A Female Perspective on Colombia

Colombian woman

A Colombian woman in traditional dress (photo: Flora Baker)

People stare at you a lot if you’re a woman in Colombia. More so if you’re also a foreigner.

I’ve been traveling in South America for the last sixteen months – four of those months in Colombia – and it’s impossible not to notice the extra attention.

On occasion, there’s a level of flattery to it, but most of the time it’s simply whistles, catcalls and the bizarre feeling of a stranger’s eyes running up and down your body.

When an old man passes by me in the street, I’ll often hear a breathy voice whisper, “que rico…” and I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy with someone’s grandfather saying that I’m “delicious.”

Simply put, there’s a level of objectification in Colombia that doesn’t exist in a lot of other countries.

Colombian Women v. Foreign Women

I often think about whether there’d be less staring if I was actually Colombian. Judging on how the local women behave, at least, I’d presumably notice it less.

A lot of the time though, the foreigner-specific objectification really confuses me: why don’t I pass for Colombian?

I have dark hair and dark features, my Spanish is convincing enough – so what makes me so obviously foreign?

When I look to Colombian women, of course, I start to understand why. However much I think I should be able to fit in, there are a multitude of factors that I don’t tick the boxes for.

Clothes

First, there’s a particular way Colombian women dress. There’s innate focus on clothing, highlighted hair, make-up and wearing impossibly high heels that makes women here more stereotypically attractive – particularly the Paisa women of Medellín.

Although, I’m never going to understand the penchant for getting butt implants.

Clothing itself is also a confusing one. As a foreign woman, dressing for the Colombian weather anywhere from Medellín to the northern coast requires restraint; even though the sun is shining and the air is humid, most Colombian women are in jeans.

The few wearing shorts receive the standard staring and catcalling, so the rules are clear: if you want less attention, cover up. Just deal with the fact that you’re dripping with sweat underneath all that denim.

Dancing

Second, it’s the way Colombian women dance. A foreigner is never going to get their salsa moves as perfect as a Colombian, however much effort they put in.

Plus being a self-proclaimed bad dancer – and typically English, to boot – I find it very tricky to meet a Colombian man’s gaze when we salsa together. The look in his eyes is way too intense!

What I find very interesting though is that the respect levels in salsa are completely different to those on the street.

The same men who might whistle and ogle from afar are nothing but gentlemen on the dance floor; guiding their partners through the whirlwind of complex moves with nothing more than a strong hand on the small of the back.

It’s almost as if salsa is a secret code for “we’re going to behave ourselves now…”

Attitude

The third difference between me and Colombian women is probably the most important, and it’s attitude.

As a woman traveling solo in South America, I have to be hyper aware of what kind of situations I put myself in.

It might be deciding not to walk through strange cities by myself at night, or avoiding the alleyway filled with dodgy looking guys, or even refusing to get in a taxi when something about the driver just doesn’t feel right.

But some occasions simply can’t be helped. Right outside my hostel in Santa Marta – a coastal city so humid that not wearing short shorts is akin to madness – were two lines of men, presumably waiting for foreigners because they had nothing else to do, who started whistling, staring and whispering as soon as I stepped out of the door.

It was like walking through a very uncomfortable gauntlet, but I forced myself to walk slowly enough that I wouldn’t give away how horrible it felt. Not to give them the satisfaction.

I wondered, after that incident, how often this type of thing happens to Colombian women; how they feel and how they cope.

I haven’t often seen a woman in Colombia reacting to overly flirtatious men the way I’d want to. It leads me to think that Colombian women have a different attitude to this kind of behavior than I do, and I wish I could learn what it was.

The level of appearances set by Colombian women can be something of a threat for a foreigner, especially someone who’s been living out of a backpack for the last year and has completely forgotten what it feels like to put on make-up.

But it’s not just to do with the outward appearance of the women in Colombia; there’s a level of inner confidence too, a complete disregard for those catcallers and muttering grandpas.

It’s a way of carrying oneself that I’d love to emulate further.

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About Flora Baker

Flora Baker is a freelance writer and blogger, who documents her travels at Flora the Explorer.
Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

Comments

  1. In Colombia, those catcalls and comments are called “piropos” and they are generally received positively and even appreciated by Colombian women as flattering. They are meant as compliments, not sexual advances – “un complido, nada mas, nada menos”. Just one of the cultural differences here that foreigners have to adapt to.

    • I’m going to have to talk to some of my female Colombian friends, because I know the girl I dated last year did not like the attention she received on the streets.

      • Note that I said, “generally” – I’m sure there are women who don’t care for it. But the Colombianas I’ve asked about it tell me it boosts their self-esteem, as long as it’s nothing raunchy.

    • A colombian woman says:

      Well, as a colombian woman I can tell you vincent robson that those “piropos” are not generally well received. That kind of attention is not welcome, most of the women I know don’t like to be “attacked” by men they don’t know, with a kind of language that is violent and misogynistic. What you as a women usually do is keep walking and say nothing, out of fear that anything bad could happen, but fortunately now there are moments like Ihollaback, who are reclaiming the women’s right of not being harassed in the streets.

      • To those reading, Ihollaback is “a non-profit and movement to end street harassment.”

        • I certainly understand why it makes women uncomfortable and of course I don’t condone the behavior. It’s considered crass, immature and low-class where I’m from and depending on the language could even be considered a verbal assault. I was simply reporting the feedback I’ve received from my female Colombian friends.

          • It’s certainly interesting that your friends have said they find it a boost to their self-esteem, Vincent – I assumed some Colombian women aren’t as affected by it as others, but never encountered anyone who was actively buoyed by it.

            Sadly, even if piropos really are ‘meant’ as compliments by the men who utter them, it doesn’t change them being interpreted as sexual advances. And I definitely don’t think they need to be adapted to as a foreigner.

          • To quote one Colombian woman I’m close to, “would these women prefer that men tell them that they’re ugly and don’t know how to dress themselves?”

            And I disagree with you regarding adaptation. There are always things about the local culture that foreigners have to adapt to. The society you’ve injected yourself into is not going to evolve rapidly to suit you. There will be things you don’t like that you have to either deal with or move elsewhere. For me it’s noise pollution. If you live in Colombia, unless you live in a finca or a penthouse, you will have to deal with lots of noise. I don’t like it but I have to deal with it or move elsewhere.

            I understand women not wanting to feel objectified. But this is not your kingdom and Colombian men are not going to change overnight. Not invalidating your feelings or opinions on the matter, just giving a reality check.

      • one of the factors that make westerners so interested in travel to d
        other countries is that the culture is still in tact. where men behave like men and women like women you have a rich culture and tradition. try salsa dancing without roles. free speech is define right even if unwelcomed. if someone is overtly threatening that is different. cat calls welcome or not are party of life. at a certain age there are no concerns for that…

        • Where in Colombia cities do “men behave like men?” Most Colombian males that live in the cities (especially in the upper estratos) certainly aren’t “manly” by anyone’s definition. Yelling at girls on the street and having a pseudo sense of machismo doesn’t make you a man.

  2. Another thing, although you may have dark hair and dark eyes, even if you are Latina of heritage, if you dress like a foreigner, especially a backpacker, that will stand out here. Colombians are very beauty-conscious and generally dress as well as they can afford to, regardless of the occasion. They generally don’t leave the house or have visitors unless they are put together and made up.

    Staying at a hostel, when you come and go anyone around notices that as well, and you’d be shocked how observant Colombians are as to who is in the neighborhood.

    And though you say your Spanish is convincing, if you don’t speak with the local accent and dialect, that stands out too. Just as your English accent would stick out like a big neon sign in Texas, if you’re in Santa Marta and your Spanish isn’t Costeño, the locals will know you’re not from there in a heartbeat. I live in Medellín and a Paisa will notice a Costeño, Rolo or Choco accent immediately and vice versa, and those are all Colombian.

    I enjoyed reading the article, it’s interesting (and unfortunately rare) to get a foreign woman’s take on Colombian culture.

  3. johanagv says:

    As a Colombian woman I have to say I find the catcalls, staring and all the other things you describe on your article uncomfortable, intimidating and sometimes even disgusting, so it’s not only you who feels that way.

    It has nothing to do with how you dress or how you act, I’ve been out on the most unflattering clothes you can think of and would still get them. Sadly, I think it’s just a cultural thing for the men in Colombia and Latin America. I usually just ignore it and try to be as serious as possible, even if wish I could just slap them or something.

    Sidenote, it’s nice to see a women perspective on the blog.

    • Of course I’m not glad to hear you feel intimidated as a Colombian woman in your own country, but it’s good to know it’s not just me who feels this way. It does seem to be a deeply engrained cultural affectation in Latin America.

  4. Thank you for the post. I’m an English girl living in medellin it is a little strange for me, the closeness of the dancing – to me its not dancing its dry humping! Seeing perfect woman walking round without a hair out of place when im in the supermarket in sweatpants on a sunday sin maquillaje!! heaven forbid!. So happy to hear a womans thought on things.

    • The reggaeton is most definitely dry humping, and it appears the same if you’re watching very good bachata dancers too (but I consider that less crass than reggaeton).

      For salsa it depends on the music and couple. Slow, romantic (Cuban) salsa is very intimate and close, while faster tempo salsa (Puerto Rican) is more about lots of spins and energy.

      Tango is probably the most intimate of the Latin dances I’ve experienced. You have to be prepared as a couple to move together as one across the dance floor.

      The bumping and grinding is not unique to Colombia, only the music is different. You see people dancing like this at college bars and clubs in Western countries all the time.

  5. Patrick Trussell says:

    Yes, i agree , from my travels , American women not only have forgotten makeup , but grooming in general . If i were an American woman , I would bypass Medellin .

  6. Karolina says:

    I am a Polish-Canadian woman who visits Medellin frequently, as my Colombian boyfriend lives here. I am blonde, with green eyes, yet… I don’t attract that much attention… all the time. I have realized that by wearing long pants in any weather (oh my gosh even 30+ degrees… unheard of for a Canadian!), nice sandals, and always doing my hair and make up, I rarely, if ever, receive cat calls, or exclamations of “mona!” When I am done up like this, I have the perception of people thinking I am a local (I get approached for directions, asked when the next bus is coming etc…) Now… on the odd laundry day, or a day where I simply do not care, and I wear shorts… I get cat called non-stop, or stared at a little too much. To be treated like a local, you must act like a local. Obviously, I don’t want to victim-blame or anything, and really don’t feel like men have a right to comment on my body like that – but until this place changes it’s culture to suit me, I need to change the way I behave first. In Poland, I find that I need to dress up to another level, and walking out of the house “backpacker style” just really doesn’t cut it – it’s considered disrespectful, as I haven’t put in the effort to present myself accordingly. Perhaps that line of thinking has made it a little easier for me to adjust here. Granted, I live in Vancouver, where at 18 degrees celsius, shorts are considered appropriate… it can be quite difficult to put on those long pants during sweltering days. It’s an interesting cultural difference – that’s for sure.

    • That’s really interesting, Karolina – although I was often mistaken for a local in Medellin (ie being approached for directions a lot!) I rarely wore make up or made a particularly concerted effort with my appearance – but I didn’t feel like I should have to. So I guess my confusion lies with the fact that on the one hand the ‘piropos’ are meant (as mentioned above by another commenter) as a sign of a compliment, yet they’re delivered more often to women who look like they actively haven’t tried to/simply do not ‘fit in’…

  7. My general comment to Flora is: don’t adapt yourself to this cultural practice. If you do, you’ll let the Colombian ”machos” objectify you. As Karolina says, try to behave as a local as much as you can, especially using not too showy clothes. I live in a hot weather state, close to the beach where women use shorts and minimum clothing but I don’t see men ‘piropeando’ all the time. Although when I was younger and lived in Colombia I sometimes used to make these comments too, after some years of living in a different culture I have came to understand how these cat calls, flattering comments or ‘piropos’ are just plain disrespect.

  8. Disappointing that Feminist thought has infected your articles. Its a big turn off. This ” victimhood” mentality , and importantly the anti- males ( yes anti male tho you may deny) attitude is something that the blog owner might want to revisit.

    Acceptance via white knighting of demonstratably false paradigms ; and the grevious social damage it inflicts on the West makes one wonder why you would want to have it infect Colombia.

    For example : objectification … straight from the marxist feminist textbook. Boiler plate regurgitated nonsense.

    This is …was .. a good blog. Do you think people really want to read about crap when they deal with it and entitled western women everday?

    • Yes, I’d say they do as hundreds of people have already viewed this article since it was published last week.

      You know what’s a big turn off? Your comments on a perfectly fine article from a female contributor willing to be open and honest about her experience living in a foreign country. Lighten up.

  9. …and predictably we get this exported feminist victim mantra by her and in the comments. Is that really what is attractive about Colombia…apeing western values and culture? You have a great blog going here. Dont let the camels nose into the tent…no upside to that.

    • I don’t believe anyone is “apeing” anything. This blog has always been about sharing a variety of perspectives on travel and living in Colombia.

      It would be a disservice to our audience if we limited the stories published to only those written by men. If that’s the kind of site you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong place. Try this one instead.

      • No not just men..never said that. But who ever could have predicted a western woman would write this ( roll eyes ) .

        From the comments I dont think your male readers appreciate it.

        But its your blog … tried to warn you.

  10. I really appreciate this article, thanks Flora for writing it (and thanks Dave for publishing it). I loved traveling in Colombia, but the attitude towards women as basically decorative sex objects was troubling. As an aside, some of the comments on this article from people who obviously have their own messed up attitudes about women are equally troubling, and a reflection on a certain sort of male tourist who is drawn to Colombia.
    Most of the resources out there for visiting Colombia are written from a man’s perspective so it’s really nice to hear Flora’s impressions.

  11. I loved my time in Medellin, but experienced the same discomfort on the streets. I lived a good long walk from public transportation, and although I eventually learned to ignore them, it still gave me chills every time I heard a man hissing or cat calling. (The hissing bit seems unique to Colombia — I had never heard that noise directed at me before.)

    It’s so interesting to hear the perspective of local women who hate it as much as foreigners. I was never sure if I was being too sensitive or if it was simply a cultural difference I’d have to adapt to. But in reading these comments it seems clear that this behavior is unwelcomed by most women, no matter where they’re from.

    I would still encourage women to visit Colombia, but be prepared for this — its unpleasant but unfortunately, unavoidable.

    Men all over the world need to take into consideration the terrible feeling they’re giving women when they make these unwanted comments and sounds our way. It isn’t flattering, no matter where you’re from.

    Thank you for writing this Flora!

    • Thanks to Steph and Britany for sharing their similar opinions on travelling in Colombia as women from the West. It’s both sad and worrying that even now some commenters are able to shrug off such obvious verbal harassment as me simply ‘playing the victim’ – but luckily the vast majority of comments here reflect a more understanding attitude.

  12. Hi Flora

    I was wondering if you have experienced the same type of issues in other latin america countries?

  13. Flora I enjoyed reading your article as it offers a different perspective to the usual regressive tripe on here about “being a woman” in Colombia. I don’t care where in the world you are, hegemonic objectification and suppression of women (or any group of humans, for that matter) has NEVER been correct; just because something is “traditional” or “normal” does not make it acceptable. The work of people like Martin Luther King, Simone de Beauvoir, or Queen Elizabeth I reveals this. The fact that a person has a vagina should not make them inferior to one who doesn’t. Simple as that.

    • Hi Tobi,

      By “the usual regressive tripe on here about “being a woman” in Colombia” are you referring to the recent article by one of our female contributors, Lisa, about how to date Colombian men?

      Because out of more than a thousand published posts, that’s the only one I can think of where the author offers any advice in that vein. And her tone was meant to be tongue-in-cheek at that. Or, maybe you are referring to the two articles written by men about adapting to the dating culture here?

      If you’ve got advice or observations on Colombian culture you’d like to share, I invite you to submit your thoughts in the form of a guest post. For consideration, email your ideas to dave@medellinliving.com

  14. I hate catcalls and ‘piropos’ from strangers on the street, just to make it clear and I’m Colombian. They are degrading and all I do is try to ignore it, though sometimes I feel like saying something back.

  15. I haven’t perceived too much catcalling or harassment in Colombia; it happens to me a lot more frequently in NYC! I am blonde and dress the same as I would at home; generally a sundress mostly 3/4 length but does have some cleavage and light makeup, tasteful heels. From reading this post it seems I might actually get bothered more by wearing shorts and T-shirts so figure I will continue to enjoy dressing normally. I am embarrassed at the sorry state of apparel worn by many foreigners (particularly Americans). Personally I find a soft jersey dress is much more comfortable than shorts. Not saying one has to dress up all the time; I find the local style to be a bit tacky. But I feel like many women just throw on the most unattractive thing they can find and I wonder what compelled them to buy it in the first place! Is it really that hard to throw on a cute blouse or dress and some lip gloss?? You will also receive better treatment at stores, restaurants, etc if you attempt to look decent and not like you just rolled out of a shelter:)

  16. I know I’m a bit late here but wanted to add that no matter the country cat calling is not a form of pleasantry. If we look at it from multiple views it’s just another way of men showing power and dominance over women. Let’s say that they’re meant as pleasantry, why not just say something like “good morning” or “have a nice day”? In most countries men don’t like when a woman rejects their cat calling–women are usually then insulted and almost never apologized to. Therefore, if cat calling were a pleasantry then it’s instantly contradicted by the insults when a woman rejects the cat calling. Now, if you look at it from a logical point of view, what is supposed to happen when a man cat calls? Is it that a woman is supposed to thank him and be glad that they couldn’t control themselves? The idea, I think, is that men don’t expect an outcome out of cat calling. Instead it’s just a way of showing women that they have no power and that’s it. We’ve seen that if a woman rejects she’s instantly abused, further, verbally. So really, no cat calling is not ok. If anything, this further highlights the worldwide problem of misogyny. As foreigners/travelers, yes of course, we should be alert but we also shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Speaking up, even if it is to defend someone else, would probably be a better way of approaching this.

  17. I have been living in Colombia for 5 months now. When men catcall me (often in passing cars, the cowards), I like to swear at them just to see the looks on their faces. Obviously, I would not do this in a vulnerable situation, but usually it is in broad daylight in the business district. It is just my little way of getting my own back!

    • Horacio Gómez says:

      Well done Hettie! That’s the way to confront ‘machistas’; they usually feel uncomfortable when their victims respond to their attacks.

  18. Jennifer Evans says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective of Colombia and Colombian women but you are putting Colombian women in one box as if they have one linear monolithic personality. As if they are one. Colombian women have as much diversity within their personality and choices from where ver you are from.

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