Sticks and stones: Of words that broke my spirit

Its nearly noon on a Friday as I type this to you dear reader. I do so half hesitantly and part defiantly. And i do so fully aware of the mixed reaction this post will bring forth. At this point I really don’t care anymore. I have lived with the consequences of my silence for far too long and anything that follows on from this post will pale in comparison. So i begin.

Anyone who has known me long enough knows my propensity to speak my mind. In the past this has managed to ruffle more than a few feathers in my personal and professional circles. I am “that angry brown feminist killjoy”. I am that chick that would sooner punch you in the ‘nads than laugh at your racist jibe, your disgusting rape jokes or share sympathy over your “friendzoning” sob story. I am THAT girl. And I am super proud of being this person. Except, there were times when I felt i let that girl down. There were times when I wish that girl was more prominent behind closed doors.

I am an angry brown feminist killjoy.

I am also a survivor of several abusive relationships.

And I wish I had come out about this sooner.

The who and the when is omitted from this piece because I don’t have the energy or the  spoons to deal with those people anymore. They are merely a footnote in time – I don’t want to talk about what they did or said. I want to focus solely on the impact of their words and actions because these were the only signs my friends could pick up on and save me from myself.

When i was 16 years old, my mother found me nursing a broken nose after a visit to a friends house. I wasn’t allowed to date when i was younger and said friend was actually a secret boyfriend who saw the clandestine nature of our relationship as an excuse to get away with just about anything. I am certain she must have known because we had a long chat about relationships and abuse, the gist of which was if anyone so much as violated my personal space again, i was to sock it back to them in the same measure. Bodily autonomy was high on my mother’s list of priorities and she did her darn best to ensure i was comfortable in saying “NO” to anyone violating my physical space. Emotional abuse, however, was a completely different kettle of fish.

You see, i spent most of my childhood being told that i was “overly sensitive”, that I needed to toughen up. I was a child of the “sticks and stones” generation, where bullying was seen as a rite of passage. When I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in my teens, i used my illness as a further coverup for the emotional abuse i was put through by my partners.

“What they said isn’t really hurtful, i am just overly sensitive. Its because I am sick”.

Just like that I would write off a whole slew of things that  I should not have let slide. I saw myself as a “fixer upper”, someone so useless and broken because of their mental illness that it was only fair to allow my partners to help “fix me”. If they said I needed to lose weight, it was for my own good. If they said I was lazy and useless (usually during my depressive lows) then it was because they cared. I spent years rationalising my abuse because it was easier than believing that I, the “angry brown feminist”, could be a victim. Because in my mind abusive relationships involved broken noses and bruises not me having anxiety attacks in pub toilets or feeling like a horrible human being for having a depressive low.

There was no semblance of stability in these relationships. I spent most of my time walking on eggshells, worrying that a single word or action would set them off. I made myself oh so very small, measuring out love and affection so as not to come across as “clingy” but also made myself available to whenever their needs took them because God forbid i came across as “frigid”.  I knew when to make myself scarce. I knew that calling up at 2 am because I was having an anxiety attack was a no no that would designate me to the ‘too hard’ basket. Anxiety that was brought upon by an afternoon of nitpicking at my general unruliness, my inability to drive, my appearance and my baking habits (yes you read that correctly). In one of these relationships I had been broken up with every consecutive Thursday for a month, only to be picked back up on a Monday like dry cleaning. In another, I was put on a diet because my partner at the time had her own body issues that she thought fair to deflect on to me. The idea that my mental illness made me less lovable was constantly reaffirmed in all of these relationships to the point where I began to believe that these abusers were doing me a favour by allowing me into their lives. I was to be thankful and quiet.

Over the last month, several women I love and respect have come forward with similar stories- women whose lives and relationships I had envied from afar while I was suffering my own ordeals. It was a strange feeling reading their stories, a sense of intense sorrow and great relief balled into one. I was not alone in my experience but that in and of itself was alienating. How many of us are there that march through life pretending to be unaffected by the callousness of our lovers? How many of us attend our feminist conferences and chant our slogans at domestic violence rallies and return home to the beds of our abusers? Is my “angry brown feminist” label merely modern day concealer? I must have used it to hide a thousand tell tale signs. I am grateful to the friends who saw past my tough girl exterior and removed me from the situation. The ones who let me sleep on their couches, who distracted me with burlesque routines, the ones who called me each morning to see how i was. I am grateful for the ones who stood by me and reassured me when I doubted my own goodness.

I really don’t know what else to say. I could go on  about the countless things said and done to make me feel ashamed of myself, that made me doubt myself, that made me feel less of a human being. But I know my healing doesn’t lie in the past. That was not the intention of this post.

If this blog post achieves only one thing, I hope it serves as a reminder that even the angriest of “angry brown feminists” can fall prey to abuse. That we need to keep our doors open and couches available to our friend’s in need. We need to love them harder and unconditionally when they feel they are at their worst, when they feel “unworthy” or “unlovable”. And we need to stop pretending abuse only exists in the physical realm of broken noses and bruises.

“Sticks and stones broke my bones

But over the years

words broke my spirit.”

Edit: This Mermaid would like to assure readers that she is currently in a very loving and supportive relationship. If you or anyone you know is in need of support please visit http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/finding-help.

How to: Marilyn Set (basics)

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Preparation
Before you begin make sure you spray your hair with a decent heat protector as this style requires heat tools that would otherwise damage your hair.
If you have really straight hair that doesnt hold curl well, spritz some setting spray or lotion in beforehand.
Ensure your hair is clean and knot free. I would recommend doing this style on second day hair.

Step 1.
Part hair to the side. Go with the natural side  part of your hair if you have one. Mine tends to part on the right.

Step 2.
Choose a side to begin with. I tend to start at the side with the least hair. Divide the side into two further sections by parting directly above the ear and clip this section out of the way. You will return to this top layer later

Step 3 and 4.
Using some curling tongs, start curling the hair in an anti clockwise (away from the jawline) direction. Make sure the curls are nice and tight. I find using nice thin sections give the best ringlets.
This layer is basically going to act as a booster, giving the top layer something to rest on which is why plentiful, voluminous curls are essential.

Step 5.
Hairspray this layer with a good stronghold hair spray. Make sure you are thorough.

Step 6.
Unclip the top section of hair

Step 7 and 8.
Start curling the hair in a clockwise direction this time with curling tongs making sure you allow each curl to form and cool before moving onto the next. Finish off with some hairspray

Repeat steps 1-8 on the opposite side of the head remembering that the bottom layer is curled away from the jaw and the top layer is curled towards the jaw.

Style and finish

Because this is just a simple everyday version of this hairstyle, i tend to just run my hands through the curls to separate them and keep them from looking too Shirley Temple. Finish off with a light amount of hairspray followed by a little bit of a shine spray.

The secret to the perfect fifties set

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Anyone who is into the “pinup look” or the vintage lifestyle will attest to the huge role hair has to play. My mother has always said that a good haircut and great eyebrows can make anyone go from drab to fab in record time. Having experimented plenty with both during my youth i can assure you the converse is just as true! This is why i now see a professional to get my hair cut once every 6 weeks at a very cheap but reputable hairdressing chain at my local mall. $29 sees me through six weeks of pincurl and hot iron sets that make me feel a million bucks without breaking the bank.

I used to be one of those suckers with more layers than an onion hoping that it would disguise my chubby cheeks and “frame” my face. Having really thick Afghani/Desi hair meang that my head almost always ended up looking like a pineapple no matter how much i tried to pull off the coveted Veronica lake flip. It took me four years of terrible bettie bangs, floppy victory rolls and tragic bopeep curls to realise that in the vintage hair game, the cut is perhaps the most important part of achieving an authentic retro hairstyle. Oh and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a round/chubby face. I mean it worked for Betty Grable and she is the quintessential pinup girl.

Many bad haircuts later i have finally settled on a late fifties pageboy style which is oh so easy to reproduce with a curling wand and a good bristle brush. Its easy to wash, simple to pincurl and is versatile enough for no nonsense office type jobs. So here is what i have learnt through my misadventures. You need to scroll down and take a screenshot of this rather amateur drawing i have done for you and show it to your hairdresser. Ready?

Ok
Here you go.

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So what you have here is what is known in the industry as the middy cut or as my hairdresser calls it, a pageboy. You want your hair to be cut into a tapered U shape, kinda like a horseshoe. Longer at the back and shorter in the front. I personally prefer the shortest part of my hair to just brush my jawline and for the longest layer to sit above my shoulders. The shorter you cut your hair the easier it will be to do those fiddly pincurl sets and the less you will have to endure PAS (pincurl arm syndrome, a condition that results in a half curled head due to high levels of cbf).

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The picture above demonstrates how much length i lose/retain in my curls once i have set and brushed them out. As you can see, my hair is a lot shorter in the completed set than in its natural state. This is why its important to consider the right length for you. My advice is always to go a little longer than you think you will need, staying above shoulder length but making sure your shortest layer is never above the jawline.

I find that having thick wavy hair as most of us Middle eastern and Desi girls tend to have works perfectly with this style as it relies on both, a natural wave and weight of the hair to keep its shape throughout the day.

So go visit your hairdresser with my shitty looking drawing and tell her that a middle eastern mermaid told you you needed a middy cut. Its a mouthful to say but i promise it will be well worth it.

Woman Crush Wednesday: Kenjai

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Photo by David Woolley Vintage Glamour Photography

“I used to see my race as a liability rather than an asset but then I realised that change had to start with me“. – Kenjai, Miss Illustrated Pinup Australia 2014

She is the National and State title holder for the Illustrated category of Miss Pin Up Australia 2014, an internationally published pinup and one half of the glamorous Sugar Twins. Somehow between juggling a sold out fringe show, a fullltime job and family comittments, Kenjai still found time to chat to me about her Pin up journey so far.

The first time I came across Kenjai was during the W.A heats of Miss Pin-Up Australia in 2014. I would like to point out here that I come from a very small pin up scene in what some would consider an isolated part of Australia. Just to hear of another pin up who identified as a woman of colour was enough to send my radar into overdrive. At the same time i found myself ever the cynic:  How would a non white woman fare in a competition that, through no fault of its own, seldom sees contestants of colour? And yet from the moment she set foot on stage, Kenjai broke down so many of the barriers that hampered the journey of many pin ups like her. I have to say, seeing her compete and eventually take out the title of Miss Illustrated WA 2014 was one of the most inspiring things I had experienced that year. I was instantly struck by her feisty and fun loving personality and the confidence with which she owned the space around her.

Many months later, we found ourselves chatting in a beer garden at the Perth Fringe Festival about the trials and tribulations of being a Pin up of Colour in Australia.  And the conversation went something like this:

MM: Tell me a little bit about your background

K: I come from a mixed European and South east Asian descent. My mum Is Thai and my dad is of Anglo-Celtic descent. I was born and raised in Australia, but i lived overseas in Thailand for a little while when I was a child. For the most part I grew up here.

MM: Have you always felt connected to your Thai heritage?

K: More so now than I did growing up. I think, growing up in Australia in the 80s cultural diversity wasn’t as huge a deal as it is now and the small handful of Asian kids around me just wanted to fit in. Any ethnic kids that I knew at the time didn’t want anything to do with their roots. This was because it was all about fitting in and sadly having non English names and bringing weird lunches to school didn’t make you too popular.

MM: Why did you decide to pursue pinup?

I have no idea. I have always had a real love of vintage even from teenage years but my style didn’t fully refine until the last five years or so. Being a plus size girl I found that the styles were more flattering to my body. I am not comfortable with ultra-short skirts anyway but with a lot of vintage and pin up style clothing I found it just flattered my shape a lot better.

MM: How do you reconcile your pinup style, which is often vested heavily in a very white, very American context, with your own background?

K: Sometimes I hear people deny that pin up comes from white American culture. They tend to get quite defensive about it in fact. I want to point out that this is not necessarily a criticism, it is just stating a historical fact. Pin up had its heyday during a very different time to ours. It was during a time of segregation and so of course the popular culture that pin up came from was predominantly “white”. It is not a criticism, it is just acknowledgement of history.

The world is a bit different now but it’s still hard (for pin ups of colour). There are still a lot of people who think of pin up as a white thing and yes that is obviously where the roots of popular pin up lies but we are not living in the 1940s or 1950s segregated America, we live in a multicultural world now. Pin up should not be limited by race. I do try to bring my Asian heritage to my pinup style and outfits. I try and diversify my looks as much as possible.

 MM: With pin up competitions, do you sometimes feel like the odds are stacked against you?

K: When I entered Miss Pinup Australia, my first instinct was to pick Asian influenced outfits. A friend of mine who wasn’t really involved with pin up said to me “I think you’re making a big mistake. I think you should stick with Americana”. I decided to ask the organisers of Miss Pin Up Australia whether it would go against me if I steered away from Americana and the answer I got was very supportive. I was told that I should embrace my heritage and what I saw as my pin up persona. I decided then and there that I was going to enter the competition with the best version of myself. I embraced my Asian heritage in every aspect of my costuming for that competition.

MM: What are some of the detriments in the way mainstream media portrays Asian women?

K: I think the oversexualisation of Asian women in mainstream media is a huge problem. Our women have a very sexualised stereotype attached to them. We are not represented in a very positive light by mainstream media and there are still a lot of negative stereotypes out there that needs to be combated. That’s just stuff you come across outside the pin up circle, I feel there is less of that stereotype within the pin up community. However, there’s still not a lot of representation of pin up models of non-white backgrounds.

MM: Where do you think the pin up scene in Australia is going to end up in the next ten years? Do you think we are going to diversify?

K: I think so and I hope so. I think in terms of diversity we can only get better as time goes on. I like to think we have become more accepting as time has gone by. I mean you look at how we are today compared to ten or twenty years ago. We still have problems for sure but I think the door is opening for more and more women. The idea that pin up is primarily a white thing is starting to lift. Seeing more women of colour entering these pin up competitions is heartening.

MM: Your year was a particularly interesting one for Miss Pin Up Australia in my opinion as a Pin up of Colour myself. Not only did you take out the title of Miss Illustrated (WA) we also saw an Asian Miss Neo Pin up (WA) (Rosie Boudoir, pictured on the right).

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Kenjai (L) and Rosie Boudoir (R) Photo by David Woolley Vintage Glamour Photography

K: We had a couple of entrants of Asian background actually. It was great to be part of such a successful year for W.A where both the state representatives were women of colour. I don’t know if that’s happen before.

MM: Any idols who inspire you to do what you do?

K: I know she has nothing to do with pin up but Kimora Lee Simmons has to be one of my idols. She is part Asian and part black and what I love is how she embraces her heritage in its totality. Maisumi Max is another person who has been breaking barriers for non white, particularly Asian, pin ups for some time now. And of course let’s not forget Tura Sutana, possibly one of the biggest bad asses to have ever walked the earth. I just love her. I have been planning a Tura Sutana tribute for a long time now.

MM: We were talking earlier on about how hard it is to find makeup and tutorials that work for pin ups of colour. Could you elaborate on some of the struggles pin ups of colour may go through in getting the look down pat?

K: Makeup can definitely be tricky, especially when it comes to photo shoots. I have started doing my own makeup for shoots now, I don’t even use makeup artists anymore unless it’s something out of the ordinary. Every photo shoot I have ever done involving a makeup artist, I have had to pre warn the photographer “Can you please tell your makeup artist I am Asian and that I will need foundation that suits my undertone”. It’s amazing how many photographers were oblivious to the fact that a lot of mainstream foundations don’t work for Asian models because we have a completely different undertone to white models. I have always had to bring my own foundation to shoots because most makeup artists didn’t stock for what they perceived to be the minority.

A lot of the vintage make up blogs and hair tutorials out there aren’t necessarily compatible with non white features. Our hair is different, we need different setting methods. Our eyes and face shapes are different and so we need different ways to apply makeup. To get that authentic “pin up look” isn’t as simple as it could be for pin ups of colour especially if you are brand new to the whole thing. There is definitely a lack of resources aimed at us and tailored to us specifically.

MM: Any words of advice to other women of colour who wish to venture into the wonderful world of pin up?

K: Be the change you want to see

I say this about everything in life. If you want to see more pin ups of colour, be that person! Don’t wait for someone else to do it. The lack of representation is one of the things that held me back in the beginning but it’s also what propelled me forward. I used to see my race as a liability rather than an asset but then I realised that change had to start with me. And this change in attitude and representation will continue with you taking that first step on your pin up journey. If you want representation be prepared to represent!

Photo by David Woolley Vintage Glamour Photography

To follow Kenjai’s Pin up journey you can find her on Facebook or instagram: @kenjaipinup