Friday, May 2, 2008


I read in Isabella Rossellini’s memoirs a while ago that when she finds a piece of clothing she really likes, she buys three or four of the same piece—staving off the inevitable loss of discontinuation. (I wish there was a way to buy three or four of a good love when we meet it...but oh well.) I follow Rossellini’s example with my jeans, but I can’t do this with my beloved t-shirts, because most of my t-shirts are old, one-of-a-type pieces I find by chance meeting and not However, as winter turns to summer without bothering with spring (as it does in New England), there is one t-shirt that I buy multiples of: the “Deep-V” neck t-shirt made by American Apparel. This shirt is my version of the bikini: it inaugurates summer into my life, even if it’s still 40 degrees in May. I have a stack of these in colors I like: cherry red, slate gray, peach, Kelly green, and multiples in the colors I live and sleep in: white, indigo, black, and my favorite, the “50/25/25 (50% polyester, 25% cotton, 25% rayon) Track Shirt” in grey.

A t-shirt is traditionally a throw-away garment that has only recently gained monetary and cultural value through the rise of Vintage with a capital “V.” Still, outside of Lara Flynn Boyle’s glorious use of a David Cardona-customized vintage Bob Seger baseball tee back in 2000 at the Golden Globe Awards...

...a t-shirt still doesn’t carry legitimizing feminine content as “eveningwear.” But the main reason I love wearing the American Apparel Deep-V shirts is not because they are comfy (they are) but because I feel like I’m wearing an evening gown...because I buy them in L or XL so that the "Deep V" actually becomes a "Deeper and Deeper V," baring not just my collarbone, but my cleavage. When I wear these t-shirts, I feel like Jennifer Lopez, also circa 2000, in that infamous green Versace dress with a “Deep V” of its own:

Don’t we look alike? Just kidding. Obviously, the ways in which the t-shirt links me to Madame Lopez-Anthony is not in similarity but verisimilitude: I feel like J.Lo bearing her cleavage. But what does it mean that I am revealing a “cleavage” of my own? I certainly consider my bared sternum with its connected roots of ribs as a cleavage, but is it really? Can a boy have cleavage? What does it mean that I consider those xylophone-bones reliefing out of my skin as cleavage, that mark of overt feminine sexuality?

I recently watched the film “Into the Wild,” which, a complete surprise to myself, I loved. I expected to hate it because: 1) I’m not a big fan of nature, nor do I believe in the transcendental benefits of going into any kind of “wild”; 2) I’m not a big fan of films without significant parts for actresses. But still, I loved the film because quite unexpectedly, its hero begins to waste away.

In the last 20 minutes or so, Emile Hirsch, the cute actor who plays the lead, is all high-contrast rib cage: his body functions as evidence of a privileged bourgeois boy’s refusal to accept the socially sanctioned benefits and privileges of “white”/ “rich”/ “boy.” He refuses to become a gel-haired, navy-suited yuppie, and so the body turns towards a stylized starvation.

Of course, I’m not advocating starvation or eating disorder as a gesture of rebellion against white patriarchal norms (I am a Korean lady after all) but there is something about an emaciated boy that is not only disturbing, but disturbs, in a gender-productive way. In America, we have always applauded thinness in women as an aesthetic sign of femininity: the richness of Jackie O, the decadence of Diana Ross, the sweetness of Mary Tyler Moore, the chicness of Kate Moss. Even the grotesqueness of suspected eating-disordered celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate Olsen, and Calista Flockhart has been marked as a specifically feminine grotesqueness or illness. On the other hand, thinness in men traditionally indicate weakness while bypassing femininity altogether. I'm specifically thinking of those Charles Atlas ads found in the back of old-school comics: the skinny, usually bedspectacled boy—the proverbial “90 lb. Wealking”—with his xylophone ribs gets pushed around by a beefy bully on the beach, and months later, having himself beefed up through the Charles Atlas program, the weakling-no-more can get revenge on the bully and get the girl, to boot.

Being a comic book-head, I’d had my share of those ads, and the particularly boy-psychosis it breeds. I was one of those bedspectacled 90 lb. weaklings, and that coupled with my secretly blooming homosexuality led me to some severe teenage depression. So around the age of 17, I decided to do something about it. The flesh, unlike my sexual desires, I could control. I began working out—lifting heavy metal objects in repetition and such. Between age 18 and 22, I worked out seven days a week, two hours a day: one hour for weights (alternating days for upper body and legs) and one hour of cardio. That, plus eating three hearty college meal plan meals a day with a supplement of chalky pink protein shakes, I was no longer skinny minnie, but quite amply muscled, clocking in, at my most massive, 140 lbs.

But sometime in my mid-twenties, I fell in love, became a wife, and simultaneously lost interest in spending hours at the gym. Muscle memory is stronger than you’d think, so I’m not flabby or anything, but I have lost a lot of weight since those muscly days. I now weigh...(drumroll...) about 120 lbs. So when I wear these evening-gown-t-shirts, I feel a jab of abjection because I’ve returned to--or perhaps, been vengefully possessed by--my teeange body: the “weakling” body that was the source of self-hatred and shame. But thank God for the wonderfully illogical coherence of femininity: who knew that I only had to wait 20 some years for those shame-producing, skin-defying sternum and rib-bones to constitute a badge—however morally or medically ambiguous—of femininity. My identification with “Girl” clips off the emotional tie of shame from my thinness, and I can reach out and hug that abjected teenager self, no longer a weakling, but a strong kid that survived a world that would have him dead. My embracing my girl self allowed me to embody the resurrected flesh of my teenager self and imagine myself not as the “Before” Charles Atlas character, but a happily cheap version of Jennifer Lopez, Lara Flynn Boyle, the model Shalom Harlow, and of course as always, Mariah Carey.



Quien es esa niña...Who’s that girl with the big pectoral boobs and bulbous biceps? It's me 12 years and 20 lbs. before. The following words that splattered the cover of last week’s Us Weekly could be a thoughtbubble floating above my head: “MARIAH TALKS TO US: ‘HOW I LOST 20 LBS!’ AND THREE SIZES! HER EXACT DIET PLAN! THE WORKOUT THAT GOT HER TEENAGE BODY BACK! ‘I FEEL REALLY GOOD’”


KT said...

i love the throwback foto circa the era i first met you. but i much prefer the "joony from the block" picture in the plunging green V, even though i HATE American Apparel. but i did LOVE that Mariah weight plan that included my fave, "aqua aerobics".
K in your book

Habitual Q. Rake said...

You've got better cleavage than me unless I take some really heroic measures with chicken cutlets, for sure.