By Betsy Tampke
Before I came to Costa Rica, I was warned about the machismo culture. I was warned that I would be yelled to, whistled at, and stared upon with hungry eyes. I was also told that as a woman with light skin, light hair, and blue eyes, I would be admired for my exotic European features. I would be a gringa and that would make me beautiful. And men would tell me how beautiful they thought I was—constantly.
I must admit that in the most insecure and shameful part of me, I was slightly excited. I thought it might be flattering, or even secretly thrilling, to be constantly reminded how attractive everyone considered me here.
And at first it kind of was. Men would propose to me when I walked by them on the street. They would whistle. They would shout out their approval from moving cars. They would call me machita (little blondie). Every time I went out at night, random boys told me they loved me, that I was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen, and could they have a picture with my gorgeous friends and me?
My European features in a Latin American country had somehow transformed me from being average looking into being a supermodel.
And that’s how I felt too, I felt like a supermodel. I felt like a celebrity. And then, as weeks passed, I started to feel like an object. Everyone was in love with me, but no one wanted to hear me talk.
I’ve been here for three months now, but it only took me one to realize what being a woman (not to mention a gringa) in a machismo culture really means.
As a North American, machismo means men think I’m easy. It means they think I’m stupid. It means they think I’m loaded. It means that they are always allowed to look at me, but I am never allowed to look at them—because if I do look at them, well of course that means I am interested (which prompts more yelling, cruder phrases, and possibly even an attempt to touch me).
It means that I have been converted into a thing—that I am something that walks and dresses and lives to please them. It means that I have to be submissive when men yell and stare at me in the street, because if I fight back I might be followed home or assaulted. It means that I’m a foreign puta every time that I say no.
It means my host mother and host sister always serve my host brother first, my host sister’s boyfriend second, and them-selves last at every meal. It means that that one night when they only had a few beans made, they were portioned to my brother and the boyfriend while the women only ate rice and tuna.
It means this morning when a man approached me in the park and I told him I wasn’t interested, he told me he didn’t understand why foreigners were always so rude. It means this afternoon when I was on the bus a man stared at me the entire time and my only strategy of defense was to purposefully not look at him. It means I felt guilty when I got heckled on my run this evening, because I was wearing a tight running-top, so wasn’t I just asking for it?
I’ve realized that when men loudly say ¡que rica! to each other as I walk by them on the street, it isn’t empowering or flattering. It trivializes me. I’m being described with the same adjective people use to say food tastes good. I am an object. And even worse I am an object that exists to give them pleasure. It reminds me that I don’t have any control over how others view my body.
It makes me want to wear baggy clothes and hide my face. It makes me want to look really really ugly (or get really really morbidly obese) so that they won’t bother me anymore or think about me in ways that make me feel uncomfortable.
But it also makes me want to fight. It makes me want to stick my head out of the bus and yell GUAAAAAAPPPPOOOOO (hey handsome!) to any random boy on the street. It makes me want make direct eye contact with the next man who stares at me and ask him what his problem is. It makes me want to run away. It almost makes me want to go home.
But more than anything, it makes me want to change things.
In the US, I have been spoiled by the incredibly strong fight other feminists have put up before me. When I was attending a liberal arts all-girls high school I heard and read about feminist issues so much that it seemed overdone. It felt like the battle for equality between the sexes had basically already been won. I assumed that everyone had learned about feminism and that the entire world was working to correct the problem.
But—for me, more than anything—studying abroad has challenged my perceptions of the world.
A portion of my Teoría Psícosocial (Psychosocial Theory) classes have been devoted to reading about and discussing feminism. I was completely shocked when the majority of the women in my class said that this was the first time they had really learned about it or discussed it. One girl said that before our reading assignment she thought feminista was an insult—that it was like the female version of machista.
Maybe it shouldn’t have, but that felt incredible to me—especially because, in terms of women’s rights, Costa Rica is a fairly progressive country (with a former female president to prove it!).
But rather than making me hate the culture and Costa Rica, I feel like experiencing machismo here has made me aware of the plight of the global women—not just the American one. I’ve realized that with all of the good and the bad (and there has been sooooo very much good), studying abroad here has opened my eyes to the world that exist around me—outside of my Midwestern bubble—in a very real and tangible way.
And its reminded me that the fight for women’s equality is far from over.