Why Calling Me ‘Exotic’ Isn’t A Compliment

illustration by Jasmine Thompson

illustration by Jasmine Thompson


Jazz writes about the term ‘exotic’, the connotations that come with it, and why it isn’t necessarily a compliment. 

‘I wish I had your hair and tan… you just look so exotic.’

This wasn’t the first time someone had made this comment to me, and it most certainly won’t be the last.

I’m mixed race, but in no way do I associate with being from anywhere else but the UK.

People sometimes use the word ‘exotic’ when describing anybody who doesn’t necessarily fit into the Western standard of beauty. It’s almost like saying ‘you’ve got different hair texture/skin colour/body type/other physical features’ to me.

But is it offensive?

‘So what’s the problem? Why is this offensive; it’s actually a compliment?’ people have when I noted my displeasure at the word.

Whenever I’ve been called exotic, people have assumed it was a good thing. By their way of thinking, it’s great because you embody some of these physical attributes that people desire, and that you look interesting or unusual. But it can be very objectifying. Occasionally, this can be a prompt for questions like ‘what ARE you?’ or ‘where are you from?’, which immediately suggests you are not from here. My hair is long and thick, and my curl pattern is tight and springy and it’s probably the first thing people notice. I am light skinned, however my skin tone is marginally warmer than my white friends, and my eyes and eyelashes are both dark. I’m mixed race, but in no way do I associate with being from anywhere else but the UK.

source: dictionary

If you look up the definition of exotic, it means ‘a foreign land, a distant place, an import’, and the most common reference is that of birds and food. I don’t feel I associate with the tropical birds or white sandy beaches. I’m definitely not an imported piece of fruit and I’ve grown up here in the UK, so if anything, roast dinners and rainy summers are much more relatable than any form of exotic dancing I’ve ever seen.

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Exoticism is often to fetishise, and fetishisation of the body when you are not white is a huge issue. Racial microaggressions are evident everywhere from film, music videos, to porn, and the word exotic to me embodies a lot of this. Exotification is a form of ethnic objectification. Women have been subjected to the watchful eye of men for years, but with women of colour it’s that bit more problematic: we’re objectified and othered all at the same time. It’s like people look at you as a sex object but a foreign one too, and objectifying that I’m different to you is the problem with calling me exotic.

Asian women are typically seen as submissive or over-sexualised, much like how Latinas are often seen as ‘fiery’ and black men and women ‘chocolate.’ People may obsess over Asian women’s ‘almond eyes’ and silky shiny black hair. They are often described as ‘exotic’ and ‘oriental’; it’s not politically correct and it’s definitely not ok.

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Touching hair and commenting on bodies is still seen as an entitlement in so much of society, when in fact our bodies are our own; not for anyone else’s scrutiny.

Black women’s hair and bums are hugely fetishised in the media, and have been for centuries. From the late 1800s leading up until the 1950’s, there were human zoos from Europe to New York where POC lived as exhibits. Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and Indigenous people were on display in makeshift ‘natural habitats’, stripped of their clothes, whilst spectators could pet and photograph them like ‘exotic animals’.  Saartjie Baartman was a woman brought from Cape Town to human zoos in Europe because of a genetic condition where she had elongated labias and large buttocks- millions flocked to stare at her body. People of colour were objectified and exploited because of their bodies, held captive for people to come and ‘suss out’ because they were considered ‘unusual’, and even now this is still the case in so much of what we are exposed to. Touching hair and commenting on bodies is still seen as an entitlement in so much of society, when in fact our bodies are our own; not for anyone else’s scrutiny.

To tell someone they’re exotic is basically defining them as a ‘very different’ ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’ in reference to animals and plants. People are not exotic, and not to be sexualised or fetishized because of their bodies shape, features, race or skin colour, and we are not here to gawk at. It derives from the ideology that white is still the norm, and to be anything else makes you uncommon or rare. So stop and think before you tell someone they are exotic, and instead remember that they are human, have their own identity, and most importantly; are not from a strange land. I’m from Worcester.

Here at Rife, we want to know your thoughts. What does ‘exotic’ mean to you? Let us know on Twitter at Rifemag or on Facebook at Rife Magazine

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