Story by Jeta Stephens
“Las tetas!” yelled an Argentine man on my walk to the train in BuenosAires.
You don’t have to speak Spanish to catch the translation. (Hint:He wasn’t talking about my teeth.)
That was in 2006, and at the time, I thought being busty while wearing an orange tank provoked his lewd call. I was offended and a little self-conscious. Today, I am a wiser, more traveled señorita, and I realize there’s a “thing” that follows black women as they venture away from home to foreign lands. Experience has proven that without provocation on our part, we’re more frequently perceived in a sexual way.
That day in 2006 was the beginning of a barrage of sexually charged insults, compliments, and puzzling reactions I’ve received while traveling. Years later, I stood near the busy Puerta del Sol in Madrid, waiting to meet a friend. Somehow, a man approached me, out of everyone in the area, and asked, “Are you selling something?”
Initially, I thought he meant drugs, but when he invited me to a nearby brothel, I realized what he was actually soliciting was sex, and I quickly walked away. Prostitution isn’t illegal in Spain. However, the women on the prowl are usually dressed in miniskirts and go-go boots. My outfit of the night was a three-quarter-length pea coat and sneakers. Moments like this make me wonder, “Why me?” There were plenty of others to choose from, but I was the lucky target. It was the “thing.” Whether we dress it up or down, it’s an orbit we can’t escape.
Then there’s Croatia. Oh, my beloved Croatia. There is little diversity in this part of the world, and I have never felt so magnetic. Fortunately, Croatians react with admiration when they see new faces. I felt like a lifelong friend to many of the women and men. If any black woman needs a confidence booster, go there! One night in Dubrovnik, I was bouncing between a restaurant owner in Old Town, an excommunicated Russian bar owner outside of the city center, and an excursion salesman near the port. But that attention comes with speed bumps. When the restaurant owner felt comfortable enough, he confessed that he was drawn to me because I reminded him of his favorite porn star. I appreciated his honesty, but that admission cheapened the friendship we had just spent three hours building.
While many woman deal with catcalls and unwanted attention while traveling, I now see a difference in my journeys versus those of my friends of other descents. One day, a friend and I were recounting shocking stories of our travels through Latin America when she revealed, “These crazy things only happen when I’m with you.”
So, why is this? Cross-country hypersexualization of black women has a long history. In the early 1800s, Saartjie Baartman, a black South African woman, moved to London and was forced to exhibit her body to paying customers because of her “unusual” curves. Since then (even beforehand), black women have been seen as exotic and have been examined for our differences. It’s quite interesting to witness that as much as things change, they remain the same.
The next question is, how do we handle it? I believe that the best solution is to embrace it. Know that your orbit is unique and empowering, and view every interaction as an opportunity to teach and learn something new. With that said, it’s important to travel with discernment. Stay away from brothels. And if you are on a romantic mission, don’t choose a mate who fetishizes you. Otherwise, things are bound to get weird really fast.
I once looked at this extra attention as a burden. Now, I see it as a beautifully mystifying asset. As I write, I’m listening to Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” and it many ways it exemplifies how I feel. As women, we wear many crowns. We are all beautiful and deserve to be loved and adored. As long as onlookers can appreciate our differences with respect, I proudly own the “thing” and the magnificent adventures that it brings.
This article originally appeared on Yahoo Travel, and is reprinted here with permission. Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. And check out Yahoo Travel’s original video series “A Broad Abroad.”