Three-Year Ego Boost: Sharing the Streets with Argentine Men

Buenos Aires, Argentina

6:45am.  Downtown.  I am walking to my first English class of the day.  The dark circles under my eyes match the color of my over-sized winter jacket, and nearly reach the scarf tied around my neck.  The only other person on the street at this hour is a businessman.  Wind has blown my hair over my reddened face, but he is unmistakable by his suit and the cell phone pressed to his ear.  As he passes he leans in, interrupting his early morning conversation to tell me, “Qué linda que sos.”  You’re beautiful.  I know how to take a compliment, but that was clearly bullshit.

Catcalling is a national pastime in Argentina.  I studied abroad in Spain and traveled through Italy, so Buenos Aires was not my first encounter with unsolicited comments and hissing. And of course, catcalling exists in the United States.  But still, the consistency and pervasiveness of it here never ceases to amaze me. You cannot walk down the street without someone literally congratulating you on how pretty you are.  (I am always tempted to tell them to direct all feedback to my parents, but as a rule I don’t dignify such behavior with a response.)  I complained about this to an English acquaintance living in France. She eyed me with jealous contempt and remarked, “Basically what you’re saying is that you’ve had a three-year ego boost.”

Personally, I don’t find catcalls demeaning, degrading, or threatening, but I certainly don’t find them flattering.  How can it possibly make you feel special when someone says the exact same thing to every single woman, regardless of shape, size, age, place, or time?  The men here lack creativity, criteria, and sincerity. Hitting on women is a reflex so deeply ingrained in their machismo culture that it has become an unconscious reaction.  I’m not sure that the businessman who talked to me was even aware of doing so.

Rarely has a catcall provoked a positive reaction.  There was one afternoon while I was running.  I was feeling particularly not in shape when a guy yelled, “No te hace falta ese ejercicio.”  You don’t need to exercise.  On another occasion, I was walking down the street, wearing a new hat.  I liked the hat but worried it made me look like a back-up dancer from a Paula Abdul video.  An old man, stooped over, shuffling down the sidewalk stopped and said, “Qué bien que te queda esa gorrita.”  That hat looks great on you.  I actually responded, “thanks!”

For the most part, I find the uninvited attention obnoxious, invasive, and disrespectful.  What bothers me most is that it robs me of my anonymity.  One of the great things about living in a big city is that you can get lost in the crowd.  You may be surrounded by thousands of people, but you get the whole city to yourself.  In Buenos Aires, people audibly notice you on every street corner.  There is no regard or respect for privacy or personal boundaries.  Even if men have the genuine intention of complimenting you, they don’t realize that unsolicited praise from a stranger is often unwelcome.

As it so happens, becoming invisible is easy.  I just have to go the United States.  The first time I returned home after moving to Argentina, I was culture-shocked by how no one even looked at me in that way, let alone said anything.  In my hometown, the only people who shout at you on the street are construction workers, and that’s to warn you to watch your step.

I didn’t realized how accustomed I had grown to being noticed.  That’s not to say that I liked it, just that I had come to expect it.  Like a high-pitched noise that you don’t hear until it stops, and that you kind of miss when it’s gone.  At first, I worried that something had happened during the flight.  But then I realized that while a ten-hour plane ride looks good on no one, it’s hardly enough to turn you ugly.  It’s not me, I decided. It’s them.

Don’t ask me how, but we have housebroken American men. We have taught them exactly when and where it is appropriate to approach women as members of the opposite sex.  For example, in a bar, club, or party, totally acceptable.  When we look especially good, acceptable.  When we find you attractive, acceptable.  In all other circumstances, we are to be regarded as equals. We have trained American men not to see us as women.

Someone once told me that we are given gifts and talents to share them with others. If you have an incredible voice, it’s not so that you can sing in the shower.  If you are an amazing artist, it’s not so that you can paint your garage.  And if you are attractive, it’s not so that you can stare at your reflection. We don’t need our eyes, mouths, or bodies to be pretty, we just need them to function.  So, if you are beautiful, which we all are in our own way, it’s not for your own benefit. And if someone genuinely recognizes your physical beauty, or is perceptive enough to see your inner beauty, they should be able to express their appreciation.

Neither country has it right.  Argentine men are too hot, and American men are too cold.  I want men to view me as a woman, but first and foremost to respect me as a person.  I want them to feel comfortable talking to me, but to think about my feelings before they speak. I don’t want a stranger shouting his admiration at me from a distance of 20 feet, but I also don’t want him to be afraid to smile.

I am an independent, intelligent, ambitious, talented individual, and I expect to be treated as such.  But I am also a young, attractive woman, and I expect to be treated as such. Women don’t want to be objectified. But let’s be honest, we are objects of beauty.

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4 Responses to “Three-Year Ego Boost: Sharing the Streets with Argentine Men”


  1. 1 Oscar December 14, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Let me say taht you are not so intelligent as you think. You interpret the foreign culture using your prejudice and missconception. You can not intepret the way men talk to you believing that their intentions are the same that YOU think they are. You think argentinian men are disrespectful because they catcall at you, but they not intend to do so and they dont expect you to believe so. Then you should interpret other cultures traying to think as member of that culture, you can not judge their behavior because in USA the men behave just the opposite. That´s not wise at all. Would you use occidental culture to intepret chinesse culture? Of course not!
    Same happens with argentina culture…

    • 2 amyfrances December 19, 2009 at 2:55 am

      Hi Oscar,

      Certainly, I agree with you that we should be tolerant, accepting, and understanding of other cultures. One of the things I most like about traveling is learning about the different ways that different peoples view and approach life. There is much to learn from the traditions, customs, and lifestyles of others. I also believe that we should avoid generalizations and reserve judgments. With that said, I do feel that there are certain universal rights that transcend individual cultures, such as a woman’s right to walk down the street without being harassed. Culture might help us to comprehend why members of a society behave in a certain way, but culture does not always excuse or justify their actions.

      • 3 karina mend June 1, 2010 at 3:45 am

        Well if u dont like it dont go there, im sure there are plenty of things that american guys do that turn off foreign girls, u tend to generalize and which is not a good thing to do. I dont think u have any right to bag out other men from other cultures, dont u have anything else to do, seems to be like u have too much time on ur hands… I think u look too much into the argentine men complimenting u issue… I think that if they are not complimenting you , then u have an issue, otherwise jsut enjoy it…. by the way , im an aussie girl and ive lived in argie for a long time and it never bothered me unless they said something that wasnt nice….. just enjoy life and stop getting worked up over stupidities…

  2. 4 Cecilia March 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Hi! I read this and it was really interesting. I actually felt more prettier when i was at your country, on a trip. The family of my boyfriend would tell him that i was pretty and a lady and his friends would tell him hat he had such a pretty girlfriend.
    And its not im “exotic” or wathever, i could pass for an american girl until i speak.
    I find bothering when a guy tells something in the street, cause it feels like an invasion. I love american men, in that way they really are educated, they arent rude and treat you like an equal.
    Plus they have blondes to die for…(L)


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