We’re sitting on the beach, sand on our towels, listening to the chatter of little kids playing and the waves washing up. Suddenly I stand up, hoist my sunglasses onto my head, and I hand my friend my phone.
Take a picture of me, I say confidently, arching my back slightly with a coy grin. I look good today.
The friend, a photojournalist, giggles and rolls her eyes. I feel judgment — my own — cut into my mind.
Who are you, the voice scolds, to think you have sex appeal?
As I always am the minute I think to do something like this, I’m suddenly aware of my short height, my small chest, my high-pitched voice, my round face with small features.
I gaze around the beach at all of the tall blondes, the long-legged brunettes with lanky figures and profound bone structure, and all of the Instagram models who need only one snap and a smize to get thousands of likes.
In response to my insecurity, I level my gaze at the camera harder, throw my head back a little tighter, hoping to somehow muster up the smiles that fake it til I make it. It’s over in a few minutes.
I scroll through the selection.
Do I have to reeeeetake it, my friend jokes as I peruse the pictures, but I cringe at her mild judgment. I cringe because yes, please do retake it, is what I think, because I want myself to look good. Because I want to feel like I look good, and I hate letting others realize I actually seek that.
It’s sad, and I grit my teeth over this, because I know I’m not ugly. I know there’s nothing to dislike, per se. But that’s still a far shot from like. The absence of ugliness is not the presence of gorgeousness.
I grit my teeth and feel my inner pressure cooker flare up. I don’t usually think about my looks, but on the occasions I do, I’m suddenly reminded of why I choose not to think about it. The anxiety I feel here is definitely unmanageable, unlike pretty much every other aspect of my life. Dealing with the prospect of whether men would want to fuck me or not is not, not, not pleasant for me. And suddenly all of this comes bubbling up, all of the dread and fear and failures over the years twisting me into a ball of rage —
I’m not being high-maintenance, I finally snap. Do you want to know why this matters?
I still remember the first time I felt really, really lusted after.
You’re like, the frat guy slurred with a hand on my waist freshman year, so exotic. Oh my god. I’ve never had a Japanese ass before.
I stuttered in indignation, at the time too young and innocent to understand what was happening or control my emotions properly.
It’s too bad the young man was good looking. Because how he made me feel did not match his appearance.
I felt fetishized in the strangest way. This was the feeling of ‘objectification’ I’d read so much about, and it was racial at that. But it was also a little more hurtful.
You look like, he continued on, twisting a knife I’m still unlodging today, one of those like, really cute dolls. Like an anime girl. That’s cute.
This way of describing me would continue burning through my mind for years, a stumbling block for my seeking sexual pleasure throughout college.
Call me cute, and I’d instantly wonder if I was some latent faraway back shelf forbidden fantasy, something you’d picture fucking because it was weird, which probably meant your want of it wasn’t really that much of a priority.
Or if cute was only one of the many ways to describe beauty, gorgeousness, hotness, any synonym that could make me feel less like a little girl and more like a woman. A desirable woman.
I don’t want to be cute, I’d want to scream each time I heard it. A hamster is cute. A kitten is cute. Do kittens make you hard? If so, there’s something wrong with you. And if I’m the same level of fuckability as a kitten, there’s definitely something wrong with me!!
I know ‘cute’ is tossed around casually and meant as a compliment. But you have to understand my conditioning — in a setting in the middle of America, where there weren’t many Asian-Americans, it became a word reserved exclusively for me. I was the ‘cute’ one. My taller, bustier, wider-eyed friends were ‘hot’ or ‘sexy.’
Whenever anyone would call me ‘hot,’ I noticed after it felt wrong. It felt untrue.
The first time a man called me sexy during an encounter, I was so shocked that I meekly asked him to repeat the word. He flatly asked why. I never asked again, instead letting myself be choked with disbelief over and over.
It’s like I had said the word sexy over and over again aloud, so much that it had lost its meaning and flavor, only to be applied to naked models on Sports Illustrated covers. I could not conceptualize that taking off my clothes would make any man lose control the way any other, more conventionally sexual woman was capable of. To hear it apply to me was a foreign concept.
I asked to hear it again, fearing that he might have not meant it, and that if I ever requested someone change their cute wording because it could just be a synonym… that I’d discover I’m not, in fact, sexy.
I want so badly to be called that sincerely and for it to be repeated, over and over again. I want so badly to be desired. Not just cute enough to hold at arm’s length. To be sexy entails more power than being cute. More lastability.
You think kittens are cute, but you can pet them a bit and then forget they existed. Sex, as we’re conditioned to believe, is something that won’t leave a man’s mind. I have yet to believe I have ever stuck in a man’s mind.
Where this picture is going to go?
It’s going to go, initially, on my secret Instagram, where it will remain for at least 48 hours. I will stare at it, willing myself to believe I’m sexy and willing myself to not need other people to tell me that.
Willing myself to not care what others think comes so easily at times. With most areas of my life, I’ve always prided myself on being so independent.
But now, surrounded in LA by pretty Asian-American girls with handsome Asian-American boyfriends and feeling more and more regret that I didn’t go to an Ivy League or UC school with Asian-American peers and have a normal relationship with sexuality — my learning curve is shot.
Once those 48 hours are over, I will then either post the bikini picture on my public Instagram with an ironic caption to deter from the fact that I need attention — or I will leave it on my other Instagram, never to see the light of day.
I’m not just taking this picture because I need validation from others. I need it from myself, first and foremost. I need a physical reminder to tell me that I have the charms of a full grown adult now. To feel less like a little girl and suspicious of every man who could (theoretically) want me, to believe the woman in the picture is real, enough to then maybe consider giving a fuck about what others think.
I look at the bikini pictures again. And as I squint at every inch of me, I fail to see imperfection. But I also fail to see the womanly perfection all of these men always sing about on the radio.
I wonder if any man would ever write a poem or song about my looks, or my personality, or any thing about me. I wonder if these pictures would ever make a man’s knees weak, or take his breath away. I wonder if any man would ever see these and have to excuse himself to the restroom, if any man would ever groan with frustration, if any man would ever in a million years think of me before he falls asleep in his bed.
I wonder if any man who’s ever gasped to my face at how turned on I made him ever lingers on our memories now.
I wonder if those spaces are always occupied by women he’s had for longer periods of time, or had that happened to be better than me in bed, or at least looked more like women.
It makes me sad to wonder and never know.
It’s also not that I want just any man to feel those things about me — it makes me sad to wonder and never know if the men I did want to feel those things, ever did feel them. As I watch them move on with their lives, feeling forgotten.
The more I wonder, the more gross I feel for being insecure about this.
Although I’ve been intimate with some men, I’ve never heard I want you outside of the heat of a sexual moment already in play, when of course you’d say that, because you want something from me right now. I’ve rarely heard any compliment uttered with a tone that’s unconditionally loving — and if I have, I feel foolish for replaying it as often as I want, clinging to it as so precious, when maybe it’s fake.
After I post a bikini picture — a feat I only started doing since moving to Los Angeles — I’ll lie awake at night and feel the pain of not feeling desired. Feel the pain, for the first time in maybe ever, of actually wanting to be desired. In bed, there is no work-work-work now to distract me from what I don’t have, and I feel this void in my chest so often.
In bed, it is painful to feel this congested relationship with sex and this urban myth of pursuing the best orgasm. I don’t need a wide variety of lovers. I don’t need every man to call me ‘sexy.’ I just want a singular one to. I just want to feel, and hear, and believe all of the ways I am a woman and command magic over someone else’s heart.
Even admitting my Achilles heel makes me burst into tears, typing fiercely as I feel myself cramp with desire. I’m aware that to others, I have so many strengths. I work hard, I’m well-traveled, I’m able to befriend strangers instantly, I’m intellectual and provoke critical thought, and I’m perceptive enough to bring joy and clarity to others.
But when the curtain falls, I feel my weaknesses more. And on certain days, when the sun is shining and Leo season emerges when one’s supposed to be more confident — I feel the pain I must clear to achieve it. Achieve (someday hopefully soon) another occupant of my bed, who says You are sexy to me and I want you every night
and maybe, maybe even I love you —
and truly, truly for me to believe him.