10 March 2013

Pale Blue Eyes

Reading: A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

I am blessed with the burden of being an average looking female in a family of gorgeous women. Then to add salt to the wound, I have managed to surround myself by a set of beautiful friends, both physically and intangibly. For the final cherry, I chose to attend a college where the female student body looks like they walked out of a J. Crew advertisement and a regularly ranked on of the best looking college campuses. (What misogynistic ass decided that such a ranking was necessary?) The combination has always left me with a long list of self-criticisms in regards to my body image.

Luckily, the gorgeous women of my world have been coupled variety of wholesome and supportive men. (For all fairness, they are equally attractive, just as the women in my life are as wholesome and supportive as the men.) They have shown me time and time again that beauty is goes beyond your looks and that as a woman, I will always be their equal. It has left me with a sense that am I capable and entitled to my own accomplishments, counteracting my bouts of insecurity.

Joining Peace Corps and moving to Ecuador has thrown that reality into complete chaos. Suddenly, my worth as an individual human being and more so, as a woman, had little to nothing to do with my wit, intelligence, and values. Instead, I became an object of my physical attributes—my Scandinavian blue eyes, my golden brown hair, and my light complexion—and how those are valued in Ecuador’s machismo-driven culture. Here I am faced with the consciousness that I was attractive and desirable based solely on my appearance while being marginalized and objectified by this desirability. The incidents that these circumstances have bore a very visceral backlash—never have I have so vehemently hated my own skin and reactions in incites in others.

Take the following situation:

Last Friday afternoon I was traveling to Zaruma to take advantage of the Italian café in town to work on some job applications since I’m COSing in 3 weeks. The bus ride from Paccha to Zaruma is about an hour and half and about 30 minutes into the trip, an elderly man got on with an elderly women—she took a seat the front of the bus and he ended up sitting next to me. Right on cue, he stared at me for the first few minutes and then began asking me the usually questions: where are you from, where do you live, what do you do here, etc. Not wanting to be completely rude but not wanting to entertain a complete stranger, I politely answered his questions with very short, one word answers. Between questions, he continued to stare at me and eventually started fidgeting with his belt and pants. I started to feel very uncomfortable and tried my best to ignore him as he continued to stare. Eventually, he undid his pants and began masturbating while staring at me. In those split seconds I saw myself with the following options:
  1. Stay put and endure this horrifying and humiliating experience
  2. Move and risk coming off as a rude, inconsiderate person and having to have physical contact with the perpetrator
  3. Make a scene and publicly shame the man, which could cause an unpredictable reaction from an already unscrupulous individual. Not to mention, looking like the gringa loca.
Completely disgusted and trying not to panic while holding back tears, I grabbed my purse, crawled over the man and pushed my way to the back of the crowded bus. Although the bus was full and we were sitting in the middle, no one on the bus seemed to notice the situation. Even more so, many seemed rather annoyed when I removed myself from the presence of a seemingly polite old man.

As volunteers, especially female ones; we walk this very fine line while living here in Ecuador. Had this had this happened on public transportation in the United States, I would have stood up to in repugnance and immediately reported that man to the ayudante and probably the police. Unfortunately, in Ecuador there is not that form of recourse, especially for an unknown man in a random encounter. The damage is done and in my case, the culprit lost to the campo. For what it’s worth, I was conservatively dressed in a crew-neck sweater and lose fitting jeans and on a 2pm bus—the exact opposite of a situation that any one could argue “was asking for it.” (For any one who was even thinking this, conservative talk radio hosts included, all I have to say to you is “fuck you.”)

Once in Zaruma, I quickly made my way to the café, buried myself in my work, and prayed that the old man wouldn’t by chance pass by my hideaway. Here I was in one of the safest and decent parts of the country, famous for it’s gente sana. I watched women walk pass the café carrying roses provided by the Municipality in honor of International Women’s Day and I sat wondering how they could allow such misogyny to continue. It was enough to make an ironist out any pragmatist. And now I found myself adding my beloved highlands of El Oro to the list of places where men had caused me to consciously hate the way I looked.

If only I was a little less Caucasian, maybe the father of one of my students wouldn’t have put me in a headlock, demanding that I kissed him. If only I was less blonde, maybe my first counterpart wouldn’t have made a pass at me one day at work. If only my eyes where not blue, maybe the cousin of my host family in Guayas wouldn’t have tried to force himself on me at a New Years Eve party. If only I was less of a gringa, maybe the man on the bus from the beach wouldn’t have boxed me in and confessed his desire to own me. If only…

Strange men with questionable intentions often approach female volunteers. After two years in this country, my gut instinct is not to give them the time of day and when talking to other volunteers, many of them have the same feelings. However, that paints a very horrible image of humanity—nobody wants to hate the elderly farmer on the bus—such a thought process leaves with a rather bitter feeling towards life. Plus, I am repeatedly told of what a fría person I am due to my unwillingness to engage with strangers. More than once it has come back to my host family or counterpart that I blew off an unknown cousin or friend in my feeble effort of self-preservation.

Many us have personally resolved this conflict by accepting our status as a frigid person, even though few of us realistically are, and trying to compensate through our work. But that conclusion, for me at least, has come after two years of trial and error and clearly is far from perfect. It left me with a resentful feeling that my Peace Corps experience will always be marginalized because of my gender….


  1. Hi Whitni! My name is Nicole and I am a student doing a project on Peace Corps and Diplomacy. I would love to ask you some questions about your experience as a PCV. If you are inclined to answer please email me at ncprojects@yahoo.com

  2. RPCV Jordan here.
    I wanted to alert you to a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) offered by the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus through Coursera.
    “Foundations for Global Health Responders” introduces concepts and skills needed to effectively participate in global health ventures. You can access the course here: https://www.coursera.org/course/ghresponder
    This free course is taught by world-class experts from the University of Colorado, the CDC, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, USAID, and many others in the global health field.
    Could you please promote this valuable course to fellow volunteers and colleagues?
    I've provided text and images for emails, tweets, and social media ads on our Global Health Responder Publicity Packet webpage here:
    Let me know if you have any questions, and thank you in advance for helping us get the word out for this global health responders MOOC!
    Marisa Burton