By Emma Volard, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller
CW: eating disorders, body dysmorphia
In 2019, “Asian” was one of the highest ranking searches on PornHub in Australia. For Elle Shimada, this statistic suggests that women of Asian descent are exposed to a society that objectifies and fetishises their bodies. Emma spoke to the Tokyo-born and Naarm-based producer and multi-instrumentalist known for her feminist and political tones in her art, about the effects of fetishisation on her identity, her perception of her body and her reclamation of sexual power. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation.
Can you talk about your relationship with your body?
I want to thank my body first, for allowing me to live and love. In general, I think I’d like to show more gratitude for it, as I tend to focus more on the wrong things before acknowledging what’s right with it. I don’t always take care of my body enough, eat healthily, or treat it with the love that it deserves. But my body is healthy, and is the vessel for everything I do in this realm: living and breathing, creating, playing music, making love, dancing, holding intellect, integrity, expressing who I am.
There are so many ways we can love our bodies, and we can only decide these things for ourselves. Only we can (and should) judge what works for us. Whether that is to do with acceptance, getting fit, losing weight, eating healthy…or not! Sometimes, the healthiest decision is eating those three desserts.
I think like everyone else in lockdown, I’ve gone through so many different mental states. From wanting to learn a lot, to feeling quite overwhelmed, to depressed, inspired… But recently I’ve come to a new phase, which I’m really enjoying.
How has your identity impacted your perspective on body image?
As a woman, I’ve gone through different phases. As a child, I didn’t really think about body image. My body was a vessel that allowed me to explore and adventure. As I progressed to being a woman, my body changed a lot.
There was a point in my late teens/early 20s where I didn’t appreciate my body at all. I had an eating disorder, went through body dysmorphia and felt like I didn’t fit into “normal” beauty standards. I migrated from Tokyo to Australia… [Australia is] a place where my body type is not the dominant body type. The beauty standards here are very different to back home. Typically, East Asian people are short and slim. There is a huge emphasis on being slim, more so than here in Australia. In my experience, those standards affect mainly younger women.
I recognise to some extent that being a “typical Asian woman” means I will always be fetishised in a Western society. In Australia, “Asian” is one of the highest ranked PornHub searches. In my early 20s, I thought, “Fuck you, I’m going to capitalise on that”. I took that as a source of empowerment and started to embrace my sexuality and sensuality.
Now I’m more mature and in my mid 20s, I feel less insecure and more appreciative of my body. I find very little power in the male gaze in the same narrative… but there’s still a patriarchy that I’m trying to flip. I’m trying to embrace my body, for me, for my sisters, for everyone. I also find all different kinds of bodies sexy, strong and admirable.
A little while back, you posted a series of photos titled Stay Horny For Art. What does that phrase mean to you?
Well… I’m a really horny person, so it was a message for myself. I’ve been in the music industry for a few years now and I found I was taking it all too seriously. I used to constantly think, “I have to practise, I have to do this now”, and forgot about the pure joy of creating art. I’m quite a sensual person - a sexual desire is never a chore. All the feelings I get from making love and natural desires… I want to stay playful and flirt with creativity in the same state of mind. I'm grateful that isolation is helping me get back to that state.
Are women’s expressions of sexuality seen as taboo?
To be honest, I think all people’s expressions of sexuality are seen as taboo. However, I think expressions of sexuality have the ability to affect the way our male-dominated society is run, provided we feel comfortable with expressing our sexuality. Historically, women’s expressions of sexuality have been for a male gaze. I think expressions of sexuality being “taboo” shows their power.
What are your experiences with fetishisation, objectification and tokenisation?
As an East Asian woman, I barely fit into moulds imposed onto people in Australia. I’m not here to be appropriated or subjected to that bullshit. I think cultural fetishisation/“appreciation” is the result of colonialism. And it happens all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever walked onto Brunswick St in Fitzroy in the middle of the night without having some form of “interaction” with someone. And a common response when I tell them what the fuck is up is, “Why do you have a problem?”. My problem is that I’m not there to please or be objectified.
Sometimes it’s very obvious that I’ve been tokenised and not seen as an artist. But then some things are actually harder to see - is it cultural curiosity, tokenisation or someone just genuinely interested in giving me space in the industry? Maybe it doesn’t matter what an organiser’s intentions are if the outcome of the gig is “art”? It’s up to us as performers to create what the audience feels. But that being said, I’m still vocal if I feel tokenised, to make sure that pattern doesn’t continue to repeat.
On Instagram, you have been vocal about light skin privilege within your culture. How have you seen this manifest in so-called Australia?
Privilege is based on many factors - socio-economic status, access to education or welfare, language, gender… and the list goes on. I think that simply buying into one factor of privilege, such as skin tone, can take away from the complexity of an individual’s experience. Whatever privilege we do have, skin tone is something visible for any seeing person, and unfortunately in this society, skin tone determines the opportunities/discrimination that we receive. As a light skin person, I think the healthiest thing to do is to acknowledge that.
Do you feel that being a woman has affected the way you’ve been treated in the music scene?
So often we are expected to fight in a battlefield that’s not even made for us. But on the other hand, there has been so much support and empowerment from many sisters and brothers. And I’m glad to be a woman. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I love it.
I think it’s an exciting time to be a woman, because while there is still more work to do, there hasn’t ever been an easier time for us to do what we want to do. We have to think about what it took for us to get here and be mindful that the fight will continue so that the next generation can be more accepting and explorative than our generation.
What change would you like to see in the so-called Australian music industry over the next five years?
The most important thing for me is seeing more First Nations artists being represented, and not only onstage, but within the entire industry. Representation offstage will sustainably contribute to changing the industry.
Another thing is, I want to see freedom of expression from all of us, but especially those who are women, queer, and/or BIPOC.
I want to feel that marginalised groups are supported by the industry, and for that support to extend into more job positions, in management, distribution, radio… the whole industry really.
As I get older, I’m becoming more and more interested in mentoring and passing on the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the years to empower emerging young people. I wish more people had helped me prepare for when I entered the industry in my teenage years. Also… I wish someone told me that we don’t have to bend our knees for shit we don’t agree with.
I believe we haven’t heard 90% of all music that can be heard and experienced due to the music industry being a white man’s world. In terms of representation, I like to think about the sounds we haven’t heard yet with excitement. What we can be is maybe as important, if not more important, than what we are. But we can’t figure out what we can be without learning about what we have been.
Keep up to date with Elle Shimada here
If you or someone you know is struggling, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, we highly recommend these resources:
Butterfly Foundation: (+61) 1800 334 673
Lifeline: (+61) 13 11 14
Eating Disorders Victoria: (+61) 1300 550 236
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.