I’m always surprised by the way I look. Sometimes I look down and notice that my thighs are taking up much more space than I would like. Or sometimes I glance at myself in the mirror and realize that my arms are fuller and rounder than I expected. I don’t expect to look like myself. I expect to look like other girls, girls who are on TV and in magazines, girls who people call ‘beautiful.’ I don’t want to look like them—not outwardly, at least. I tell myself I don’t care if I’m not ‘beautiful.’ But then I’m caught off-guard every once in a while when I catch a glimpse of myself somewhere and realize that I do not look like anyone in the movies. I’m so much messier, my broad nose spilling over my cheeks when I smile. I’m so much bigger.
Chaya Babu recently published an article on the Feminist Wire called Walking the Tightrope: Good Indian Girls, Race, and Bad Sexuality. As a Muslim and a second-generation Pakistani-American immigrant, a lot of what she said stuck with me, especially a paragraph describing her experience in high school:
“Women of color were mostly unseen as partner options. And if we landed in the purview somehow, it was, at best, to be mentioned as perhaps pretty and then quickly dismissed (you know, the “Wow, you’re pretty for an Indian girl” line) or, at worst, to be ridiculed for our ugliness. This may sound extreme, but it’s the reality I lived. I undoubtedly stood out in this context – ashy knees in the winter, unruly mane of thick, black hair in a sea of pale midriffs and near-ubiquitous gold or platinum highlights – but I was also invisible. And that external gaze is powerful: the invisibility desexualized me.”
Like Babu, in high school I stood by resentfully while watching other girls—white girls, pretty girls—flirting with boys and going out to dances and dating. I was conscious of my scarred brown thighs, my rounded face, my bony ankles and my wide hips. I overthought my limbs, my frizzy hair, my soft tummy. I was taking up too much space, but at the same time no one seemed to see me.
While other girls wore cutoffs and took photos in bikinis at the beach, I begged my mom to let me wear a swimsuit. She finally acquiesced, buying me the sort of one-piece designed for middle-aged women, and insisted that I wear it only at all-girls pool parties. I agreed, but immediately broke my promise. In high school in America, there are no all-girls pool parties (or hardly any).
Still, I felt self-conscious in my swimsuits, in my short-shorts: what did people think of the lines along the inside of my thighs? Was my unruly stomach rumpling and sagging? Worse, was wearing a swimsuit somehow immoral, indecent? I felt guilty when I caught men glancing at my skinny brown legs.
There’s still always the sense of someone watching. Growing up a brown Muslim girl in the United States is almost paradoxical: you are at the same time desexualized and hypersexualized. At school, like Babu, I was the desexualized Other: everyone knew I didn’t date or drink or hook up. I wasn’t a girl in the sense that everyone wanted to be a girl: I wasn’t an object of desire. I didn’t fit into the space outlined for desirable girls; I could not stuff my body—my big hips and my big hair—into that space. At home, however, I am hypersexualized, albeit indirectly. My immediate family is not very religious, but my mom is constantly telling me to wear a scarf over my cleavage or to pull my top down over my stomach. I can’t go to the beach with my family because I’m not allowed to wear a swimsuit in front of my father. Whenever I’m with my extended family, I am reproached for wearing sleeveless tops, or for bending over so that my shirt billows out and my bra is visible. At family gatherings, I have to wear long tunics that cover my backside and tops that cover my shoulders.
Even now, my body—lanky and lumpy as it may be—is a site of awkward and unwanted sexuality. My bra-strap sometimes ignites contempt; the slip of skin between the hem of my shirt and the top of my pants can be illicit and wrong. When I wear clothing that is baggy, I feel that my body is cumbersome and ungainly. When I wear clothing that is fitted or cropped, my body is rebellious, squeezing through the cracks, attracting glances I’m not sure I want or understand.
As I came of age in high school I was invisible, undesirable; hardly a sexual being in any context. Even now at college, it’s difficult for me to exercise sexual agency. I get embarrassed asking for what I want. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable asking for what I want. I don’t know what I want. I don’t feel like I have control over my body or my sexuality.
I think that all brown girls—especially Muslim girls—go through this. You don’t look exactly right. You don’t fit in; you’re awkwardly getting by, squeezing through the cracks, the same way your ass is squeezing out of the back of the two-piece swimsuit your mom wouldn’t let you buy. You take up more space than you would like—your fleshy armpit that you need to cover up, the flash of disruptive cleavage—but at the same time you are invisible. You’re not feminine, or at least not in a culture where femininity is tied to very specific standards of desirability and ‘beauty.’ You’re not beautiful, you’re not desirable, but at the same time you’re somehow overly sexual. It’s a feeling of helplessness and frustration. You are shocked, appalled, and disappointed with your own body. You don’t have any power over your body—it does what it likes. Sexuality does not originate from your body, but the possibility of strange men’s sexuality is constantly in your mind, policing what you wear and how you perceive yourself.
Today, even if a top makes my boobs look bigger than I would like, I wear it. I wear cutoff shorts if I want to. I wear bathing suits at the beach and I try to rule out what anyone else is thinking when they look at me. I don’t tell my mom about everything I do, but I do what I want. When I see myself in the mirror and feel that familiar pang of dissatisfaction—of being not-quite-right; of inhabiting a foreign body—I look away.
Written by Zoya Haroon