Colombia has it all: Beaches, mountains, immense biodiversity, exciting cities, and of course, beautiful women.  Colombian women have been heralded as the “sexiest in the world” and lumped into the category of Colombian topography, their bodies figuratively, and sometimes literally “sold” to eagerly awaiting tourists as they embody all that’s exotic about this nation.

The curvaceous, sultry Latina has become an iconic image promoted by many travel agencies and more recently dating websites and “wedding tours” – reeling in men with the promise they’ll be treated like kings and constantly surrounded by “belleza.”

And it works. Thousands of foreigners swarm to Colombia every year in search of siren-like women who continue to top the list of reasons to visit the country.

Simply googling ‘Colombian women’ churns up hundreds of websites all describing the Colombian woman as the “perfect wife; faithful, loyal and devoted” having been “raised to complement, nurture and respect their men.” Various wedding tours operated in Medellin offer a 7:1 ration between American men and Colombian women, promising unlimited introductions.

I can’t help but see this as the ultimate form of female objectification, proliferating the gender inequality that persists and damages Colombian society.  But admittedly, this is my perspective; as a staunch feminist Briton, critical of patriarchal structures, because I can afford to be.

Living in Colombia has challenged some of my points of view and I was interested to find out how Colombian women react to their international reputation and whether the negative impression I have on this issue is fair.

Colombia is a patriarchal society with its share of machismo, gender-based violence and discrimination. However, the issue of machismo is not as clear-cut as it would seem.  Although Colombia has a long way to go before men truly treat women as equals, it is often the women that permit gender stereotyping and female subordination to continue.

‘Machista’ women are a common phenomenon throughout Colombia, letting the sexist behaviour of men off the hook by permitting it and often initiating discriminatory behaviour themselves.  In fact, in response to survey questions about the prevalence of machismo, most women blamed a lack of education and certain religious values, but most importantly female attitudes.

Femininity is defined by women themselves who have strong ideas, not only about gender roles in society but about the benefits of conforming to them.  Of the women who took part in my survey, the majority expressed a Colombian woman’s ability to use stereotypes to their advantage, playing on their strong, sexy and beautiful international image.  Most women expressed a certain pride in their international reputation, emphasising the truth in the description of their “belleza” and strength.

Homogenising Colombian women certainly isn’t accurate and results from my research very much demonstrate a perspective of educated Bogotanas; a minority population when considering women from across the country.  Some even denied that Colombian women are subjected to gender-based pressure, emphasising a modern attitude of Latina women who are not only beautiful, but hard working, ambitious and independent.

A defensive undertone could be detected in many answers, brushing-off any negative impacts of their international reputation and emphasising the changing nature of Colombian society.  Perhaps a sign, that Bogotanas are tired of stereotypes.

When asked about the role of women in Colombian society many of them answered “role models” or “leaders.”  This for me demonstrated that in certain levels of society, gender roles and stereotypes are being challenged and female objectification on an international level does not represent a barrier in the way women achieve their potential; nor does it bring with it the negative impressions one could imagine.

However, the prevalence of plastic surgery, prostitution and gender-based violence elsewhere in the country would suggest otherwise.  All the women who responded to the survey acknowledged the pressure to conform to certain standards of beauty and deep-rooted issues within Colombian society that plastic surgery and prostitution sometimes represent.

These issues would not be issues if we could be assured that the women putting themselves under the knife or selling their bodies were doing so through educated and informed choice.  Yet, with the constant bombardment of appearance-based pressure and persistence of patriarchal structures that require women to look a certain way, these trends are worrying.  Psychologists label this trend “self-objectification.”

Cultures that place an overemphasis on appearance threaten to perpetuate this self-objectification which, in turn, leads to the lack of self-confidence and unrealistic levels of “beauty.”

Indeed the majority of women who responded to my survey acknowledged the huge part appearance plays in social mobility and advancement in Colombia, although few related this to Colombian women’s international reputation.

Appearance-based pressures are experienced by women across the world every day.  However, like a Colombian man who can’t dance salsa, a Colombian woman who denies her sensuality and does not take pride in her appearance is an anomaly and an exception to the norm.  This points to the existence of deep-rooted cultural pressures, which their international reputation and objectification does nothing to combat.

Colombian women thoroughly deserve their international reputation but it does not do them justice.  Not only do Colombian women represent their exotic, tropical and sensual country, they are symbols of strength and resilience in the face of discrimination, drivers of change yet nurturers of traditional values and cultures. They thrive under the immense pressure they put themselves under to be superwomen and to uphold their femininity – a critical part of their identity.

For strong, independent women who recognise the benefits in their international classifications – but acknowledge that they do not represent the full picture – this form of objectification seems to have little if any negative impact on their lives.  However, at a deeper societal level, the simplification of women’s contribution in society to appearance belittles the female population and can do great damage to their self-confidence and in turn, societal contribution.  All stereotypes are simplifications, yet some do more damage than others and we must challenge those that negatively impact the people they describe.