Cause of ambivalence:
The clothes in Tokyo (or that my feminist ideals did not quite fit).
I am in love with all of your amazing fashion but I hate that my western body does not fit into any of it. AY❤"
In a tourist magazine, in the airport shuttle bus.
A few months ago, I travelled to a city I’d spent a lifetime wanderlusting over: Tokyo. My longing to visit this far away place was mostly motivated by Tokyo’s dedication to forward fashion and teen girl culture. I just wanted to walk through the streets of Harajuku: one of the richest and boldest lands of teen girl fashion frenzy. When I finally did, my city of teen dreams did not disappoint. All the kids looked so good. The fits of their clothes, the colours they wore; everything was different, in the best possible way. I could not wait to shop and give my wardrobe a much needed Tokyo-teen inspired makeover. Alas, to my dismay, my North American body never quite fit into the Japanese fits. I tried and tried to squeeze myself into the beautiful slender styles, but each time I ended up looking like a grotesque pink-clad pork sausage. Heartbroken by my unsatiating fashion fix, I found comfort in just about everything else the city had to offer. Tokyo the amazing was so full but never excessive, so refined and flawlessly designed. Food, design, art and fashion all felt so far ahead of anything I had seen anywhere else, yet for every advancement there was a traditional counterpart. Gender roles seemed especially strict and constructed. The clash between forward and backward left me in a state of perpetual ambivalence throughout my entire trip and inspired me to leave behind this note.
One night, I was invited to party with a group of wealthy western men who worked in high finance, and their beautiful Japanese wives. I sat awkwardly and listened to them discuss rich people concerns such as the proper amount of cases of wine one should bring back from Napa and watched their eyes glaze over when I told them I was a modestly remunerated visual artist. Eventually, one of the rich men attempted to empathise with my devotion to art by talking to me about his failed venture in the music industry. After bashing Justin Bieber for half an hour and name dropping all the mildly interesting musicians he knew, he explained to me that since he never made much money in the music biz, his wife forced him to return to finance, so that he could adequately support their family. This led to a monologue about the highs and lows of being an American living in Japan. He explained to me how “addicting” it was for him to live in Tokyo, because, as a white male, he was shown unconditional respect. For example, since his wife had no older brothers, upon marrying her he became the head of the family and was always seated at the head of the table during family dinners, an honour he seemed quite proud of. Yet, despite his superior status, his resentment for his wife’s lack of support of his ridiculous musical aspirations was palpable. Meanwhile, his wife was giving me the stink eye from across the room, no doubt unaware that to me her husband was just some horrible person I one day wanted to write an essay about. Yet, there I was, a pawn in this old guy’s pity party, playing the part of the good listener who makes the evil dream crushing wife jealous.
Later, that evening, I noticed another rich white man get agitated when his Japanese wife was talking too enthusiastically with one of the other wives. It seems he preferred his partner to be silent and pretty, and sit by his side at parties, like a well trained show dog. Then, the crowning moment of the evening was when the two women whose birthdays we were celebrating, were each offered novelty aprons with a series of husband obedience commandments printed on them, as birthday gifts. I sat in horrified silence as all the men at the party then insisted the women model their gifts so that they could take pictures to post on facebook.
I am unable to fully describe the fury I felt, a recent art school graduate with a degree in feminist art, rubbing shoulders with the expat patriarchy club. (It should be noted that I am fully aware that I am coming off like a total jerk right now. Obviously, those men were probably not as bad as I am describing them. My goal here is to give an accurate portrayal of what was going through my head that night. And also to finally say all the things I wanted to say, but didn't.) It upset me that these men would go to a place like Japan and take advantage of the traditions that worked in their favour. Nonetheless, I held my tongue that night. I was a guest in this country, a guest in the home of the people who greeted us. The well brought up nice girl inside of me did not feel it was her place to say anything. Yet I worried later if my caution, which began as politeness, was nothing more than lack of courage to stand up for my beliefs. Then again, was it even my place, as an outsider, a traveller and a guest to force my so-called progressive world views onto others? What fits properly at home, might not fit as well on people elsewhere, and vice versa. Just as it was naïve of me to assume that all the clothes in Japan would be made to fit my north American body, it was as equally naïve of me to assume my political views would be a perfect fit there too. Wasn’t it?
Fashion is a place where cultural assumptions are often made. Every season, imagery and symbols from various cultures are borrowed, mimicked and reduced to seasonal trends. Native and Aztec prints, feather headdresses, black face, turbans, bindis, keffiyehs, have all been culturally appropriated in the name of fashion.
A recent example of these trends is the knitted turban trend popping up on so many Caucasian heads this winter. Meanwhile, in Quebec, a raging debate over the Quebec charter of values, drags on. Proposed by the provincial government, this charter, if passed, forbids government employees of wearing any religious symbols in the workplace, such as head scarves, turbans, etc. The argument is that the goal of this charter is to make everyone equal, going as far as saying that it will help liberate oppressed women forced to wear head scarves. But to be equal, must we really be all be the same? Why can’t we be different, but still have equal value? Why do we have to strip things of their meaning, dumb them down and mass produce them and call them fashion for them to be socially acceptable? Why isn’t there ever room for nuance, for debate, for exceptions? Shouldn’t we learn to take the time to tailor things to fit individual bodies instead of trying to fit everyone into the same pair of Japanese style skinny jeans?
Endless questions, yet the most important one is still: how do you stand up for something you that isn’t directly happening to you? This seems to be a progressively taboo concept in the world of academia; the desire to help “the other”. Perhaps rightly so. Can the unoppressed really help the oppressed? How far can empathy really be extended? How deep an understanding of the other is required for real empathy to exist? Or is being different perhaps not such a problem, but rather a strength, that can extend a conversation, a debate, a fight, into something bigger, something more political, something other than the objectification of the “other”, something other than one size fits all.