Who is Michelle Ton?
I’m actually a pharmacist and I’m currently in my second year of residency to become a clinical pharmacist in psychiatry. Born and raised in northern Virginia (right outside of Washington, D.C.) and moved down to North Carolina for pharmacy school. Currently, I’m in Salt Lake City, Utah for a residency program.
Tell us a little bit about what you do in your free time. What are your hobbies and your interests?
In my free time, I like finding a bunch of random things to do to be completely honest. I actually haven't found one hobby that I loved and wanted to repeat so I always try to be active on social media, read newsletters, or use word of mouth to see what's happening. I typically like anything involving art, music, outdoor activities - as long as it's safe and I’m not scared for my life. I always tried to invite friends or people who might be interested just in case it could become their hobby as well. I recently picked up roller skating. I bought all the knee pads and the necessary equipment. Right now, I only stop by falling down on my knees, but at least the knee pads prevent any noticeable scars from happening - emotional scars we’re still working with.
You sound like you'll try anything, so, would you say modeling for manakii was out of your comfort zone?
Oh, one thousand percent. I kid you not when I messaged Sowmya that I was interested in becoming one of the models I had just finished rounds with patients in a critical care unit. I saw that [the post] and it was like a completely different brain switched on. It was definitely out of my comfort zone. Something I’d never thought about doing, definitely nothing related to what I just got done doing, but I was like ‘This sounds fun. This company sounds great. Maybe she'll choose me.’ I didn't think that she would actually choose me, and when I got that email I did hesitate a little bit I’m not gonna lie.
I feel like as with most women and people in general, body image or self-love kind of fluctuates. And at that point, I wasn't necessarily in love with myself, but I said, screw it let's do it. It's for a good cause. I know Sowmya, she's wonderful. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. What's really holding me back, you know?
How did you feel after modeling for manakii?
Like I said, that roller coaster of loving yourself and finding things to improve, I found a lot of things I loved about myself that I never identified before. I one thousand percent have to thank the other models for pointing that out for me. They were my biggest cheerleaders when I didn't want to exit the dressing room. I was the first person to actually wear the underwear. Sowmya straight up cried which caused me to cry and then everyone started crying. It was happy tears and it was really very empowering. That kind of just set the mood for the rest of the photoshoot.
I’ve always loved dancing in my underwear, but I must say I’ve never really done it in front of other people. I felt so comfortable and welcome to do it there, and was very happy that everyone joined me as well.
What are your favorite things about the brand manakii?
I've tried summarizing this to people and then I end up going on a tangent. I won't stop talking about manakii but it’s definitely the mission behind it that was the part that spoke to me the most, to be honest. Before I was a part of this brand I did not realize that underwear was the most asked for item in women's shelters but the least given. The ones that are given aren't the most comfortable or the most flattering and that really gives the perspective of okay, underwear is a human essential - it shouldn't be a luxury that only those who are fortunate can afford and feel comfortable in. Having that realization made me realize how lucky I was and want to raise more awareness about it. I really do think that this brand is shining a light on women's needs in populations that I’m not very familiar with.
What do you hope people see when they see your photos on manakii?
I hope they think that she has a really great butt. Just kidding. I hope that it just shows that everyone can wear underwear and, for the most part, everyone should wear underwear. I know this brand also drives home comfortable, sustainable underwear that is affordable, as well. I hope that people can see that this isn't a gimmick, that this is something that is here to stay and really revolutionize how underwear is seen. Like I said earlier, it shouldn't be a luxury & everyone should have it. Everyone should love how they look in it and know that they can wear it and just go off and be a bad bitch.
What's a topic that you could talk about for hours?
Well, as a pharmacist, I would definitely have to say drugs. I love it when people ask me medication questions. Granted I don't know everything, but I will sure as heck do the best that I can to look into it and follow up with my friends. Medications can be life-saving; so I want to make sure that they [my friends] feel comfortable taking them and that my friends have a resource in me to feel comfortable with and take their meds.
How did you figure out that you wanted to go into pharmaceutical work?
Long story short, I always loved science. I actually originally thought I wanted to go into the pharmaceutical industry making the medications. I had an undergrad internship at a startup pharmaceutical company and I worked with mice that had inflammatory bowel disease and saw firsthand how medication can help the inner workings of a person, organism, etc. I quickly realized I preferred working with humans. As you can imagine, mice with inflammatory bowel disease like to bite and I was really hoping that patients would be less willing to bite and that's been mostly true. I realized I liked having that one on one personal connection with patients, hearing what their concerns are. There are so many medications that we have access to in the United States that you know one doesn't fit everyone. Making these medications patient-specific based on side effects like dosing and all that stuff. I really love it. It really is my passion.
How has your experience been throughout college or at work as a woman in a stem field?
Oh, I had to deal with this yesterday. A male pharmacy student just said something that really triggered me because it was textbook toxic masculinity. It really got to me. I was just like, how can I correct this person or let them know that what he's saying is inappropriate in this professional setting? I actually ended up texting the girls [the other manakii models] for advice and they helped talk me off the ledge. I am grateful for all of them. The necessary conversation with the student did happen and he was very receptive so I’m very grateful.
I can't speak for all of STEM, but the healthcare field especially is very male-dominated. Patients may also anticipate that a male should be the one to talk to them about their medications so a lot of the time, I find myself kind of pushed to the sidelines or having to show that I am a valuable part of the team. I feel that as a woman going into this field, I have been told don't draw attention to myself, look a certain way, hold yourself a certain way, and to some point, I do believe in professionalism, but I don't think that that should outweigh my feminism. I think I can be both professional and also emphasize that I am a female in this field. I shouldn't try to blend in with the males.
Is there anything that you wish people knew about you or understood about your experience?
It's twofold. People who know me know that I am very outspoken. I’ve actually been told once that I need to tone it down before I make recommendations on rounds. What people don't realize is that my personality outside of the professional settings is not necessarily the same as when I am professional. I am very bubbly and outgoing in my personal life, but when I’m professional I am soft-spoken. I can still read social cues (read the room). I kind of wish people knew that I am capable of that separation between personal and professional.
When you're meeting new people or even working with clients what is the number one thing that you want them to walk away with? What do you want other people’s impressions of you to be?
Definitely for my patients, specifically, is for them to know that I’m rooting for them. I’m their cheerleader but, at the end of the day, you know it's up to them. If they have any questions or any struggles, I am here to listen and to maybe adjust their medications if they need to. Basically, just letting people know that I am here for them, no matter what they're going through. I definitely try to make that my lasting impression on people.
Do you think that ties over to your friendships?
My friends have definitely become my family. Communication is definitely key. Just calling someone out of the blue to see how they're doing or following up with them if they told me they're going through something difficult. Whatever they're going through I’m here to listen. I can give advice if that's what they want or I’m there to just be there. Whatever they need I do my best to just be supportive to my friends.
When was a time you felt really empowered?
Honestly, when I started weightlifting. I always tried to be active, but I’ve always been a little bit scared of weights. I just decided to try it and for the first time ever, I did the squat rack without any assistance. I did not crush myself and I did multiple squats, in fact. I'm actually going there later today to just see if I can improve my strength. I thought that was something really cool and I felt very, very empowered after that. I felt incredibly strong both emotionally and physically.
Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in northern Virginia?
I get a lot of crap for growing up in northern Virginia (also called Nova) mostly because of the traffic. The traffic is awful, but I was very lucky to have grown up with such a diverse group of people. I didn't know I was Asian until I was around six years old. There were just so many different cultures and ethnicities within my preschool class. Looking back at those photos, I just remember all of these different foods not knowing that they were considered weird or gross to other people. They were all delicious to me, but I can eat almost anything. So I have realized that growing up surrounded by all these different cultures kind of helped shape my outlook to be more accepting of different cultures. I will go to all of these different cultural festivals just so I can have some of the same foods I had growing up as a kid.
Do you mind telling us a little bit about your religion or your experience with Buddhism?
I grew up Buddhist. Unfortunately, it was due to my grandfather passing away that I actually explored it. Just kind of being thrown into the traditions of how to, I guess, progress someone's soul into enlightenment into the other side basically. The initial process is when someone passes away, you have to chant a very specific chant that's basically like ‘you can do it’ so they can get through the seven layers of hell. From my understanding, you basically train and pray for seven weeks straight and you go to a Buddhist temple every Sunday, and then, at the seventh week, you know that your loved one has kind of crossed to the other side. Then, at the 100-day mark of the death anniversary, you come together to commemorate your loved ones. When the person dies we get this white headband that symbolizes grieving and at either the 100-day mark, the one-year mark, or the two-year mark (to be honest, I don't remember) you cut that to basically say I am no longer grieving because I know my loved one is in a better place, so I really kind of like that thought process. Knowing that I am able to move on, knowing that my loved one is in that better place. I'm still learning because with all of the chants I'm like what does this mean? Who am I praying to? What are the different levels that they're going through? It's a lot, but it's definitely interesting.
Is there a particular quote that you love or live by?
There is a Rupi Kaur poem that I love and I actually sent to my mother. This one:
When I read that one I just thought of my family. My family has a higher female to male ratio and all the females are just complete and total badasses. I'm not sure if you know, but unlike traditional Asian culture, it's supposed to be like the male that's supposed to be the bread maker. Having all of these super successful and brilliant women kind of carry the family name in this non-traditional way has always been inspiring to me like growing up.
Are there any other similar pressures that are normally placed on Asian families that you feel like you have to live up to, or you feel like you want to defy?
I'm not gonna lie I’ve been very lucky to be raised by an incredibly strong woman, essentially breaking away from that stereotypical Asian upbringing. Something that has been ingrained in me from the beginning that is definitely common to Asian culture, is just to be successful. To me, I realized as I’ve grown up and gone to Grad school and now during residency and will be working is that my definition of success is definitely different from my mom and her sisters and her cousins. Their definition of success was essentially survival. Getting enough money to support everyone in their family, to have food on their table, to make sure their children have the best life that they were not able to have when they came to America. Although my definition of success is definitely fueled by that, I definitely would say I am more driven by what actually fulfills me as a person. Not just tangible outcomes like a paycheck and things like that, but if what I am doing actually bettering the world. I think, by doing that and still carrying my family's name I’m still in a way answering that trying to traditional Asian upbringing, but in a very different, maybe even Americanized outlook.
Author || McKenna Robertson
Interviewer || McKenna Robertson & Hanne Wilson