“You’re really pretty for an Indian girl.”
On the surface, this comment seems harmless—he’s calling me pretty! I should be thrilled! But every time I get this comment from a guy, whether it’s at a bar, a coffee shop, or a party, I cringe. I try to smile and nod, and convince myself that I’m being paid a compliment, but I can’t shake the feeling of humiliation this comment gives me.
No, I don’t think this comment is intentionally malicious—I’m confident that these people did not mean to insult me. However, comments like this make me feel like my beauty and desirability is only valued within the context of my race and ethnicity. I can’t be pretty in and of itself. I’m only pretty for an Indian girl. No matter how much I try to convince myself that this was meant as a compliment, it still feels like a slap in the face.
Men approach me at bars, and say things like, “I’m not normally into Indian girls, but I’d do you,” or “Wow, you’re so much whiter than other Indian girls!” These comments are indicative of implicit biases towards the beauty and desirability of other races. My friends of color have had similar experiences, and I’ve gotten these comments with such frequency that when a man approaches me at a bar, I feel like I’m internally counting down the seconds before he puts his foot in his mouth.
These comments are part of a larger system that perpetuates an ideal of “white beauty,” which is the standard by which all women much be judged. We see it in the lack of representation of women of color in magazine ads and in the whitewashing of Hollywood, which reinforces the notion that “white beauty” is the ideal to aspire to, while women of color who are beautiful are exceptions to this white “default.” This leads to the exotifying, fetishizing, and stereotyping of women who break through the “white beauty” mold, like Lupita Nyong’o and Sofia Vergara. A dichotomy is created between the traditional, standard, ideal “white” beauty, and all other people of color. These people are the “other”—they are separate, and their beauty is valued only within the constructs of their own ethnicity. Women who are “white” are beautiful—but women of color are “beautiful for an [insert race or ethnicity] girl”. This means that women of color cannot compete with the true ideal standard of beauty, something that I’m constantly reminded of when I open up a fashion magazine or watch an awards show.
Of course, by no means are white men the only people that make these kinds of comments, nor are they the only people that fall into the trap of exotifying women of color. Once an Indian man at a bar told me, “You don’t look South Indian to me, because South Indians are unattractive.” Another time, my female friend told me that this white boy was only into me because he’s probably “really into exotic girls,” as if there was no other possible explanation for a white boy to be interested in me. But regardless of who these kinds of remarks come from, they make me feel like somehow my desirability is tied to my “exoticness;” that I’m only desirable relative to other people of my race, that I can’t be considered pretty compared to my non-Indian peers.
So when I go to a bar and am approached by a man, and get comments like “You’re pretty for an Indian girl,” it perpetuates a dynamic that treats my beauty, my personality, and the things that make me desirable as “token” characteristics—as things that set me apart from my “undesirable” race and ethnicity. I’m only beautiful compared to my Indian peers, I’m only desirable because I’m exotic, I’m only interesting because I’m somehow different than other Indian girls. I’m never just beautiful, desirable, or interesting on my own.
My race and my ethnicity influence my experiences and the way in which I see the world—however, they are not the only aspects of my life, nor are they the most important. As a unique human being, my value cannot be reduced solely to my ethnic background. I’m beautiful in and of myself, regardless of my race. I’m not just pretty for an Indian girl, because I am so much more than just an Indian girl.
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