A prose piece by Sanaa.
My mother and I are having an argument about the hair on my arms. It grows thick, long and casts a permanent halo over my skin. It grows against her wishes. “I don’t understand why you don’t get rid of it. It doesn’t look good,” she tells me. Since I moved home, there have been many times when my entire self is scrutinized and then rejected in the guise of familial care. Sit up straight. Lower your gaze. Pull up the neckline of your shirt. Fix your hair. When was the last time you worked out? Don’t you want to look good? The words come from every direction: my parents, my siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even an eleven year old cousin. Slowly, I feel my sense of self and body come apart under these demands for a body I cannot be.
When I was younger, my grandmother gave me the mocking nickname “Hubar-dubar,” a kind of onomatopoeia of the thunder I made walking. My physical faults were open discussion amongst my extended family. They would talk at length about how I needed to spend less time in the sun, lose weight, cover up. My queerness was the hidden dimension that they sensed but could not name. I guarded it in fear, praying they would not see the deviance of my thoughts on my face.
This suffocation formed the earliest part of my life, and I thought I had escaped it when I moved away to college. I joined queer collectives and talked about feminism with my friends. I felt like I had found spaces where I could be as I am, without thinking about how to be beautiful. But I started feeling pricks of discomfort, and at first I could not name what it was. Slowly, I realized there was no one else who looked like me in the spaces I spent time in. Slowly, I began feeling constricted as the comments began. People would fawn over my eyebrows, turn to me as the token person of color in the room whenever discussing race, hold up their arms to mine to compare how tan they got over break. I began to feel the suffocating gaze of fetishism and exotification; whiteness and privilege were wrapping themselves around me like a cord.
There was a kind of aestheticization of ugly in these spaces dominated by white people, white people who could stop shaving their underarms for a few weeks to prove how “down” they were while perpetuating racism wherever they went. My body was treated as alien and Other in these spaces because I was South Asian, because I was Muslim, and because I was not out to most people. They could ignore me when I talked about immigration reform or BDS (“How is that an LGBT issue?”) while turning on me to provide a Sad Oppressed Muslim Girl story for them to feel better about how progressive they were.
I find myself on what felt like a precipice to avoid assimilation. There is the call for beauty that is enveloped in every part of my family’s love. This involves falling sway to expectations I know I cannot fulfill because queerness is in no way part of those expectations. The call to beauty is a call to whiteness. It pretends to be liberation. It says “Even you can be beautiful.” This is the way of erasure. I think of beauty as a maze constructed from privilege and capital. Wanting to be beautiful got me stuck in a dead-end in the maze, until I realized that there was no path for me at all: ideas of beauty were constructed around me, no matter where I went and how I changed my appearance. Beauty is a fluid, ever-shifting antithesis to me. So I think of ugliness as the space denied to me, an entirely different plane from beauty. Ugliness is a space of creation. Ugliness is a void full of possibility and a reminder of a place where there is room for me.
Sanaa is a Muslim womxn from Southern California. She is a former organizer and has been fortunate enough to meet incredible activists who have encouraged her to think critically and share her experiences. She recently graduated from college and spends most of her days at the library.