I have this memory of being 13 years old. I’m staring at myself in the mirror, removing a bag clip from my nose to make it appear thinner, and experimenting with my mother’s powder foundation in secret. The makeup wasn’t enough to hide my chubby cheeks, so I untucked my long, straight black hair from behind my ears to help disguise them. Next, I added a thin crescent-shaped sliver of tape on my eyelids to temporarily achieve a double eyelid crease. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be the soft, small, and dainty kind of feminine that was upheld by both my Peruvian and my Korean cultures — but I ended up looking like a brown Sadako from the Japanese horror film “The Grudge.”
Growing up mixed-race, I didn’t meet either of my identities’ standards of beauty or femininity. My Peruvian dad gave me brown skin and a large Andean torso, making me much too dark and round to be beautiful or even ladylike to my Korean family, who favored my mother’s pale skin and small frame. Meanwhile, my small, almond-shaped eyes confused people when I was in Peru. There, while I saw people who looked more like my father, I realized even in a country where many are Indigenous, or come from native lineage, light skin and Eurocentric features are still the ideal. Once again, I did not fit the mold.
My internalization of white supremacist ideas of beauty, femininity, and gender, which showed up in both of my cultures uniquely, led to years of self-hatred, depression, and self-harm. Growing up as an impressionable teenager in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I was also hit with the contradicting U.S. ideals of pale waif-thin Paris Hilton and curvaceously altered Kim Kardashian, only complicated things more. My body was changing in ways I didn’t understand, but I was clear that nature’s modifications weren’t meeting society’s notions of attractiveness or my own sense of self.
These changes became painful, physically and emotionally. There were, of course, the normal, uncomfortable developments of adolescence: menstruation, altering hormones, and acne. But then, when I was 13 years old, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal condition that leads to infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or excess of testosterone hormone levels. This diagnosis had side effects that impacted my everyday life, including weight gain and body hair growth. The pounds began to stack quickly. As a result, I started stepping on a scale to check my weight at least three times a day. This obsession led to a toxic relationship with food that snowballed into an eating disorder.
As I went through puberty, I wore baggy clothes to hide my growing figure. I didn’t like the so-called womanly shape that was forming. The concept of femininity, whether it came from my mom, my dad, or my sex education teacher, was terrifying. It wasn’t just the pressure to conform to an ideal I could never meet. As a young person, I was also aware of the ways women experience sexual harassment and violence, and that made me fearful.
"I found a word that described how I had been feeling since I was 13, a word that allowed me to take autonomy over my personal identity and how I present myself to the world, a word that gave me my freedom and my healing."
I started binding my breasts to hide them and myself. This, I thought, would keep me safe. It didn’t. I continued to be harmed by societal and cultural expectations of gender. I continued to feel disappointed that I wasn’t fitting into either of my parents’ boxes of womanhood and beauty. Nothing ever felt right. I felt like a stranger in my own skin.
In middle school, I gave this outsider a name: Corpus Ren. Corpus, which means the human body, was Latin, the father language to Spanish, my dad’s native tongue. Ren, which denotes humaneness, is Chinese, the mother language to Korean, my mother’s native tongue. Together, these names encapsulated this stranger that felt most like home to me. It united both of my heritages. It reminded me that being a good human is more important than being society’s idea of good-looking. And it helped me see myself apart from femininity.
Years later, at Louisiana State University, where I studied anthropology and biology, it began to make sense to me why I felt more like myself, comfortable, and safe when I imagined myself as Corpus Ren. In my research on sex and gender, I was excited to learn that the two were not the same, and that the former was biological and the latter was social. Once I understood gender as a social performance, and that there was no one way to be a woman or a man, I began to embrace a nonbinary identity. At 23, I found a word that described how I had been feeling since I was 13, a word that allowed me to take autonomy over my personal identity and how I present myself to the world, a word that gave me my freedom and my healing.
In unlearning these colonial ideas of gender and attractiveness, I’ve built a foundation of self that isn’t dependent on others and their expectations of me. I understand that the possibilities of identity and humanity are fluid and endless. I don’t have to abide by anyone’s rules. I do what gives me joy, and I give myself permission to love myself. It’s not always easy, of course. It’s still an ongoing process of unlearning and relearning how to talk to myself with kindness, compassion, and patience. But I’m comfortable with getting uncomfortable — and that’s the first step.
At 30, I now look at myself in the mirror and marvel at the ways my Korean and Andean ancestors exist through my skin, hair, eyes, nose, and cheeks. My parents, and the generations ahead of me, assimilated because they had to survive. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I relinquish this process and the self-hatred that comes with it. I want to love every part of me: my wide nostrils, my smiley eyes, my chubby body, and my skin that glows with the sun. I may not meet everyone’s standards of beauty — but I see genderqueer divinity every time I glance at my reflection.