In which I break up with Japan

Shortly after writing my recent post about the couture-related challenges of being gender fluid, The Author vs. Clothing, I was inspired to go to the thrift store and pick up some dirt-cheap articles of clothing to suit my less feminine days, which turned out to be a very good decision.

And I also did one more thing.

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I finally cut my hair.

Just to be clear, I didn’t get my hair cut – I cut it my damn self, armed with nothing but dull scissors, my bathroom mirror, and the knowledge that I can’t even cut paper in a straight line. And yeah, it was as much of a disaster as you’re probably imagining.

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But really, it’s Pride Month, so who wants a perfectly straight haircut anyway?

Actually, the final result isn’t bad at all, and it’s strange, but I’ve found that the new cut + the new clothes have actually resulted in me feeling better about myself overall. I feel stronger, more confident, and more comfortable in my own skin, which is something I haven’t felt since I was a young whippershnapper of 25 or so, just prior to my heading off to live in Japan.

And Japan, weirdly, seems to be the source of many of the self-esteem and confidence problems I’ve had over the last few years. Before Japan, I was a proud non-conformist with super-short hair who rarely wore make-up and didn’t particularly care about what clothes I wore or how I looked to other people. I never worried about my weight or if my shoes matched my outfit (hiking boots go with everything, amirite?), and I just generally felt very comfortable in my own skin.

And then Japan happened.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Japan. The four years I spent there were great for a number of reasons, and even three and a half years after returning to the States, I still find myself occasionally gripped with a burning desire to go back there.

But when it comes to being a non-conformist in Japan…yeah, not so easy. As a foreigner, you already stick out like Darth Vader in an Ewok village, and in my experience, foreigners living in Japan tend to go one of two ways: (1) They say “to hell with it” and completely ignore the unspoken cultural rules of the country, or (2) They nearly kill themselves trying to fit in.

Sadly, I went with #2, and while it did help me to feel slightly less conspicuous, it also left me as something of a non-entity for awhile. Japan is all about The Group rather than The Individual, and I think I lost a lot of what made me Me while I was there.

Japanese women are still expected to be rather meek and stereotypically feminine, quitting their jobs the moment they get married or pregnant and spending the rest of their lives cooking for their husbands and taking care of the kids. Things are changing, slowly, but the “career woman” in Japan is still something of a rarity, and such women are viewed with a certain amount of disapproval.

What’s more, Japan is obsessed with fashion, appearance, and weight. In Japan, it’s completely acceptable to openly comment on how “fat” your family and friends are getting when they’ve gained a pound or two. It’s seen as a helpful comment, because as we all know, the only way to get someone to lose weight is to fat-shame them until they do.

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In the U.S., I was seen as “thin.” In Japan, I suddenly had to shop at plus-sized stores (all two of them) to find pants that fit. At that time, I was around 130 pounds (height: 5’4″), and yet my (adult) students would still often take the time to comment on how I was “a little fat.”

So, yes, strike one for body image there.

The next issue was fashion. In the U.S., it’s pretty common to see people walking down the street in shorts and T-shirts, sweatpants, etc. But in Japan, only the tourists (and some of the high school boys) dress that way.

I managed to hold onto my fashion identity (read: no fashion) for about six months, and then I couldn’t take it anymore – I started wearing flirty little skirts and heels that hurt my feet and never leaving the house without perfect hair and make-up. (Of course, the summer humidity would make short work of both of those things, but I still did my best.)

I didn’t even really notice I was doing it at the time, but essentially, I was hiding away everything that made me unique in favor of blending in with the great unstoppable wave of Japanese fashion conformity.

I got meeker and less confident the longer I lived in Japan, and it’s only now, several years after returning to the U.S., that I’m starting to find myself again, and remember that it is possible to feel strong, confident, and comfortable with who I am.

Japan, to me, is kind of like an abusive boyfriend/girlfriend. (But we’ll go with “boyfriend” here so the pronouns are easier to deal with.)

You had some fantastic times together and you really did genuinely love him, but he was always putting you down, and you didn’t really like who you were when you were with him. In weak moments, you dream about getting back together with him – because surely, this time, it’ll be different! And didn’t you feel great when he actually treated you right? – but in the end, you know that you’re better off without him. Maybe sometime in the future, you can be friends – meet up every now and then, just for short periods – but you really shouldn’t be anything more than that, because SERIOUSLY GIRL, GET SOME SELF-RESPECT, DUDE IS NO GOOD FOR YOU, JUST MOVE ON.

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…hm, I started out this entry talking about my haircut, and somehow it turned into a break-up letter to Japan.

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Well, these things happen.

And now to have a shower and start on my second cup of tea.

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Wishing you all a very pleasant, non-conforming sort of morning~~~~<3

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