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Feminspire | April 17, 2014

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Growing Up Brown: Desexualized and Hyper-sexualized

Growing Up Brown: Desexualized and Hyper-sexualized

| On 07, Jun 2013

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

  • yasmin

    so glad i’m not on my own in this field of confusion

    • mimi

      me too. thanks for this article. I feel much more confident and attractive in myself at the (ripe old?) age of 35 than I ever did as a teen.

  • sarah

    Took me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin and know what to wear that my parents wouldn’t approve of but yet wouldn’t get me laughed out of the school building by my friends, and even now i have to modify my clothes drastically whenever I visit my parents.

  • Tahira

    This is an amazing article. Completely spot on, and as a muslim teenager, I find myself identifying with it a lot. Thank you for writing it, you’ve written my feelings down without even knowing me. It’s truly something that we all go through, I’ve seen my sister go through it and I’m going through it now.

  • KA

    All brown girls do not go through this. Almost everybody in the world is brown, this is about a particular culture. This is kind of insulting, please speak for yourself you aren’t the spokesperson for everybody who is brown.

    • Zoya Haroon

      Nowhere in this article do I say that I am the spokesperson for all “brown” people. This article is under the memoir section on Feminspire – it’s about my own experiences growing up as a second-generation Pakistani-American Muslim in the US today. I use “brown” as a kind of shorthand for that, but I clearly establish who I am and where I’m coming from in the beginning of the article. Later on, I do generalize a little, but that’s more a call to arms for other WOC who empathize with my article than an assumption I’m making about all brown people. I understand if you read it differently, but I didn’t mean to insult you, your culture, or other women who identify as brown.

      • KA

        You said “I think that all brown girls go through this” most brown people aren’t Pakistani-American so I don’t think brown is a good shorthand to describe 1 culture. I don’t identify as “brown”, brown is just a colour not a culture.

  • Maryam

    This is why we have a dress code in Islam, to enable girls to be more than their body and their looks. So people can look past their outward appearance and see you for who you are. You shouldn’t feel invisible just because you can’t show skin… win them over with some personality.

    • Ali

      agreed to the point of working within the framework of Islam. BUT, this is specifically in reference to the bounds of a diaspora. Living in a setting that is culturally not “Islamic” where conflicting ideas of sexuality and “gaze” can have very powerful effects on a person’s development. It does raise the question whether it is a “Muslim” culture that we’re trying to propound or an “arab” culture. I see this living in Pakistan too!

      • Maryam

        You do not have to compromise your religion to fit into this society where differences are accepted. There are so many people in America who see Islam as the beautiful religion that it is. I am not talking about the America they show on T.V. but the actual society, which I have grown up in.Yes the main culture does promote sexuality, however not everyone dresses like what you see on T.V. Also, if you are trying to say the hijab dress code a cultural, it is clearly stated in the Quran.

  • Amelia

    Tbh in my experience of knowing rather alot of muslim girls that wear a headscarf, there those that are totally comfortable with thier looks but likewise there are those who cover because its a religious requirement and then they stress and worry so much about how the headscarf looks on them, wearing make up and wearing modest clothes that still make them feel beautiful and feminine and an object of desire and essenitally still looking good. so i think its important that we as individuals define what being feminine and beautiful means to us. And also perhaps think about if there is a difference between being beautiiful and sexy too. Maybe pull away from the current trends in scoiety and think for ourselves what it means to be a beautiful muslim woman, or a feminine muslims woman etc.

  • Sadia

    I want to thank you for writing such a painfully introspective and thoughtful piece! I know a lot of first generation brown girls such as myself have gone through the exact same thing.

  • S K

    I am really glad you raise this issue – this not only hits home with brown girls but brown guys, like myself, too.

    To borrow from post-colonial terminology, us brown kids have always been under the ‘caucasian gaze’ (see: colonial gaze) where we judge ourselves according to the standards set and maintained by western (read: white) aesthetics and this gets us nowhere.

    The conclusion from this isn’t to cover up, as suggested below. Nor is it to succumb to western aesthetics and change yourself according to their standards. I personally believe it is to redefine, reconstruct and expand on the definition of beauty in the respective western societies we brown kids live in.
    An example i’d use would be the white fascination with skinny bodies and skinny-tight asses on girls during the early 90s. With the influx of black musicians and black actresses into mainstream culture, we now have ‘curvy women’, or big booty women, as the order of the day – even for a lot of white men!
    The point I make is that beauty is nothing objective. It is fluid, transcient, relative on society and most importantly, propagated by media and culture. We have not been constrained to the lowest rungs of some timeless, impermeable ‘beauty scale’ – we are simply victims of a caucasian hegemony in aesthetics and culture.

    As more of us brown kids take the brave step in getting involved in film, music, media and the arts, I think an organic, wholesale redefinition of beauty in the western culture we grow up in is inevitable.

    Hold in there!

    • CaramelGoddess0801

      Very well said SK! Nice getting to hear the male perspective too…

      I grew up in India, which at this point seems still stuck in the 90′s view of beauty as you described it…however I still think it helped me feel a bit more confident since I also saw a lot of women who looked like me growing up… and got to play the exotic foreign lass when I moved to the US (ohh and the freedom to finally wear sleeveless shirts & shorts in the summer without adults giving me disapproving looks was all kindsa awesome)…

  • Ali

    so your desire to be sexualized and objectified with respect to white male gaze and your desire to be de-sexualized in the context of your parents culture made it difficult for you to define your own sexuality. Seems like you have internalized white male gaze and aspire to please it and when you are desexualized in that context you feel confusion. Isn’t that the purpose of feminist movement? to not be objectified. shouldn’t you be happy that you are not looked upon as a sexual object? On the other hand you also feel guilt about catering to this gaze and denouncing your hypersexualization in another form which is opposite to the white male gaze. This is just confusing, sounds like you want to adopt the Caucasian mode of sexualization and not being able to do that disappoints you.

    • FS

      ^ I completely agree.

      I wouldn’t call this article feminist because it isn’t empowering. As a woman, can I relate to body image issues? Yes. But what was the resolution offered by the author? To further objectify the self to derive a sense of value by being sexually appealing to men? Isn’t this exactly what disempowers women to begin with?

      We are people. We have a sense of personhood that transcends the forms of our bodies because we have qualities that make us who we are, that make us an essential backbone to any society. How about we talk about that instead of ‘I sneak around my mom to wear clothes to please men and it makes me subconsciously uncomfortable but I try to ignore it because that’s the thing to do’?

      But really, it sounds like so much of your self image and your actions are dictated by what other people are doing or what they think of you. If you’re a Muslim, don’t make other people’s opinions your ilah. Focus on what God wants for you, and you will find a contentment there that you won’t find anywhere else. I used to be one of those Muslim girls wearing cut offs and skin showing clothes because I was insecure and thought it was a path to make me feel better about myself. Eventually I started wearing hijab–not just a headscarf, like actual hijab as prescribed by the Quran–and I’ve never felt better about myself or more content.

      For all you Muslim girls going through the same thing, I suggest giving hijab a try.

      • hh

        Been there, done that and hated it. Never felt more sexualized in my entire life then when I covered up. I wear what I want the way I like it because it doesn’t matter to me any more how I fit in with the prescribed cage that muslim society puts me in.

  • Sophia A

    Thank you for writing this. I understand and can empathize. You’re doing a great job at seeing yourself for who you are and not as the million labels others impose on you. Keep doing what you’re doing :)

  • ESL

    Thank you for this article. I am half Indian and grew up in a mostly white community and, although my experience was not identical, I can sympathize with many of the things you’re talking about. I remember being ashamed to roll up my sleeves even on the hottest summer days because of my hairy arms and desperately using Sun-In and a straightening iron to try and “fix” my hair. Even now, as a confident and successful adult there are days when I am surprised when I look in the mirror and see that I can feel good without looking like the way I was taught was “beautiful” in my childhood…

  • AD

    Great article… not only muslim women – some orthdox Judeo Christian religions as well have the same qualms….

  • lizarin

    Wow, that totally sounds like how I felt growing up. Except….

    I’m white and thin. Your discomfort and self confidence issues don’t come down to simply being brown and Muslim in a WASPy society.

    I was also too embarrassed to wear a swimsuit because I had acne all over my body and my boobs were tiny. I was taller than all the guys and people teased me about my big nose. In other words, I didn’t look exactly right either. Every one of us, yes, even us white girls have body issues and issues with fitting in. It’s part of being a teenager. It’s not as if being white and thin solves everyone’s problems.

    • Zoya Haroon

      Of course not! I’m not saying as much. As a Pakistani-American, a Muslim, and a feminist, I just think that there’s a lack of Pakistani-American women sharing their stories. I’m trying to share mine – and I hope that other young women, regardless of their racial/religious background, will share theirs.

  • SM

    This is a good article. It shows the conflicts children from different ethnicity might face in the States. Being satisfied of the way you look like is very important. I believe if any woman and man is not satisfied of their bodies, they can still do something about it. They can follow a certain diet and do exercise. Making changes in the body is possible. It needs a strong will to do that. I am one of the people who wasn’t satisfied of my body when I was a teenager but I did exercise and controlled the type of food I eat and I got then satisfied

    • Jasmine Collins

      Changing your body so you can be more satisfied with it is an option only for some people. Most people are not able to do that, and trying to do that can make things much much worse, both psychologically and physically. I’m glad you’re happy, but please remember that many people need to live with what they have and learn to love that without changing it.

  • Fizza

    Really nicely written! But um, I’m brown and I’m Muslim but I really don’t feel that way..should I feel that way? Cause I dunno, I guess this article’s making me feel insecure. Why don’t I feel that way? Should I? what? Okay, Im confused..

    • Mystification

      Don’t ever feel obligated to feel a certain way. Just because another Muslim girl feels this way doesn’t mean you have to.

  • Sara

    I think it’s always difficult to grow up in a community where you are the ‘other’. I grew up as a white girl in an area of mostly Muslim Pakistani families.

    I didn’t suffer with the same body issues as you per se did but I did suffer from being typecast as a ‘slutty’ white girl by a lot of families who didn’t want their daughters to hang out with me, and definitely didn’t want their sons dating me. In their minds I was white which is automatically bad, and I didn’t cover my hair and wore skirts for PE so I was clearly a corrupting influence and that in itself gives you bizarre hangups when you’re 16 and never been kissed…

    I think the main problem is people pushing their perceptions of what’s acceptable on to you, which happens in pretty much every society, but when you’ve grown up with being told ‘don’t do this, do that’ it takes a long time to realise you can speak up for yourself and make your own mind up

  • Apoorna

    I noticed that here in UK, men don’t even hold the doors for you if you are a brown woman. It’s almost like you are a man or you don’t exist. However, everything changes if you are with a white woman. Sad, sad, sad.

  • K.

    I feel like I recognize your name from somewhere. Are you from Karachi? (Just curious, not trying to be creepy.)

  • Mystification

    You brought up some really interesting realities about the culture we live in, although I do have to say that I am a brown Muslim girl living in America and I don’t feel this insecurity. Of course I’m not saying you don’t have the right to feel this way. I may be misunderstanding the article, but it sounds like you want to feel the sexuality that other girls around us feel. Personally, I don’t get it. I would never want to wear clothing that makes me a sexual target. Looking pretty is one thing, but wearing revealing clothing for the sake of fitting in to America culture really doesn’t seem worth the uncomfortable stares from other men.

    Obviously there are parts of my body that I don’t really like, but I’ve learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. This who I am. You are who you are. There are ways to be beautiful that don’t simply involve the amount of skin you show.