“Wait, you’re from American Samoa? Like as in the island in the Pacific? Wow, that’s really exotic, but guess it makes sense… you look like an exotic island girl.”
It was during my first year here at Harvard that I first heard someone use the word “exotic” to describe me. Now, I’ll be honest. The first time one of my classmates said this to me, I was extremely flattered. In fact, I was more than flattered. As a lost, struggling freshman thousands of miles away from home, I clung to the thought of someone thinking that I was beautiful, unique, and intriguing — because initially this was what I equated the word “exotic” with. I would come to realize, however, that the word “exotic” meant something quite different.
Being “exotic” can mean a lot more than just being “stunning” or “beautiful.” In fact, the word is used to signify that you are, not just different, but deviant. The more and more I heard people at Harvard use it to refer to me, I realized that the reason they called me exotic was not so much because they thought I was beautiful. It was because I did not quite fit the white standard of beauty. My hair was a feisty, brown frizz-fest that ran down to my waist — not a silky straight blond strand in sight. As I stood nearly six feet tall with size eleven feet, I was constantly reminded that I was too tall or that I had outrageously large feet for a woman. And as my curves bulged out from under my tight clothes (since a lot of clothes are not really made for women like me), I knew that I was called “exotic” because my body was being oversexualized due to its divergence from the standard white petite feminine body.
And this idea of exotification has haunted Pasefika women for centuries. In her book “The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific,” Patty O’Brien talks about the history of the fetishization of island women. Her research examines the accounts of explorers, missionaries, whalers, etc. from as far back as the late 1700s and reveals their oversexualization of Pasefika women. White men created and enforced this stereotype of exotic femininity onto Pacific island women — one that represented, and continues to represent us, as the “little brown gal,” “ hula girl,” and one who is “unself-consciously naked, physically perfect, passive, and pleasing.”
This representation continues to haunt us today. Just watch any vacation advertisement trying to entice tourists to the Pacific islands, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. They’ve probably thrown in a Pasefika woman somewhere — whether it be a Hawaiian hula girl or Tahitian dancer — in the background, dancing and trying to please white tourists, as they shake their bodies in small sarongs and coconut bras. And though historically a lot of Pasefika women were not fully covered and the act of shaking your hips is an integral part of a lot of traditional Pacific dances, it becomes a problem when our bodies, our cultural wear, and traditional dances are only ever displayed in the context of entertaining and bringing pleasure to outside onlookers. When we are only ever presented as objects of pleasure, our bodies are rendered as commodities and our minds as primitive.
This presentation of Pasefika women isn’t just something that offends us. It’s something that very much negatively impacts the way we are perceived and can literally put is in physical danger. In fact, the UN reported in 2011 that 60 to 80 percent of women and girls across the Pacific Islands will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes. There are obviously a lot of social and cultural factors playing into the physical and/or sexual violence that Pasefika women endure. But if we are constantly represented as oversexualized, “exotic” objects that need to be conquered, little by little our humanity is stripped away and our abuse then becomes even more justified.
And the effects of exotification extends beyond just Pasefika women. It affects all women of color. Indigenous women are portrayed as primitive or “savage.” Asian women are likened to delicate flowers and are presented as fragile and submissive. Black women have historically been depicted as animalistic. And Latinx women are often referred to as “spicy”. This exotification not only negatively and wrongly represents all women of color, but perpetuates a white standard of beauty and fails to recognize that beauty takes the form of different hair textures, heights, shapes, and sizes.
With these uninformed stereotypes circulating the media and the public sphere, it comes as no surprise to me as to why, every time I wear a flower in my hair or hang a shell necklace around my neck or wrap a lavalava — no, not a skirt — tightly around my waist, I am labeled the “exotic” island girl. But I don’t want to be the exotic island girl. I don’t want my culture appropriated and my body oversexualized for not fitting a widely — but very wrongly — accepted ideal of beauty. But most importantly, I don’t want to be afraid that my status as “exotic island girl” increases my chances of physical and/or sexual violence.
So, please, stop calling us exotic. Because in doing so, you are literally putting us in danger.
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.