Gender & Identity, Life

Stop calling me exotic

If I am beautiful, it is not because my eyeliner meets America’s standards for Brown girls.

Gently tanned skin – not too dark, of course, but carrying that deep, bronze glow that seems to signify experience and a refreshing breath of femaleness. 

I notice her full, round, painted pout that hides an exquisite smile. A thin and sharp nose, full arched brows, and those eyes: framed by long, dark lashes hidden under bold wings of liner, her eyes captivate me. Her lashes flutter, her eyes glitter, and that pout curves into a sexy smile. The thick locks of long, dark hair framing her face seem to make her features even more daring. Her body just as breathtaking, with a tiny waist held in between curves. Her long hair flows around her like a halo, her hips swaying as she walks. Her voice is like music – a deep melody that tugs my senses. 

I find myself in a trance, drawn to her.

I don’t normally find women of color beautiful, but she is exotic.

***

The dictionary definitions of the word “exotic” include “being of foreign character,” “introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized,” and “strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance.” Synonyms include alien, alluring, glamorous, romantic, strange, enticing, extraordinary, foreign, kinky and outlandish.

The classic Disney example is Princess Jasmine.

Of course, the Arabian princess had to embody all things sexy, with big eyes, bigger hair, and curves that make Barbie’s proportions look healthy. While most of the other princesses had unique personalities, defined by courage, adventure or empathy, our exotic princess is known for her tantalizing foreign beauty.

How does that translate into foreign girls in the real world?

Growing up with many Desi and Arab friends, it’s not hard to see that girls with Jasmine-esque characteristics were given the most attention. People found a certain worth in this brand of beauty in girls of color.

Calling a woman “exotic” instantly otherizes her, labeling her as foreign – but not fully naturalized or acclimated. People should simply not be categorized, otherized or labeled.

Call her beautiful with no such strings attached.

Being born and raised in America but still defined as “exotic” is a constant reminder that I will only be valued for my foreignness, something that could easily become an object of ridicule unless society found it beautiful or striking.

Often, women of color find themselves feeding into the cycle, trying to become this sort of beautiful so that they don’t fall into the other end of the spectrum. We don’t want to be called “fresh off the boat.” We don’t want to feel foreign, weird, backward or plain.

How we are “supposed” to look to be attractive based on our race is subtly instilled within us, and perhaps it is the subtlety that is most frightening.

Subconsciously, we know how to look “exotic,” and we know it’s how we might be recognized as attractive.

We have grown up seeing girls of color thought of as pretty looking a certain way and carrying a certain ambiance. We find ourselves painting the exotic picture and feeding these images, complying with the structures of what an attractive “foreign” woman should look like.

Within my Desi friends, longer, darker, fuller hair is expected and glorified. The darker and bolder the eyeliner, the better. Fake eyelashes become the norm, and overlining our already-full lips is the new trend. That’s not to say that playing with makeup is a bad thing.

The trouble is that so much of our lives are centered around becoming this subtly sexual feminine figure, always walking a fine line and teasing balance to please Western standards of our beauty. Women of color need to be as they want to, because they want to – not for the sake of fulfilling these distorted and too specific standards of beautiful.

This trap has almost stripped me of my individual freedom to grow and develop as a uniquely beautiful woman. While the closest sense of freedom I have found from this is in hijab, my skin color will always speak for me and expectations will be voiced.

Stripping myself of these constructs feels as though I am battling myself. It is as though I am sacrificing a piece of me, but the first step to stepping out of categorizations is shedding the obligation from myself.

If I am beautiful, it is not because my eyeliner meets America’s standards for Brown girls. It is because I am confidently presenting the woman I want to be, painting the picture with full discretion and embracing both the American and the Desi sides of me as one.

Confidence will always be more beautiful than exotic.