from northern India. Plus, I get nervous about hair and makeup products. I have a serious neurological health condition called chemical injury (also known as multiple chemical sensitivity) caused, I believe, by environmental racism. Artificial fragrance and other toxic chemicals (often produced by low-paid workers in communities of color) in conventional hair and makeup make me really sick. 
But at the encouragement (insistence) of a friend, I entered the Real Bodies Manifesto contest. “It’s character-building,” I told myself. 
When I found out I’d be in the Manifesto, I wondered how our small crew would help each other take back our truths from those ridiculous stereotypes. You know the ones. Stuff like: Asians as either very good at math/Tiger Mom-ing, or very bad (terrorists/Communists), are completely de-sexualized or hyper-sexualized (ahem, all the white boys who cruised me after Slumdog Millionaire came out). 
So…I loved it. I loved the glamour and intrigue: the lights, getting cute clothes picked out for me, knowing that the RBM folks prepared to make the studio safer for me given my illness… And most of all, I loved meeting fierce activist-artist-scholar-warriors doing amazing work out of love for themselves and their communities. 
Sure, there were some tough moments: 
When I enter an Asian Pacific Islander American-designated space, I ask myself whether I belong there, whether others in the room will consider me a real APIA. But everyone welcomed me to the RBM space; my fear was just some deep internalized stuff. 
I also felt sad that transgender Asian Americans weren’t represented in the shoot. Of all the eligible contestants, not one identified as trans. I wondered why I didn’t do targeted outreach to any of my trans APIA friends. 
And even though the sponsoring groups are super queer-positive, I was in some couples shots that felt kinda heteronormative. You know how these larger structural issues play out: despite wonderful intentions, even when we’re careful, they creep up on us. And we do the best we can, learn from them, and try to do better next time.  
But with massive support from the Retrofit Republic and Thick Dumpling Skin folks and the crew, the eight of us rocked the Real Bodies Manifesto. I heard each person unapologetically reclaim a story that had been taken from them. And when I got in front of the camera, it felt so nice to be the subject and not the object of a story for a change. 
The Real Bodies Manifesto is helping me learn that I am enough. I love that. I want more people to get a chance to be in the spotlight, on their terms. 
The folks from the Real Bodies Manifesto, we’re friends now. We support each other. There is power there; tremendous power in community. It’s magic. And that is beautiful

Fifteen years of anorexia + Last Kid Picked In Gym Class syndrome + racism-homophobia-ableism-patriarchy soup told me I couldn’t possibly be (straight/Asian/pretty/white-assimilated/able-bodied/etc. etc.) enough to model, even if it was for a campaign to redefine who and what was Asian Pacific Islander American and beautiful. And even if I did get into the Real Bodies Manifesto, I questioned whether I deserved it because media representations of “good” South Asians are often, like me, light-skinned Hindu men from northern India. Plus, I get nervous about hair and makeup products. I have a serious neurological health condition called chemical injury (also known as multiple chemical sensitivity) caused, I believe, by environmental racism. Basically, artificial fragrance and other toxic chemicals (often produced by low-paid workers in communities of color) in conventional hair and makeup make me really sick. 

But at the encouragement (insistence) of a friend, I entered the Real Bodies Manifesto contest. “It’s character-building,” I told myself. 

When I found out I’d be in the Manifesto, I wondered how our small crew would help each other take back our truths from those ridiculous stereotypes. You know the ones: good at math/Tiger Mom-ing, or very bad (terrorists/Communists), or completely de-sexualized/hyper-sexualized (ahem, all the white boys who cruised me after Slumdog Millionaire came out). 

So -- I loved it. I loved the glamour: the lights, getting cute clothes picked out for me, knowing that the RBM folks prepared to make the studio safer for me given my illness. And most of all, I loved meeting fierce activist-artist-scholar-warriors doing amazing work out of love for themselves and their communities. 

Sure, there were some tough moments: 

When I enter an Asian Pacific Islander American-designated space, I ask myself whether I belong there, whether others in the room will consider me a real APIA. But everyone welcomed me to the RBM space; my fear was just some deep internalized stuff. 

I also felt sad that transgender Asian Americans weren’t represented in the shoot. Of all the eligible contestants, not one identified as trans. I wondered why I didn’t do targeted outreach to any of my trans APIA friends. 

And even though the sponsoring groups are queer-positive, I was in some couples shots that felt kinda heteronormative. You know how these larger structural issues play out: despite wonderful intentions, even when we’re careful, they creep up on us. And we do the best we can, learn from them, and try to do better next time.  

But with massive support from the Retrofit Republic and Thick Dumpling Skin folks and the crew, the eight of us rocked the Real Bodies Manifesto. I heard each person unapologetically reclaim a story that had been taken from them. And when I got in front of the camera, it felt so nice to be the subject and not the object of a story for a change. 

The Real Bodies Manifesto is helping me learn that I am enough. I love that. I want more people to get a chance to be in the spotlight, on their own terms. 

Photo: Albert Law

Manish Vaidya is the coordinator of Peacock Rebellion, a queer-trans people of color-centered project that uses the performing arts for a cultural shift toward social, economic, and environmental justice.

* * *

Lights, camera, action! The camera flashed before my eyes while the founders of Retrofit Republic and Thick Dumpling Skin stared, hoping I would work my magic -- my real magic. I froze. After what felt like a solid twenty seconds of awkward stillness, I retreated into shyness as I confessed, “Umm…what am I suppose to do? I’ve never done this before.” And cut! 

Truth is, when I got up in the spotlight and was expected to work my magic -- my real magic that is -- I still questioned whether or not I could fully embrace it. The real me was still healing and rather hesitant. I was afraid that if I stood up there and embraced my god-given attributes, I would either be ridiculed or deemed conceited. I mean, seriously, when do we see 4’11’’ Laotian American, baby breasted, and pixie bob-haired womyn freely celebrate themselves in the media? I was told my whole life to maintain self-depreciating modesty and exist apologetically in this world. While I recognized that the point of the Manifesto is to counter dominant cultural values, I still found myself frozen in ambivalence. It was going to take at least two takes before I warmed up and worked my real magic. 

Within twenty-five seconds into the shoot, I was greeted with warm smiles, empathetic enthusiasm, and the presence of other confident and not-so-cookie-cutter Asian Americans. Somewhere in the midst of everyone’s captivating stories and unapologetic presence, my courage was revitalized. There was no need to refrain from embracing myself. I remembered that I am never alone in my personal endeavors towards empowerment. I remembered I am entitled to reclaim my full humanity. 

Before you know it, I swayed to Prince Royce music, flashed a triumphant smile, and joined a community of courageous souls in nurturing an alternative culture. Unlike the oppressive impositions that blinded people like me from self-acceptance, this experience was founded on critical understanding, acceptance, and love for diversity. I am so privileged to be a part of these times and this community. Towards the end of the photo shoot, I shattered the paralyzing stigma I received my whole life for being myself, and replaced it with revitalizing love. 

Photo: Albert Law

Laury Thammavong is a fierce feminist advocate who graduated with a BA in Sociology from UC Berkeley.

* * *     

Disclosure: The co-founder of Thick Dumpling Skin, Lisa Lee, is a former publisher of Hyphen.

Contributor: 

Terry K Park

California-born, Utah-raised, and New York-refined, Terry K. Park is a Provost Dissertation Fellow and PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. He has taught courses in Asian American media, history, theater and 1950s Cold War American culture at UC Davis, Hunter College, and San Quentin State Prison. As a former performance artist, his off-Broadway solo show, 38th Parallels, premiered in New York City with the Pan Asian Repertory Theater.

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