Transparency: A Reflection of Personal Erasure
Written by Han Oh
December 1, 2021
Gangnam station is always full of people. It’s a familiar landscape: it’s three bus stops away from my grandparents’ house and I went to a cram school in the area. It’s a place where people of all ages and backgrounds gather. Businesswomen in suits, schoolgirls wearing sweatpants under their uniforms, rich tourists, and hidden celebrities wearing sunglasses and big hats all cross the intersection together as the lights ash red. I cross with them too, sweat starting to pool on my brow. Here, I think, I don’t stand out. After all, everyone here dresses their best.
Last summer, I traveled to Korea with my family. It was mostly a leisurely vacation for my siblings and I, but my dad was helping my grandparents move into a senior home. My dad’s cousin came over one night to help out (he’s an only child). She marveled at how much I’d grown and complimented the double eyelid surgery I’d gotten a week or two before. My stitches had just been pulled and my eyes were still red and puy, but I smiled and thanked her anyway. Soon enough, the topic changed to that of my future, and inevitably, marriage. I laughed and said that I don’t really want to get married (a sentiment I’ve held since elementary school), but she insisted that I’d nd a good man and change my mind. My grandma agreed. It became harder to hold my already-strained smile.
I don’t think my relatives are necessarily bad people; however, when I go to Korea and see my extended family, I am somehow always reminded of my assigned gender and the role they expect me to take because of it. Misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia run rampant in Korea, and my relatives, especially the older ones, are no exception. In fact, I would not feel safe writing this article if I knew my parents would see it.
A few days before, I had gone shopping with a friend. I’d recently become enamored with cottage core and late 19th century styles, and I wanted to switch up my wardrobe. We wandered through stores and I tried on an unholy amount of loose blouses and owy dresses to no avail. After a few hours of shopping and another rejected blouse, I sighed and remarked that maybe this style wasn’t for me.
That had never stopped me before though—I’m a rm believer in wearing whatever the fuck you want to wear. My sister would give me weird looks when I bought shirts that are two sizes too big and my dad would tell me to go change if he saw me wearing a crop top on the way to school. And yet, these pieces looked beautiful on the racks and somehow wrong on me.
My friend then asked: “Are you forcing yourself to be feminine?”
That thought hadn’t crossed my mind. After grappling with my gender identity for the better part of my life, I’d nally settled on the label of transmasculine about a year ago. And even before then, I’d always dressed however I wanted and shopped in the mens’ section.
Her comment made me reconsider.
Cottagecore fashion was popular in Korea before cottagecore was even a thing. Lace, button-downs, and long skirts are popular amongst women in Korea; meanwhile, casual clothes and street fashion are more for college students, celebrities, and internet personalities, especially because virtually all primary and secondary schools require uniforms. In short, people tend to dress somewhat formally, even in seemingly casual settings. Korean culture emphasizes appearance, which is why blouses, button-downs, and slacks seem to be the norm as they project an image of sophistication.
Being concerned about appearance isn’t always a bad thing. People aren’t shamed for dressing up, wearing makeup, or getting plastic surgery regardless of their gender. Alt, goth, and other subcultures are popular in online communities. But there’s another side to all this. Therein lies the implication that you must always look your best, that you must go above and beyond to look whatever people deem as “good” or “enough”. Though lookism in Korea is much more extreme than in Western countries, these standards are unsurprisingly harsher on female-presenting people. After all, it goes hand-in-hand with misogyny.
My family and I are no exception. I’d gotten plastic surgery on the insistence of my dad. “I have a close friend who runs a plastic surgery clinic,” he’d said. “You’ll be so pretty. All the boys will love you.” Another time: “You shouldn't cut your hair so short. You’ll look like a boy”. And another: “People like pretty women more than smart women”.
I’d stood silently for a few seconds after my friend had asked me if I was trying to force myself. Finally, I laughed and said no. I just think it looks pretty. Maybe it’s just not for me, maybe I don’t have the right body shape or haircut. She obviously didn’t buy it, and neither did I. After all, I’d spent years performing as a gender that I never felt comfortable with simply because I was told to. How was I supposed to reconcile this dissonance between what was expected of me, what I was, and what I wanted?
The short answer: I still haven’t. Most of us who are born biologically female feel frustration about societal expectations at some point or another in our lives. My religious upbringing, my other country’s traditionalist Confucian ideals, and my queer identity only served to complicate my one already-huge, multicolored melting pot.
The long answer: it’s a life-long process. I see major dierences in public perception pertaining to gender and sexuality from even ve years ago compared to today, and the acceptance and acknowledgement of my identity has helped me understand better who I am. Issues of performative activism aside, it’s nice to see random people on Twitter or Instagram say that my life matters—not because I’ve ever thought otherwise, but because no one has ever armed this for me.
I think the reason members of the LGBTQ+ community tend to choose fashion as an outlet is because we aren’t seen otherwise. Presentation-wise, there’s a lot of mixing of ambiguity and androgyny which some of us feel more comfortable with. Personally, I like to dress to confuse people because throughout my youth, I was constantly reminded by others of my ownership of a uterus. I still get gendered as a girl often, which is one of the reasons why I feel more comfortable in Korea, if you ignore the violent homophobia: there are no gendered titles.
Walking down the streets of Gangnam, I see a man with sharp makeup, a woman with a mullet, a person whose gender and sex are indistinguishable under their loose clothing. They are a colorful contrast in the summer heat, and most people walk by without so much as a second glance. But I see them, and they see me.