This question comes from a recent email by one of our loyal readers.. (It may have been sarcastic, but I’ll answer it honestly and candidly.)
So, what don’t you like about Colombia?
Fair enough, but let me preface the discussion by saying that EVERY SINGLE THING that I mention below also exists in the United States. So I won’t pretend that my country is some kind of gender utopia. It’s not – In fact, the “war on women” has been waged between political parties and in headlines of newspapers all over the United States. My home state of Virginia, along with Texas has been some of the worst offenders on this front..
Still… Due to the overwhelming machismo here – the things that bother me the most in Colombia somehow manage to be extremely pervasive, sometimes subtle yet face-slappingly* shocking at the same time.
1. You are never more than your looks. Sure, everyone knows that unfortunately, attractiveness, particularly female attractiveness is the unspoken prerequisite for career success in the United States. But it tends to remain unspoken, highly illegal and in the background for most of us.
It is one of the biggest ways that males here (Colombia) are able to maintain authority and superiority and subjugate women. Too many people buy** into it – so even women who hate it are forced to conform to survive (professionally, financially).
It’s different here – and it’s probably the main reason I haven’t chosen to call Colombia my long term home. It’s never in the background here, and it never fades away. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve known someone here for five minutes or five years – you are still being judged by your looks. It doesn’t matter what your background is, your skillset or your intelligence.
Men (who are the majority rule here) won’t even hear what comes out of your mouth if you don’t meet the “minimal attractiveness” levels. It’s almost like a physical disability – as if they literally can’t hear you.
Not only that – but in general, Men here judge harshly. If you aren’t a supermodel, with large (or enhanced) curves – then you are lacking. Not only that – but they will be certain to inform you that you are lacking (using during your initial introduction, and probably every single subsequent meeting thereafter.)
(Obviously – this doesn’t apply to ever single male in Colombia, but it’s still quite prevalent even among the better educated upper classes).
Even if you are beautiful – your time for professional and career success is limited. Maybe you have some cellulite, or your breasts aren’t perky enough – or you’ve had the gall to age.
So as you can image, as a chubby, woman over 30, who has never, ever been “mistaken” for a model even on my very best days as a young ingénue, this constant spoken criticism is extremely disheartening. Not only that – but it makes it extremely hard to get any work done.
2. Don’t ever attempt to discuss any of this with male Colombians. While women here talk about these issues often and express their feelings towards these attitudes of male machismo, don’t bother trying to address these issues with male Colombians. (Sure, there is always the odd exception – usually a more cosmopolitan man who has lived outside South America at some point, but it’s not common.) As I said before, ‘selective deafness’ comes into play. Not only that – even when having a so-called polite conversation (on American customs, polite behaviors etc.) attempting to explain (to people planning to visit the USA) that these behaviors may be perceived negatively in the United States, will be dismissed. Very often this will also result in comments such as “you are just jealous of the beauty of Colombian women.” This comment was made in response to a discussion about the fact that calling an American woman ‘gordita’ (chubby/ fat) or ‘vieja’ (old) may impede abilities to make friends and have serious repercussions, particularly if it occurs in the workplace.
It will also get you labeled as a lesbian.
3. Aggressive homophobia, particularly in the coastal areas of Colombia. Despite the fact that an estimated 8% of the population identifies as gay, homosexuality remains a big taboo in many parts of Colombia.
While Bogotanos and residents of more cosmopolitan cities like Medellin and Cali tend to express more tolerant / accepting attitudes regarding an individual’s sexuality – this is not the case in places like Cartagena. (Costenos have a reputation for being less than sophisticated. There is even a Colombian version of the “Beverly Hill-Billies” which features several Costenos living in Bogota). Homophobic slurs are extremely common in every day speech.
Like their American ‘redneck’ stereotype counterparts – many Costenos are bigoted, biased and intolerant of others. This includes the darker-skinned Costeno residents, and gay people. While I try to keep my mouth shut for the most part, (even though it pains me) when I hear the blatant racism / homophobia – on the one occasion when I objected to hearing the repeated use of an extremely ugly Spanish pejorative for gay people (akin to the American slur of “faggot”), I was literally shouted down for my audacity in attempting to censor his “bible given” right to spew hate.
Even the sly suggestion that a particular apartment is in a “gay neighborhood” is enough to prompt something akin to panic, and further discussions on moving/ selling said apartment.
Of course, this sort of bigotry happens in the USA – and everyone knows that. But I would like to think that a lot has changed in the last ten years in that the majority of Americans are not only tolerant of gay individuals but support their right to equality under the law, the right to pursue personal happiness and to get married and have families. Even the majority of Southerners***.
So now you have a unattractive, middle-age lesbian in Colombia. Try and imagine how this impedes daily interactions. Oh, did I mention that I am also considered a slut.
4. Rampant Slut shaming.
So if you have committed any of the faux paxs listed above, don’t be surprised at what comes next, namely Slut Shaming. Especially if this “puta gringa” has also committed the unforgivable sin of also learning the names of the Building porter or the person who sells you gum (daily) or other members of Cartagena’s “lower class.” It’s not something as simple as good manners – it’s because you are a slut and are sleeping with all of them.
In a country where married men openly brag about their numerous sexual conquests, ‘amigitas’ and secret families are common, women are still placed within the narrow confines of the “Madonna/ slut” paradigm. As a married foreigner who often travels solo due to financial concerns, the lack of my husband’s physical presence makes me even more of a target for this labelling.
Women here are supposed to dedicate long hours, and thousands of dollars in pursuit of ‘sexy’; wearing tight, short revealing clothes, tilting around on high heels while attempting to balance outsized breasts with generously rounded bottoms – yet maintain an ‘inner purity’ that prohibits open and frank conversations about gender issues. The end result of this – is that men are able to strictly control the financial and economic mobility of women in a society that castigates outliers.
So I am fairly certain that my candid response to this question won’t go unpunished. I probably should have stuck to easy answers.
ie. What don’t you like about Colombia? Answer: FARC/ paramilitaries.
But then, I don’t have run-ins with paramilitaries on a daily basis..
So what does this mean?
Does it mean that this slutty, unattractive, lesbian gringa should give up any hopes of doing business in Colombia? AKA “Gringa GO HOME” (as has been suggested on multiple occasions). Or should I fire up my time machine, emerge as a fresh 20 something, head directly to the nearest plastic surgeon and keep my damned mouth shut? Should I wear tighter clothes, stilt like heels and hope to blend in?
Maybe it is time for me to go home – and return when I can remember and enjoy the thousands of things I LOVE about Colombia; the cool air of Bogota, the richness of a country with an in the amazing array of natural wonders and geographic splendor, the overwhelming variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, the joy of learning to Salsa, the cultural depth of a country with over 500 years of history, the incredible variety of friendly, and interesting people I meet on any given day (machismo not withstanding).
But don’t worry – nothing can get me down for long – and I will return to the beautiful, wonderful, culturally rich Colombia very soon.
* Yes, I made that word up, but that’s how I often feel as I confront these issues every single day here.
** Literally. It’s one of the reasons plastic surgery is such big business here.
*** Before readers get upset that I am “propagating the American redneck stereotype”, consider this – I say this as a self-proclaimed ‘redneck southerner’ who happens to express a ‘Live and Let live” philosophy towards others. That being said – my experiences in Colombia – are mine, and I don’t attempt to speak for, or represent anyone else’s experiences here. If anything – I hope your experiences (as a female) in Colombia have been different.
Additional articles on related topics
This study compares eating disordered behavior and plastic surgery rates in the USA and Colombia.
Gender, eating habits and body practices in Medellin, Colombia – article by Ana Maria Ochoa.
Narco-aesthetics: How Colombia’s drug trade constructed female ‘beauty’ – article by Mimi Yagoub
Life in Plastic – it’s fantastic! about the culture of plastic surgery in Latin America (specifically Cali, Colombia) and the link to narco-trafficking.
LA Times article: A Scathing Attack on Culture of Machismo.
Colombia: Human Rights Situation of the LGBT Population: Shadow Report Submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (2010). While laws were passed to protect the human rights of the LGBT community in 2011, the situation remains precarious for the LGBT community particularly in rural areas.
U.S. groups file briefs in Colombia marriage case. (4/14/2014).
Women on Waves resources: promoting women’s rights internationally. Provides practical, not philosophical information for women in a multi-lingual site on women’s health & gender issues.
Women on Web: women’s health information – multi-lingal site.
Featured Image courtesy of Sodahead.com