Let me begin with my body.
My skin-picking began innocuously, as a way to remove hangnails and other patches of dead skin from my cuticles. Yet the habit soon developed into a means of distracting myself when I felt anxious, providing momentary relief and a sense of achievement that compelled me to keep picking in spite of the pain. Even as the skin around my nails became raw and crusted with blood, so much so that people would ask if I had eczema, I didn’t think anything of it, believing the behavior to be a nervous habit, no different from nail-biting.
After a particularly aggressive episode that left my hands trembling, I turned to the Internet and learned that my “habit” was actually a disorder on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum called dermatillomania. Individuals who suffer from dermatillomania, or excoriation disorder, may lose sleep from their obsessive picking, or in severe cases, develop tendonitis. It is relatively uncommon, and since it is adjacent to self-grooming behaviors such as nail-biting, there seems to be limited discourse about it.
Perhaps, because of this, I was reluctant to seek professional advice or treatment. It seemed too trivial to take seriously when many individuals had more life-threatening mental health concerns — despite the fact that my fixation had monopolized the way I experienced time every day, sometimes extending how long it would take me to complete a task by hours.
Watching the anti-Asian violence unfold on the news, I could not help but see my experience with dermatillomania as an allegory for how many Asian Americans, including myself, experience racism. There seems to be a pervasive insecurity that our struggles are unimportant, or simply not worthy of discussion. “Asian Americans can be seen as a minor minority,” says Yoon Sun Lee in “Modern Minority.” Our struggles are seen as “a potential or occasional problem rather than a major one.” She cites the model minority myth as a debilitating cultural framework that “within its overt meaning of exemplarity [carries] a certain miniaturizing vision of Asian Americans and a permanent deferral of their concerns.” This is why, Lee suggests, Asian American stories often fixate on routine and the numbing repetition of the everyday — as illustrated, for example, by Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.”
The reception of anti-Asian violence by authorities and its presentation in the media only exacerbate this self-doubt by downplaying more brutal acts of racism. Historically, officials have been loath to classify violence against Asians as hate crimes, instead labeling such attacks as isolated incidents and often siding with the assailants, who claim that their actions were not motivated by race. Of course, the most egregious example of this in recent news is the shooting of eight people who worked at massage businesses in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian women. Authorities investigating the case have stated that they do not believe the attacks were racially motivated, instead citing the suspect’s self-proclaimed “sex addiction” as the primary impetus for the crime.
Yet, as many within the Asian American community are all too well aware, the attacker’s violent actions are only an extreme instance of the countless verbal assaults that fetishize and dehumanize Asian women as objects of sexual fascination. The conflation between Asian femininity and sexual promiscuity extends far back in American history, codified in law with legislation such as the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited Chinese women from entering the United States due to the belief that they were immigrating “for lewd and immoral purposes.”
Today, Asian women must still contend with the repercussions of their hyper-sexualization in American history and mainstream culture, but oftentimes, these racist, sexist encounters occur surreptitiously, never to emerge from the shadows. There is also the worry that the remarks and microaggressions we women must field are not important enough to make such a fuss about — that they are just “minor inconveniences” we must bear and learn to brush off.
When I was 14-years-old and a freshman in high school, I remember walking around downtown at night with a few friends when a man we did not know approached us. As he drew nearer, he explained that he had a high-paying job for us, pausing to emphasize that “Asians would do very well.” It was the first time I had ever been sexually accosted for my physical appearance. One of the older girls I was with, however, laughed off the interaction, stating that things like this happened to her all the time.
I found that the stranger’s words — as well as many others afterward — stayed with me. I could not, and still do not, feel comfortable with exhibiting skin in any way that might be perceived as sexually enticing. I disdain v-necks, for instance, because of how the plunging neckline exposes my décolletage, and still feel bashful when I wear two-piece swimsuits. Sometimes, I feel disappointed in myself, for how I have allowed the male gaze to pierce through me, but mostly I am disheartened that such harmful caricatures of Asian women have been allowed to proliferate for so long, cultivating and even normalizing heinous attitudes that leave lasting psychological imprints on young women like myself.
Minor actions have immense power in influencing the decisions an individual makes in their daily life, generating a constant hum of anxiety that undergirds the rhythm of everyday life. Just because a confrontation does not immediately appear to have any physical impacts or result in death does not mean that it is unworthy of our attention. On the contrary, by infesting the mundane and evading public notice, the racism many Asian Americans experience reveals the complexities and nuances of racist thought and behavior in America.
The events of the past year, from George Floyd’s murder to the recent killings in Atlanta, underscore this explicitly, but we should not need to rely on such occurrences to shock us into action. It is only by overlooking “minor” acts of racism that the recent violence has festered and come to the fore. This is not to say that certain attacks on one group or individual are more important than others, and thus more deserving of our attention — it is largely counterproductive to dwell on hierarchies of racism — but rather, that we may also be able to learn something from everyday experiences of prejudice, if only we take the time to notice.
In the past weeks, my skin-picking has become incessant, as a whole host of concerns — both in the news and in my own personal life — have introduced new sources of anxiety. I am numb to the sting of hot water on raw skin, and my forearms, overexerted from all the picking, ache in protest as I type. I think it’s about time that I start caring for my body more seriously — and America ought to do the same.