White people keep giving me backhanded compliments because of my brow game, and I wish they would stop.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I am a woman with fat, thick, bushy eyebrows, the result of a Portuguese father and a Lebanese mother, and the world wants me to fucking pay for it. These demons burning a hirsute path across my face have been the target of racist comments and also a focal point for exoticism. At worst, I've been told, "When you were born, God thought your face was your cunt, so he put hair all over it." At best, I've been told, "You look like you're from a race that hasn't been invented yet. I mean that as a compliment."
There is a seemingly innocuous exoticism we fix upon women of mixed ethnicities—one precipitated by a shift in beauty standards and expectations. In the 90s, the thing was to have super-thin eyebrows, so I plucked mine to within an inch of my life. The right one ended up looking like the long division symbol, and the left looked like the square root symbol. There was also the expectation to be waif-thin. Remember Calvin Klein's heroin-chic campaigns? Since the millennium—perhaps triggered by J.Lo's butt, Beyoncé's thighs, and Shakira's truth-telling hips—there has been a push for the inclusion of ethno-cultural minorities' features within the dominant culture.
The intentions here are debatable: Was this done to reflect the diversity of North American culture in a fashion industry that was previously dominated by whites? Have we tried to expand the definition of beauty, from rail-thin to butt implants? "Real women have curves!" they cried. Valid arguments could be made there, but all I know is the effect it had on me. In the 90s, I hated my boobs and I hated my brows. I was bullied and terrorized for looking like a dirty non-white. My full brows and breasts were the bane of my existence. Now, dudebros think they are my greatest asset.
Kim Kardashian has "power brows," which, while it sounds like a Gatorade flavor, has prompted mainstream white actresses to join the "thick eyebrow trend." Toronto makeup artist Jessica Myers has even blogged about getting eyebrow extensions (yup, that's now a thing) at a Yorkville salon. But bushy eyebrows are simultaneously used against women of color to remind them that they are "exotic," and "other." Is this really inclusion or just good, old-fashioned cultural appropriation?
Mine aren't trophy eyebrows. They just came with the body. But I get it, you guys. You think "exotic" is a super-cool compliment. It is, in fact, THE WORST. You think you're telling me I'm unique, but you're really telling me I'm not Canadian enough. Like you can't talk to me the way you would other Canadians. You wouldn't even know how to unless you categorized me first.
For the record, I was born and raised in Quebec, I speak French and English like a good little Canadian, and I own my own pair of figure skates and a toboggan. Calling me "exotic" for my eyebrows, or any other arbitrary physical feature for that matter, tells me that I do not belong here. Stats Canada says that over 6 million people in my country are visible minorities, and 30 percent of them were born in Canada, so it's not like you've never seen the likes of me before. You've seen lots of bushy-eyebrowed gals from your second-grade class all the way to your first-year English tutorial in university. So, what the fuck? Stop reminding me that I am just an ethno-cultural minority. Stop telling me that my ethnicity is my identity, when it is in fact just my identification. My identity is a many-splendored thing—it includes backpacking, bookwormism, and hunting for street art. My identification is just a box I tick on an Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form.
And worst, you are also sexualizing me, since the only other time "exotic" is used as a descriptor is when it is placed in front of "dancer" or "massage." I am not going to give you an exotic dance. Hell, I'm afraid of having sex standing up just because it might lead to dancing. I once saw the word exotic used to describe the essential oils found in a hand moisturizer. I'd like to think I'm a step above toiletries.
Yet without fail, those who emphatically insist "exotic" is harmless praise are, invariably, white people. The four most recurring sets of dialogue I have had with white people are, in no particular order:
#1 "Where are you from?"
"No, where are you really from?"
#2 "Oh, so you're half and half?"
"Half and half is what you put in your coffee."
#3 "So which side do you identify more with?"
"Neither, because I'm both."
#4 " I didn't know the Portuguese and the Lebanese got along."
"They don't, my parents are divorced."
And I'm not even allowed to get mad at them for their drive-by fuckery because of the "I mean it as a compliment" line that's always tacked on to the end like some form of emotional blackmail. They're all like, "I'm paying you a compliment, and you will accept this compliment whether you like it or not."
When I was pursuing my master's degree at York University, my professor Daniel Yon suggested I read his book Elusive Culture, a study of race and racist discourse. In it, a student named Margaret (not her real name) says,
At one point I thought of myself as a Black person and that limits me because as a Black person there are things that I am suppose[d] to be. So I had to shed that. I am not just Black. I am a woman, and that limits me as well. [But,] if I think that I am limited then I don't dare risk anything or try to do anything. So "bust" being Black and "bust" being a woman.
Margaret's concerns rang especially true for me and my eyebrow conundrum. For my entire life, I had changed my looks and myself in every way a person can change themselves, just because I wanted to be a part of this brow game that everybody else seemed to innately understand. But then one day I realized that I could create the game.
I decided to grow these suckers out, and if anybody thought I was ugly or—that double-edged sword—"exotic," simply for my bushy eyebrows, then screw 'em. I'm awesome, and if you don't want awesome in your life, that's your problem. Do I think my brows are my greatest asset? The short answer is, "No."
The long answer is, "Fuck no."
I have many assets, the least of which is kiboshing racial, backhanded "compliments." To that end, just this past summer a guy stopped me on the street to say, "Hey. Sublime eyebrows," and his drunken, Mr. Brojangles–like buddy added, "You look like a Mexican whore."
To which I replied, "If you want my comeback, you'll have to scrape it off your mom's teeth."
I don't always shut down racist comments with such charm and finesse, but at least my brow game is tight.
Follow Christine Estima on Twitter.