exotic women

For some, the use of the term “exotic” by a man to describe a woman they find attractive has no negative connotations whatsoever and is a complete non-issue. For others, it can even be seen as flattering. But for me, and others like me (because I know I’m not alone here, Google says so) the word stirs up some fairly uncomfortable feelings.

For the sake of context, I am half Lebanese and half English. My eyes are almond shaped and my skin is olive toned. I have thick, curly hair, full dark eyebrows and a nose that bends ever so slightly downwards. In short, I look typically Middle- Eastern. Physicality aside, I have grown up in London my whole life and I can’t speak a word of Arabic. I drink tea, pronounce the word ‘scone’ correctly and will wear shorts and a t-shirt as soon as the sun comes out. In short, I feel typically British.

It strikes me as odd, therefore, when some men don’t seem satisfied with the way I identify as British, and insist on labelling me as exotic. Nine times out of ten, my first interaction with someone of the opposite sex in a social setting involves them asking me about me ethnic background. To be clear, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest; it is perfectly human to be curious about someone who looks different and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed of my middle eastern background at all. What does bother me, however, is when a man calls me exotic. It makes me feel strange, out-of-place, like I don’t belong in the room alongside all my friends who I’m suddenly aware don’t look like me at all. It makes me feel isolated, vulnerable, like everyone knows that I’m a bit different even though I thought I was the same. Even if these do stem from some pre-existing insecutiry, I don’t need to be reminded of it by every other man in the club. There is something to be said about the word exotic, and I’m here to say it.

If you look up the word online, its list of synonyms yields some interesting results: foreign, non-native, tropical; alien, imported, introduced, unnaturalized. Now, to understand the problematic nature of the term exotic in describing a woman, one has to ask themselves if they would use any of its synonyms to describe a human being.  “Hi there, sorry to bother you but I couldn’t help but notice you look imported, whereabouts are you from?” If the answer is no, then the conclusion is simple: exotic isn’t a natural term that flows seamlessly in a flirty conversation, it isn’t a word meant to be used to refer to people at all; it’s meant to be used to describe beautiful flowers from distant lands, mysterious creatures, foreign fruits or colourful birds. And, when it is used to describe women by men, it evokes an uncomfortable feeling of simultaneously fetishizing their ethnicity while reinforcing the notion of “the other”, singling them out with one awkward words that screams “you don’t belong here” when the speaker very rarely means to do so. It’s the same problem as asking someone where they really come from.

When a man in a bar calls me exotic and asks me where I’m from, I instantly make two decisions: the first is that their, albeit unintentional, micro-aggression has left me uninterested, and the second is that I won’t give them the answer they are looking for. I tell them politely that I’m from London, when they probe further, I tell them I’m from South West London, further and I say Fulham. Were they to push further, I might go as far as the womb.

Some of my friends roll their eyes at my response; they think I should be flattered. They would love to be referred to as exotic, but instead they look typically English. And anyway, if the man’s intention in the first place was to flirt then I should feel good about the fact that they find my ‘exoticness’ attractive. I get it, I do. Of course I’m flattered if someone finds me attractive, but would it be so difficult for a man to strike up a conversation that doesn’t start with desperately needing to know what distant foreign land I’m from, making me into some kind of token. Why can’t they just start with the usual, “hey, how are you? I’m —–” and let the conversation flow naturally? I’m tired of men thinking I’m mysterious and exotic when they first see me, only to find out that I’m about as exotic as a London pigeon (note the correct use of the term exotic). I know I can’t speak for everyone, and I know that good intentions matter, but so do the subtle micro aggressions that reduce women to a country, or a label, or that make assumptions based on the curve of a nose or the colour of my skin.  All that I ask is that we consider the negative connotations of labelling women as exotic and the way it can make a woman feel; after all, isn’t that important when you’re trying to flirt with a woman?

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Illustration: Camilla Ackley