‘Soft’ is a dirty word in my household.
Or to be more precise, to be called ‘lembik’, its Malay equivalent, was considered an insult as it also happens to be the synonym for ‘weak’.
“Sikit-sikit aje nak nangis, lembiknye Baby…”
(“You cry at the drop of a hat, you’re so weak Baby”)
My late mum used to chide, while I bit my tongue and blinked back the tears during yet another lecture for being the black sheep of the family.
“Baru keluar rumah aje, dah nak pengsan. Lembiknye… inilah kenapa Mummy tak suka keluar dengan Baby!”
(“We just left the house and you’re already feeling faint? You’re so weak, this is why Mummy doesn’t like to go out with you!”)
She would grumble when I ask to stop for a snack and the comforting whiff of Axe Oil before I pass out from low blood sugar.
“Asyik nak kesian orang, siapa nak kesian kita? Jangan jadi lembik kasi orang pijak kepala!”
(“You’re always pitying everyone else, who pities us? Don’t be such a weak pushover and let everyone step on you!”)
She’ll often remind me when she caught me getting upset over a lost relationship or an unfair situation. As much as I wanted to wallow in my feelings, she deemed it an utter complete waste of time, condemned to the weak and helpless.
But we are not weak and helpless, the women of the Iskandar family. We could not afford to be, as my mother single-handedly raised us with a husband who played passive observer rather than active participant.
The daughters of Juraidah are strong and fearless. We are not soft gentle creatures who ask for help. That is the legacy we uphold.
The tough love came in handy when I was given the ultimate test: Move to New York at 20 alone without family or friends. Just on the back of a dream to make it big in fashion and the sheer arrogance of believing it’ll happen because there was simply no other option.
I’m Juraidah’s daughter, of course I’ll be successful.
I am tough and smart, not ’lembik’ like the others.
My manager at Kenneth Cole echoed my mother’s words on my first day interning in NY. I was still technically a freshman in college but I was bored out of my mind and after six months in the city, I’d requested for an internship. I made the cut under their HR department but I’ll never forget when this loud, bold Fran-Drescher-from-The-Nanny lookalike sat me down and gave me the lookover in the fashion closet. Maria sagely declared, “Rin, I like you but if you don’t toughen up, New York’s going to eat you alive.”
I went back to the dorm that evening, slightly perturbed but even more spurred on to take her advice to heed. I’m not just going to be tough, I’m going to be New York Tough ™.
So like an overachieving student, I followed the rules and faked it till I made it. How does a young brown virginal Malay girl quickly fake being a fearless, hardened, don’t-fuck-with-me cool New Yorker?
She puts on the quintessential NY armour: I only wore black. Any semblance of variety in my closet came from textures: leather, vinyl, and metal. My eyes were always smoky and lips were stained burgundy. My fingers and neck were adorned with knuckledusters, gold chains with swords pendants, and leather wraps. I always had a pair of sunglasses in my bag because if your eyes remain unseen, strangers can’t read you. And as much as I love pretty heels, I chose my shoes by one main strict criteria: how fast can I kick an assailant and run?
And it actually worked. I didn’t just blend in, I thrived. I felt alive. I felt like I was home. My mother didn’t raise a ‘lembik’ daughter. She raised a New York Tough ™ badass.
Ten years later, I came back to Singapore. Depending on my mood and how much I’ve had to drink, I’ll tell you a different reason why whenever one asks. Family, duty, guilt, as a fuck-you to my ex-boss, tired of being the nice one, a break-up, and finally destiny. All and none are true at the same time. In reality, I moved because I made the impulsive decision to leave NY thinking I’ll be back in the city in three months.
Some days I look back and marvel at the audacity and recklessness of young Rin in New York and I miss her. If I could travel back in time, the first thing I want to do is give her a big hug and say “You’re ok. You’re more than ok, you’re golden.”
But young Rin was proud. And strong. And resilient. She does not admit her regrets, she was Juraidah’s daughter after all. The women of the Iskandar family made mistakes and kept making them, and making them, and making them, until we were ready to learn our lesson. So I kept my head down and carried on.
We kept soldiering on even on the eve of her death. Of course we had no idea it would be the day before she passed. To the family, it was Day 3 since she was admitted into the hospital and we were still in the dark about the severity of her breast cancer. I crept to her bedside as I came out from a meeting with the doctors at 8 am. It’s never a good sign when doctors ask for you first thing in the morning before official visiting hours, and I was right. They showed me her scans and as they droned on, their voices faded in the distance as all I honed in on were the multiple dense lumps, almost meteorite-like in shape. They were taking over her body. They’d conquered both her breasts, were sneaking into her lungs and bones, and all I could think of was “Why?”
“Why did you keep this pain from us?”
I sat in the chair across her as she slept on, observing the little wisps of baby hair sticking to her glistening face, the lines under her eyes, her cheekbones sharp as a knife, and wondered, “How did I miss that – just how alone you’ve been?”
I felt the familiar hot sting in my eyes but did not move a muscle. I kept as still as I could while the tears and snot rolled down. I didn’t want to make a sound and wake her up. I turned my head slightly to face the window and took a deep breath as I wiped the rivulets streaming down my cheeks. And yet she caught me still.
“Baby jangan nangis (don’t cry) for mummy. Baby kan strong. You are the strong one in the family.” She begged faintly in a voice groggy from sleep and meds. Those would have been her penultimate words to me ever.
I was startled, from surprise but more poignantly, because after all this time, I’d always thought I was the weakest link in the family. The lembik one. The black sheep. The one who was branded as a failure when she stepped onto that plane back from New York: alone, broke and unsure of what’s next in life.
Instead all along she thought I was strong. She thought I was fearless. She thought her daughter could move mountains if she wanted to.
It was the bittersweet affirmation I didn’t know I needed to hear from her all this while.
Three years later, life’s taken quite the off track path. My mother’s death anniversary is Shy & Curious’s birthday and in the past year, I’ve also set off for another adventure in my life – living and breathing sex toys every day at Horny.sg. I love my job, the team and the philosophy behind our work. I’m so grateful to be able to meet all these wonderful customers and community as we work on breaking taboos and simply put – making people happy.
But it doesn’t come without some challenges either. I wish there were more hours in a day to juggle both work and writing. Not everyone is open to our mission and what we can help with (especially with a name like Horny.sg!) And unfortunately I still have detractors in the field, who don’t shy away from proclaiming what they think (or don’t think) of me. While I would initially get flustered and upset, I’ve learned to brush them aside over the past two years. It’s alright, I’ll tell myself, my vibe attracts my tribe. But it doesn’t mean my mother’s daughter would simply roll over and shrink. Nope, perhaps it’s time to bring out New York Tough ™ Rin again.
At least, that was the assignment when I showed up at The Pin-Up Rebels’ studio for my second boudoir photography shoot two weeks ago. Mary and I’ve become fast friends since my maiden foray where I had the epiphany that I’m exactly where I’m suppose to be. It was the game-changer in my confidence and self-assurance. So when Mary asked how I’ll like to look this time around, without hesitation I said, “Strong. Like a badass boss bitch. Gimme Dolce & Gabbana Italian femme fatale.”
“Ooo…So red lips?”
“Yes, but not sexy red. Like the 90’s sophisticated burgundy. Powerful.”
“Cool, but since it’s Shy & Curious’s 2nd birthday too are you open to trying something new?”
“Sure, why not? I trust you!”
“How do you feel about whipped cream and sprinkles?”
I hesitated for a moment as I thought of the scene from the 2000’s parody teen flick where young Chris Evans slathered his privates with whipped cream like a banana split. “Mmmm… alright, let’s see where it goes!”
But deep down inside I was squirming, “Argghhhh… is it going to look so cliche?!”
I’ve never been a fan of mixing food into the bedroom (unless of course as aftercare). But I kept true to my word and said yes to that as the final look for the shoot. I was curious to see how it would turn out.
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t as nervous or that I already knew what to expect, but the shoot flew faster than I originally remembered and it didn’t feel as physically exhausting as before. I’ve to admit that it was absolutely surreal and hilarious when I was told to keep very still while two grown women cleaned me with baby wipes after pouring syrup all over my bare butt. (That also felt like it had the potential to go into a totally different kind of shoot if I wasn’t in a safe space and team!)
Yet it also felt strange because for the first time in a very long time, I was completely vulnerable. This was not the strong I was going for, I thought to myself. Will it look out of place amongst the shots of myself in power suits, leather harnesses and spiky jewellery?
The other new element Mary introduced into the mix was the Same-Day Reveal. As I jumped out of the shower after digging out sprinkles and whipped cream from my belly button, she told me to just relax and zone out for an hour while she makes her initial selection from our shoot. “Oooo… are you serious? You mean I can pick my final cut from what we did this afternoon?”
“Yup, just take note they’re raw with no edits and I’ll do some light touch-ups for the final selection but otherwise, this is it!”
“Alright then, I trust you…” I uttered with the wary undertone of someone who obviously does not trust her.
Trust is a funny concept.
As the first few slides flashed across the screen with a fitting power anthem that Mary chose, I was transfixed and growing more aware of this strange discomfort in my gut. While there was no doubt Mary and her team did their magic as the images were gorgeous, the niggling feeling came from another source. As much as I loved my powerful poses and strong stance, it suddenly didn’t feel right.
Wow, this is weird. They were beautiful but they were just nice.
Instead it was the softer series that got me speechless. The ones that were a quiet and powerful “Hell-Yes”. I was stunned by the close-ups of my literal soft belly, fleshy thighs, naked breasts and butt that haven’t seen much of a workout in a while. The stolen frames where I was taking a deep inhale and just resting looked so inviting. The photos of me being so vulnerable yet absolutely delighted in being a big mess of whipped cream, sprinkles and syrup looked like paintings. Mary captured the moments where I was going in my head, “I’ve no idea what I’m doing but this is more fun than I thought it would be!”
Those were the ones that made me gasp and declare “Yes, this is the one….”
I’ve to admit, I should have trusted her to see what I didn’t see.
So in yet another twist which I definitely couldn’t predict, vulnerability turned out to be the common theme for my final selection.
Mary made a joke that’s absolutely true. Boudoir photography isn’t just about looking beautiful and sexy, it can be ‘photo-therapy’. The lightbulb over my head made a ding as the realization dawned on me while I confirmed my final looks. This time around, my body and heart instinctively chose softness to celebrate the blog, my mum and me.
For now, I’m letting go of my amour of leather, withering glare, and the ’don’t-fuck-with-me’ attitude. While it’s been a huge part of my life ingrained to help me survive and conquer anything thrown at me, I can let her take a break for now. This is a new dimension I’m discovering at the moment, one where vulnerability is as equally powerful as strength. Where softness does not get mistaken as weakness. To be at peace and confident that I can and will move mountains when the time comes, but also to stop giving a fuck and let things go just because I can.
Because at the end of the day, when I still look and feel ridiculously empowered in nothing but whipped cream and my birthday suit – that’s the reminder of how far I’ve come. I’ve absolutely nothing or no one to prove it too. I’m a badass just is.
I am soft. I am strong. I am fearless. I am vulnerable.
I am Juraidah’s daughter and Noorindah’s own caretaker.
That is the legacy I uphold.