“You’re so incredibly beautiful and exotic,” a guy I met on Bumble told me on our first date. “I’ve always loved Latin women.” Comments like these always leave me feeling a lot more uncomfortable than flattered. Years ago, I would have responded either with a hesitant “Thank You” or a passive “Uh-huh.” But this 31-year-old Dominican woman wasn’t going to just let this white boy’s words slide.
“Why have you always loved Latin women?” I asked calmly but firmly. Bumble date responded with something along the lines of always finding them beautiful, family-oriented, hard working, and exotic. There goes that exotic word again. It’s a word that’s used quite often to describe women, especially women of color, and a word that I’ve grown to detest because I hear it far more often than not.
In fact, anytime a man uses the word exotic to describe the combination of my light honey hazel eyes, my long dark hair, dark tan complexion and mixed-race Dominican features, I cringe a little inside. It’s the same way I feel whenever I hear people or mainstream media use terms like “sexy” or “spicy” to describe Latinas. These are words that are constantly used to describe Latin women and it’s a lot more problematic than it is flattering– trust me.
When that creepy 2003 interview with Bill Cosby and Sofia Vergara resurfaced on the internet, we all felt sick to our stomachs and the reason was obvious. Cosby had been part of a group of hosts that were filling in for David Letterman on The Late Show, while Letterman took time off to handle health issues. Everything about his behavior was disgusting, from the way he stared down at her body to the comment he made about how she made him “excited.”
But the moment that troubled me the most was when he started objectifying her for being a Latina woman. “S-I-N is sin,” he said to a very uncomfortable-looking Vergara. “Men look at you and only think of sin… now what you have on tonight is wonderful. This is wonderful. And when you walked out, many, ugh, many people became attentive.” But wait, it didn’t end there.
“You make me feel young again, “ Cosby said speaking in a Spanish accent. Strong emphasis on the fact that he was YES speaking in a Spanish accent. “You make me feel very, um, excited. Look at me.”
Cosby’s behavior towards any woman would have been disgraceful and completely unacceptable. However, the fact that he chose to fetishize her for being Latin only made matters worse. Vergara had a similar situation with Gordon Ramsay during an appearance on The Jay Leno Show. Both men (especially Ramsay) took any opportunity to reference sex, her body, and even make fun of her Colombian accent. Ramsay even tried slapping her ass – it was upsetting to say the least.
In 2002, Billy Bush thought it was okay to ask Jennifer Lopez about her butt during an interview with Access Hollywood. “People have raved about it for years,” Bush had told her. “How do you feel about your butt?” A shocked and disturbed J.Lo responded with: “Are you kidding me?” and immediately shut the question down.
I’ve literally have had men ask me, “But what’s the big deal?” or that being called a “sexy or exotic Latina” is a compliment. Yes, they’ve actually said this. But what they don’t seem to understand, is that being described using these kinds of words doesn’t flatter us, it objectifies us. It makes us feel like we’re being viewed as merely objects rather than actual human beings with hearts, minds, and souls.
Not only does the term exotic make me feel like I’m being described like a tropical plant or an Amazonian animal, but it also makes me feel like I need to be categorized because I’m Latina. When we look at some of the terms used to describe white models or actresses in Hollywood, the term exotic is hardly ever used. Instead words like elegant and classic are many times said. In many ways this implies that we are not elegant, but instead exotic and seductive. How is that a compliment?
Putting Latin beauty into this sexy exotic label is a constant reminder to us that we are different, that we are a beautiful mystery to be solved, and that we don’t fit society’s “norm” or American standards of beauty. It also further marginalizes us as a minority group, something I’ve never appreciated before but have grown even more intolerant of with everything that’s happening in this country politically.
Between the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy (that had to be reversed) and the strong anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiment that has become so prevalent in this country after he took office, the last thing I need is to be paid a compliment that only makes me feel more like an “other.” There are better words that can be used to describe an attractive woman, like beautiful, gorgeous, pretty, or stunning. And at this point in my life, I won’t stand for anything else.