Short Hair and Necktie: Girl Who Was Dressed Like Boy
“My Feminism”: Media Education Activist Hye-gyeong
My efforts to succeed in a workplace and society run by a patriarchal system... in truth, I think that they are something that many women have experienced.
But when I think about my feminism and look back on my life, one space is occupied by an experience in my childhood that I can’t even remember.
Becoming a son named “Su-hyeon”
I look in the mirror. What I see is unfamiliar. Awkward. My hair, cut short last week, bothers me. It’s the first time it’s been this short since it was forcibly cut in elementary school because I had lice (readers in their late thirties will have had similar experiences), at which time I had cried my heart out. Suddenly, a picture of my young self that I don’t remember being taken pops into my mind. My hair is short and I’m wearing a brown suit, a necktie, and reddish-brown boys’ shoes, and smiling awkwardly.
I was born the third of three girls. My mother said she was out with us three one day when she heard an unknown elderly woman say, “My goodness, you have three useless girls!” When she came home, my mother’s chagrin did not subside for quite a while. My father had no great desire for a son, and his mother didn’t go so far as to pester her youngest daughter-in-law for a son, and thus though my mother said she thought not having a son was a bit sad, she didn’t believe that one was absolutely necessary, so the comment was a quite a shock to her.
It seems that she was also confused by another’s comment that “your husband's fine now because he’s young, but when they get older, men with no sons cheat.” My mother was a very tough person, but it likely would have been hard for her alone to keep aloof from early 1970s Korean culture’s deeply-embedded preference for sons. So my mother’s choice was none other than to make her third daughter – me – into a son.
Not only did she dress me like a boy, she also changed my name to the gender-neutral “Su-hyeon” and forced even family members to call me that. (“Su-hyeon”–I’d forgotten that.) Even now, my mother’s friends from when I was young and some relatives call me Su-hyeon. When I was young I hated that name, but everyone was already accustomed to it, so no matter how much I told them not to call me that, whenever we met again after a long time it was “Su-hyeon” again. Now, I just accept it.
I don’t remember dressing like a boy, of course. She must have walked down the street with two daughters and a son pretending to be calm and confident, but when I think now of her inner shame and misery and how sorry she must have felt for me, my heart aches. Changing her little girl’s appearance and name to that of a boy was my mother’s choice, but I think it was her way of protecting her pride as a mother in a patriarchal system.
Doing whatever it took to look like a girl again
When I was five years old, a younger sibling was born. It was a boy, thank heavens. My mother must have been glad to have a son and relieved to be free of her guilt towards me. I… don’t really remember.
If my younger sibling hadn’t been a boy, I would have continued to dress as a boy, and I would have memories of difficulty caused by confusion over my gender identity. As it was, my struggles to regain a feminine appearance began after that. According to my mother, I told her to throw away the black boys’ shoes and buy me red girls’ shoes. Even later, I showed a tendency to obsess over pretty things. My friends only had black or red shoes, while I walked around in yellow shoes.
My sisters had short hair and pants, but I had fluttery dresses and long hair that was braided or in a ponytail or bun. Our mother dressed only me prettily, and my sisters also conceded any pretty things to me. We didn’t talk about it, but it’s likely that through those trinkets, they wanted to heal wounds I must have suffered.
My little brother didn’t get any special treatment. Of course, Mom would buy 5-cent popsicles for us girls and a 15-cent ice-cream cone for him, but that aside, we were given the same educational and financial opportunities. And, ah yes, I was very envious of my brother because he was rather pretty, to the extent that people would mistake him for a girl, and when my mother was asked if he was her daughter, she would get angry.
Even after we grew up, my mother always told me–but not my sisters–to look nice. When I would come home for a visit after I got married, she would tell me to come in pretty makeup and my best clothes. Though it was long ago, what had happened had a place in her memory.
I hadn’t remembered that time, of course, but now that I’ve gotten my hair cut short–a style that I’d hated for 40-odd years for no reason–it seems that the subconscious wound from when my gender identity was momentarily stolen has healed.
Looking at my unfamiliar, short-haired self in the mirror
What would my mother say if she were alive? Would she say, “Oh yeah, that happened,” and then we’d laugh together? Would she be upset, asking herself why she had done that to me?
To those who ask how much of an injury being dressed as a boy for short while as child was, considering how much discrimination, oppression, subordination, and injustice others born as women suffer, I have no answer. But I think that the fact that for my mother, living at that time, the unavoidable choice was to take away her young daughter’s identity was a symptom of the times.
For me as well, the experience of living with an unwanted appearance because I was a daughter was painful, and it stayed in both my and my mother’s subconscious for a long time. That my mother hurt me like that, that I hurt myself, was because I was a girl, a daughter. I cut my hair short for the first time in 40 years, and I stand in front of the mirror and look at my unfamiliar appearance. In it, I see my mother.
Translated by Marilyn Hook
Published: January 10, 2013
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/6247
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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