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.
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.
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…”
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.