The Pink Sweater and the Subtle Art of Shade
“I like your Halloween costume, Rachel-sensei! Very colorful, ne?” A well-meaning teacher says to me, upon seeing my outfit.
Yes, today I’m teaching a lesson on Halloween traditions in America. No, I’m not wearing a costume.
Here’s a breakdown of my outfit: black tights, already starting to run because they weren’t made to accommodate my thick American thighs. Red skirt, a sale item from UNIQLO. Hair down, modestly arranged into a half-updo. And a hand-stitched shirt I bought in Mexico. If you’ve ever been on a cruise I guarantee you’ve seen these shirts, made of cotton or linen with bouquets of colorful flowers hand-stitched around the wide neck. They're a popular souvenir for tourists - I got mine on a day trip to the border. Importantly, they’re not a Halloween costume.
Still, I know this teacher means no harm, so I shrug it off and go on with my day.
I’ve never felt more scrutinized about my looks than since I came to Japan. Obviously, there’s a lot of cultural subtext there, which I can’t possibly hope to unpack in one lifetime. For a long time, Western standards of beauty have been “idealized” by Japan and have been combined with other aspects of the country’s rich and complicated culture that has created some unique, and in some cases oddly-specific, aesthetics.
When I first got here, teachers marveled at me. “Oh, Rachel-sensei, your eyes are such a pretty color! Your skin is so lovely and white! I love the color of your hair!” It was flattering, at first, but a little uncomfortable with all of the middle-aged Japanese women oohing and ahhing over me like a pet.
After a few months, my novelty has worn off. The middle school girls who used to giddily call me “kawaii” now avoid making eye contact with me altogether.
I know the lengths Japanese women go to for beauty, and although I like wearing makeup and dressing nice, I could never live up to their standards. In a way, I hoped to be accepted because of, not despite, my differences.
Yes, Western beauty is idolized here, but even this scope is limited. There’s a certain idea of what a foreigner is “supposed” to look like – and you’ll know if you don’t fit the criteria. When you’re a foreigner in a big city like Tokyo, you stand a better chance of blending in, but it’s easier to stand out surrounded by rice fields and persimmon trees. And with the extra visibility, comes extra judgement.
“Ah, Rachel-sensei, your clothes are very… interesting,” a different middle-aged woman says to me on a different day, and I can hear the condescension in every word.
It’s one of the coldest days of the season so far, and I’m wearing a pink sweater. I’m not a complete fashion novice – I’ve balanced the bright color with dark pants, minimal makeup, swept my hair into a dark-colored scrunchie. Frankly, it’s the only sweater I’ve bought so far in Japan, so I’m dressing more for survival than for fashion.
Her comment is a direct blow to my self-esteem, meant to shame me into greys and blues for the rest of fall and into winter. Some might say I’m reading too much into things, but Japan is a culture built on reading between the lines.
“Do Americans always dress like… this?”
And for a moment, the shame tactics work, and I cross my arms over my chest in embarrassment, and then I take a glance at this teacher’s clothes. As I’m being derided for daring to inject life into my wardrobe, Coco Chanel of the inaka is wearing a frumpy black turtleneck under a navy-blue sweater vest, both of which are tucked into a pair of grey track pants. It wouldn’t land her on the cover of Vogue, but it’s certainly a look.
I’m not one to judge people based on their clothes – but those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
“Yes, we do,” I say, through a forced smile. “Actually, my clothes are boring compared to other Americans.”
And I smile through the tension and go on with my day, but on my commute home I let it all out. Every tear washes away a bit of the varnish on my idealized vision of Japan, mingling with my mascara and staining my new sweater.
I wear the embroidered Mexican shirt to a Día de los Muertos party in Beppu, at a charming little Mexican restaurant down an alley and tucked between buildings. I walk in and see lots of foreigners, some in La Catrina makeup, some eating tacos and drinking Coronas, an altar with calaveras and photos of the dearly-departed lit by the flickering light of votive candles, Mexican music thrumming in the background. And even though I’m surrounded by strangers, I feel like I’m home. Happy tears well in my eyes as I fill homemade corn tortillas with black beans and pickled onions, but I fight them back, because I still haven’t upgraded to a waterproof mascara.
I see the organizer of the party, a fellow ALT, and greet her warmly. She and her husband are from Mexico and are happy to share their culture and celebrate, and I’m happy to have a tiny taste of the life I left behind in Texas. She sparkles in full sugar skull makeup, her head wreathed by bright flowers.
“I love your shirt!” she says to me. “We have a term for this color in Mexico – it’s the kind of yellow that fucks with your eyes.”
I can't help but laugh. Her directness and delivery kills me, in the best way – after months of learning the Japanese tradition of communication via subtext, I need to hear someone tell me directly that my shirt “fucks with the eyes.”
And as the night goes on, the tears in my eyes dry up, I eat more tacos and drink more beer, and I feel whole again.
Fashion is so deeply personal, and to be honest I still haven't entirely figured out my own style yet. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to dress the way people wanted me to, and I as I've expanded my wardrobe here in Japan I could have easily been swayed to conform and buy exclusively blues and blacks.
But at 28, I’ve finally learned that there’s nothing more rewarding than looking into the mirror and seeing yourself.
And whatever I wear – whether a pink sweater or a yellow shirt that “fucks with your eyes” – I wear it for me.