Ain’t I A Woman Too? Living between definitions of beauty

I spend a lot of time with international students, mainly Japanese, most of whom bought a passport for the first time for this journey and have rarely or never exchanged words with a native English speaker not paid to speak to them. One line I wish I could never hear from any of them again is “I want a foreign girlfriend!” They occasionally follow this up with “I think girls with blonde hair and blue eyes are beautiful!” but even when they don’t that sentiment underlines their statement anyway.

This is not exclusively a Japanese thing by any means, and I’ll get to non-Japanese folk in a minute; it is just the most obvious example for me because, in each of the eight groups of Japanese students I meet each year, I hear this from at least one in every group, usually more than once. Also, the last time this happened was YESTERDAY, so it’s on my mind right now.

Heart on my sleeve time: that line hurts me. It hurts me because the guy in question does not mean “non-Japanese” but “white” and “preferably blonde and blue-eyed” in the vast majority of cases. It hurts me because the British students who hear this lane, be they male or female, almost always meet such a line with acceptance, understanding and – this is the part that hurts the most – encouragement. Of course you want a white girlfriend! How could you not? It’s the best way to learn English! (And OH, that is a myth/excuse I would like to put to bed once and for all!)

It hurts no less when Western men show a clear preference for Japanese women, or women of one particular ethnicity; it’s just that Western men are more likely to be aware that this is something that doesn’t look great in society right now, so will often strongly disagree if you hint that there may be some exoticisation going on. I don’t have to deal with long discussions between Japanese men and British men about the best way to get a girlfriend of the desired ethnicity as I do when Japanese guys break out the “I want a foreign girlfriend!” line. I do have to deal with more discussions comparing the sexual performance of their Japanese girlfriends, ex-girlfriends and one night stands, but that is disgusting in its own right and not related to my complicated personal feelings on this issue.

I am hurt by these exchanges in two ways:

  1. Politically. The thought that these guys consider all women sharing a skin colour to be more worth being in a relationship with than women of other skin colours is racist, full stop. On top of that, the thought that many of these men consider it acceptable or even condone the idea of actively seeking a romantic relationship with someone you can only be with for a matter of months or weeks before your visa runs out, just so he can satisfy his yearning for the Exotic Other and/or improve his language skills, is detestable. (Yes, I am aware that there are also women treating men of different ethnicities in this way, but the power dynamics involved put it in a different political place in my head, though I assure you I find it no less detestable.)
  2. Personally. I meet people every single year who express the view that I do not and could not fall under their definition of an attractive woman. They repeat the view, people around them agree with the view, my white peers are flattered by the view and include me in their whispered gossip about what a compliment they have received, the guys in question confide in me about their feelings for my white peers because I CLEARLY don’t count as a woman, etc., etc., et-fucking-cetera. And you know what? These exchanges take weeks. I am hurt by one person’s opinion from several different angles for weeks, at least eight times a year. If I bring up the idea that this is, as a woman who does not fit the ideal being discussed, is upsetting to me, I am basically told to “stop being so over-sensitive” or that “he doesn’t mean it like that!”

These days I have a kneejerk reaction to it. You want a foreign girlfriend? You want to tell me and my friends that you want a foreign girlfriend? Expect loud, disgusted remarks at how shallow that is, how little respect you deserve, how badly you are presenting yourself as a person, and so on. I will give you no mercy, no understanding and no relief because I have lived this exchange too many times and I am absolutely sick of it.

I’m not exactly proud of this response, but I have to deal with an entire range of media and social cues telling me I am invisible, undesirable, or only desirable for the qualities that can be exoticised (only exposed to your country’s default culture and language from birth? Unlucky!) so it’s already a sensitive point. To raise this point to my face, direct it to me, and place me in such a situation where this view of my inherent lack of attractiveness ricochets around my circle of friends for weeks at a time is HURTFUL. I think the worst times are when I’ve misinterpreted, assuming the guy in question was talking about me, only for him to realise, laugh and say, “Oh, no, I like European girls!”

Ain’t I a woman too?

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2 Comments

Filed under ethnicity: other, feminist rage, heteronormativity is fun, the personal is political

2 responses to “Ain’t I A Woman Too? Living between definitions of beauty

  1. abitha

    I experienced the same sort of thing (or perhaps the opposite thing? I’m not exactly sure which – anyway, it reminded me of this) last weekend, and it made me see red too.

    As you probably know, i’m in Uganda at the moment. A group of us went on a weekend trip, and at the hotel we were staying, there was this Ugandan dude who took a shine to me, and kept trying to chat me up despite my body language making it VERY clear that i wasn’t at all interested. I found him vaguely tolerable until the point at which he said something along the lines of, “I like English girls, white girls. Ugandan women are no good, they are not trustworthy and they are lazy.” He clearly intended it as a chat-up line or compliment, but it was the opposite as far as I was concerned. So you’re interested in me not as a person, but because of my skin colour and/or nationality? Great! *rage*

    Not quite as intolerable as hearing this sort of thing on a regular basis and not being the desired skin colour, I guess, but it still made me mad.

    • It’s not quite the same, but that fury at being dehumanised and dismissed comes from the same place. I’m not surprised it made you angry. There’s also the matter of speaking ill of Ugandan women, that’d put me off someone in an instant whether or not he was referring to other women favourably. The Japanese students I mentioned here have taken the time to inform me how ‘uncute’ Japanese girls are compared to English girls. Like you say: RAGE.

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