How I Let The Myth Of Looking Like An All-American Girl Define Me

For most of my formative years, I was desperate to look like anything other than myself. As a young girl, I envied my blonde peers, their fair complexions, and their wardrobes.

Even at age nine, they were somehow so put together. So pure. So wholesome. So American.

I, on the other hand, didn’t fit so neatly into those boxes. As the daughter of Filipino and Mexican immigrants, all my life I’ve been the subject of what I call the “exotic gaze.” It’s when people can’t quite figure out your ethnic background so they look at you with curious eyes — tilting their heads, trying to classify and categorize you. They can’t put you into a one-dimensional category like “black” or “white.” They inevitably must know: “What are you?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times. I know many other ethnically ambiguous women have frequently heard it as well. While getting asked the question in the first place is annoying, the reactions are almost always worse. There’s nothing more unbearable than someone saying, “Huh, you don’t really look Mexican,” when you are, in fact, Mexican. (For the record, I’ve also been told that I “don’t look Filipino.”)

But it wasn’t me. I was masking the real issue: Although I identified as an all-American girl, I constantly felt like a fraud because my ethnicity always gave me away. For years, that led to resentment of my unique heritage. I wanted to downplay it. I wanted to not feel like I constantly had to explain myself.

Over time, however, I came to understand the limitations of one’s outward appearance. How you look — the color of your hair, the brands you wear — can only communicate so much, and people are going to misinterpret and misread you anyway. Admittedly, I’m still a work in progress. I continue to have my moments of insecurity and self-doubt. But I’ve come a long way. I see the value of not blending in with the crowd and in bringing a different kind of beauty to the table. I recognize that what’s most important is not trying to look like one ethnicity over the other — it’s simply owning who I am.

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