It seems like a lifetime ago, but I used to live in Medellín. And, yes, as you might have gotten wind of, the women are beautiful there. (And so are the men, which is why I found myself there in the first place.) But I think the women are also beautiful in Bogotá, as well as gorgeous in the other parts of Colombia I’ve visited. And I think that American women are very pretty, Polish women are charming, Mediterranean women are stunning, Indian women are ravishing, Kenyan women are lovely, Asian women are knockouts, etc. I’ve never felt there was any scarcity of feminine beauty in the world, nor any exclusivity. Beauty is generous and abundant, and with an endless variety that’s fascinating.
Medellín and the department of Antioquia seem to have many elements, though, such as poverty, extreme regional pride, and narco culture (both current and leftover from its height in decades past) that have combined to create a particular subculture of beauty and vanity. The women I knew and spent time with in Medellín were probably the last people to ever do something like get plastic surgery or dream about competing in a beauty pageant, but I can’t deny that that cult of beauty is very strong in that region. It manifests itself in a lot of ugly ways, and it also not infrequently has tragic consequences. My dance instructor there died shortly after I left following a botched series of at-home injections of liquid silicone to give him a more shapely butt.
I’m grateful that the city is becoming much more proactive and aggressive about sex tourism and child prostitution–the kerfuffle caused by a recent controversial newspaper article calling the city the biggest brothel in the world seems to have spawned deeper reflection after the initial defensive backlash. I’m also encouraged that there are government campaigns that insist that our [their] women are not a tourist attraction–when people ask you what’s so great about Medellín or what you liked about it, please stop talking about how hot the women are. Seriously, think of a better and more respectful answer that doesn’t reflect so poorly on you. Are the women just more beautiful scenery to gaze at? Boosts for your ego? Cheap investments? I’m not so sure that Medellín is quite ready to position itself as a top tourist destination (I feel the same way about Bogotá), but, believe me, it has a lot going on and is headed in what I feel is a very positive direction. Even if you couldn’t help but appreciate the attractiveness of the women in Medellín (even Rihanna did at the World Cup), was there not anything else? Many Medellineans are tired of this shallow characterization of their city (beautiful women and cocaine), and they’re seeing that this kind of publicity makes their city a destination for many unsavory types whose dollars they’d rather not be courting.
I read an article this morning titled Las ‘reinas’ que no quieren cetro y corona (had to look up cetro: scepter) and also found it to be incredibly heartening. When the current governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo, was mayor of Medellín (2003-2007), he cut off the city’s sponsorship of the beauty pageant part of their annual Feria de las Flores; he also saw to it that Antioquia’s support for the departmental beauty pageant dried up. His wife, Lucrecia Ramírez, a psychiatrist who specializes in body image issues for women, headed these initially controversial initiatives. Many in Medellín’s society apparently had gotten fed up with women only being exalted for their looks, and the profligate amounts of money spent on the contests also caused concern. Then there was the embarrassing fact that the city was quickly becoming almost exclusively associated abroad with drugs and beautiful women. Another person cited the fact that the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery also made these pageants more than a little pointless.
But they didn’t just cut off support and then move on. Instead, they rechanneled those same funds into the creation of a Miss Talented Pageant (Concurso Mujeres Jóvenes Talento), having women compete based on their merits in academic excellence, artistic and athletic skills, and community leadership. Apparently 80 municipalities in the department have replaced their beauty pageants with Miss Talented Pageants. While some ephemeral kind of hope and distraction from the decades of violence and displacement in Antioquia might be found in the glorification of beauty, it’s just sad when you think ab0ut how fleeting, ineffectual, and arbitrary beauty really is. What does it accomplish, again? Whereas the promotion of leadership and skills in youth is the only true hope for any society. I think Medellín’s example here is so awesome that . . . well, I just had to write a blog post about it. Forgive me if Spanish learning is minimal today.
There was one word in the article that got the ball rolling in my mind for this post, though. That word was cosificación.
La psiquiatra había atendido en su consultorio varios casos de jóvenes afectadas por la obsesión de ser delgadas, y había encontrado un efecto claro de los reinados en las mujeres: “la cosificación”, cuando una persona ubica su cuerpo por fuera de sí misma y lo convierte en una cosa, “y como las cosas se venden y se compran, se exhiben, carecen de valor humano, se tiranizan y se modifican al antojo de quien las compre”, dice Ramírez, inevitablemente este efecto baja la autoestima de cualquiera.
The psychiatrist had seen several cases of young women affected by the obsession with being thin, and she witnessed one clear effect of the beauty pageants on women: objectification, which is when a person locates their body as being outside of him- or herself, turning it into an object. “And just like things that are bought and sold, they’re put on display, they lack human value, they’re oppressed, and they’re custom-fitted to please whoever purchases them,” says Ramírez. “This effect would inevitably lower anybody’s self-esteem.”
I didn’t know the word cosificación; to objectify someone is cosificar. In addition to the objectification of women, the terms are also used in the contexts of animals and workers.
Here are the four most talented (and, I would say, beautiful) women in Antioquia in 2014. Each of their stories moved me deeply. And I loved the woman who was certain that it’s only a matter of time until more people tune in to watch this talent pageant than to watch the traditional beauty pageant in Cartagena!