It was during my first couple of days in the city, when Nef and I went to meet Dani after he finished up at work. We walked into his pawn shop, and I was greeted exuberantly by many of his coworkers, who asked me who I was, why I was here, etc...One coworker was particularly excited, and also asked me where I was from. When I told her I was from los Estados Unidos, she then asked me if I spoke English, which was met with raucous laughter. As we left the shop with Dani, I mentioned how friendly and excited all of his co-workers had been to meet me. ¨Yes¨, he responded, ¨but people here are generally excited to meet foreigners, especially if they are tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed women. They probably would not have been excited if you had had darker hair or eyes, or had been shorter or rounder¨. There is even a word for this phenomenon-malinchista, which describes someone who prefers blonde, blue-eyed people. This word originated with the arrival of the Spanish, and comes from the name of an indigenous woman who translated for Cortes. Hernán Cortes was reported to be blonde and blue eyed, and some indigenous populations saw him and his men as gods. Thus, it was extremely early on in my time here in CDMX that I started to take note of the immense privilege I carry here in Mexico, for a variety of reasons, but specifically because of my appearance.
Because the truth is, I stand out in Mexico. A lot. Whereas most women here tend to be shorter, rounder, darker skinned, and have dark hair and eyes, I am 5-7 inches taller than the average person, have hair that is considered extremely blonde by Mexican standards, blue eyes, and a leaner frame. This difference is apparent in public, crowded places, such as public transportation. It has resulted in me getting strange looks, questions from small children about why I have blue eyes, and more attention from men than I have ever received. ¨Oye, guapa, que bonita eres¨. ¨Cuidate mucho, bonita¨. ¨Hola señorita, eres muy bonita, no?¨ ¨Oye, guapa, ven aca, porque no te sonrie?¨ (My personal favorite was ¨Oye, bonita, que guapa eres, eres bailarina?¨. If he ever saw me attempt to dance ballet, he would quickly realize the answer to that question.) This not to say that all men in Mexico City are like this-I work, live, and worship with fantastic men who are some of my biggest supporters and advocates. But it is to recognize that there is definitely a strong presence of machismo in Mexico, and piropos, or catcalls, are all too common.
Some advertisements I see around my workplace.
I receive these piropos with a mix of emotions. I mostly feel uncomfortable being noticed and commented on by a complete stranger (although the piropos I have received are mostly harmless, and I have never felt physically unsafe). If I'm being honest, sometimes part of me feels flattered. But that same part then wants to challenge the cultural belief that the primary function of women is to appease men, and question why I feel I should find my affirmation through the approval of men. Mexico City is a place that values appearance, and women are expected to be extremely put together. My Spanish teacher during our orientation spoke at length about this. She said that in her experience, women often receive negative comments if they go out with hair undone and no makeup, and that if a woman's husband wants her to wear her hair long, then the expectation is that she wear it long. I do not possess great talent in the areas of fashion and makeup. On the metro, surrounded by gorgeous women with dark, immaculately done hairstyles and flaming red lipsticks, I sometimes feel inferior, that I am not living up to the expectations of how I am to present myself. However, because of the color of my skin, hair, and eyes, I can walk through the metro sweaty, disheveled, and without makeup, and receive far more attention from men than the most beautifully dressed Mexican woman.
The part that makes me most uncomfortable is the knowledge that this attention is primarily the result of racist, sexist systems that privilege whiteness, thinness, ableism, cisgenderism, heterosexuality, Aryan features, and traditional expressions of femininity. Super-model Cameron Russell speaks eloquently about the privileges she is afforded solely by ¨having won a genetic lottery¨ in a world that equivalates beauty with being white, tall, thin, and blonde. And in an increasingly globalized world, these Western beauty standards are spreading across the globe, with sometime devastating effects. In the Viti Levu island of Fiji, for example, rates of eating disorders rose after the arrival of television and US TV shows.This Western influence is extremely prevalent in Mexico City, particularly in the media. Although most people here do not look like me, most of the women in the magazines, billboards, and metro ads look like me. The most popular movies are dubbed American movies, starring actresses who look like me, some of the most popular songs are sung by singers who look like me, and the most popular TV shows star actresses who-you guessed it-look like me. This whitewashed media is so ubiquitous that a México City professor, who gave us a lecture on the history of México during our orientation, commented that if you only saw the media, you would think that Mexico is a country of only white people.
This is not to say that I dislike or am ashamed of my appearance. I inherited my father´s eyes and my grandmother´s long, skinny feet. My hair bears blonde streaks that are remnants of happy hours passed in the summer sun. I love it with I show people pictures of my family and they comment about how much we resemble each other. I am grateful to have a healthy body that allows me to salsa dance, hug, reach tall things for my host dads, sprint to catch the metro, and enjoy life. As someone who struggled with disordered eating, weight, body image, and my relationship to food throughout middle school, I am extremely happy to now have a much healthier relationship with my body. I am now able to eat delicious enchiladas smothered in cream and cheese without thinking about calories, carbs, or anything else. As I have gotten older, I have become more critical of the media. I recognize that the beauty industry cares about profit, not self esteem, and that beauty standards are extremely subjective and fluid. The beauty and fashion industries would tell women that being beautiful means having purple horns growing out of our heads, if they knew they could sell us expensive surgery to give us purple horns.
However, it is to say that these ridiculous, unattainable Western beauty standards, (such as the fact that ¨The average American woman is 5’4″ tall, and weighs 166 lbs...the average model is 5’10” tall and weighs only 107 lbs.¨), are results of deeply rooted systems of oppression, and are affecting how women and girls around the world see themselves. And it is to say that I receive many privileges from these systems, particularly through my whiteness, both in the United States, and especially here in Mexico. These are systems of privilege and oppression that result in me receiving better service in restaurants and stores, being greeted with more excitement and enthusiasm, and, most likely, having a much easier time in customs upon our border retreat, long before I take out my passport. It is important that we, particularly as estadounidenses, are critical of the representations of beauty in our media that is so widely seen around the world, and that we work to include a greater variety of experiences and voices.
And I think what saddens me most, is how this Western, imported, narrow ideal of beauty misses out on so much of the diverse beauty in this country. Although I have only been here for a few months, I have been lucky enough to travel to different parts of the country, where I have met beautiful, loving people of every shape, size, and color. Here in CDMX, I am surrounded by incredible people in my host community, who exude joy and energy, and who have embraced me with open arms. They come in all shades, backgrounds, and body types, and they are the light of my experience here. They welcome me into their homes, their worship spaces, their work, and their lives, with no judgement of my thick accent or grammatical errors. Through them, I see how God is working, both in this country and in my life.
And that, I think, is the most beautiful thing of all.