To Be or Not to Be Flattered?

“However, if I may admit something not entirely flattering to myself, these Romans on the street aren’t really giving me any second looks.  Or even many first looks, for that matter.  I found this kind of alarming at first.  I’d been once to Italy once before, back when I was nineteen, and what I remember is being constantly harassed by men on the street.  And in the pizzerias.  And at the movies.  And in the Vatican.  It was endless and awful.  […]  Now, at the age of thirty-four, I am apparently invisible. […]  And while it’s certainly nice, of course, to not get pawed by a disgusting stranger on the bus, one does have one’s feminine pride, and one must wonder, What has changed here?  Is it me?  or is it them? 

So I asked around, and everybody agrees that, yes, there’s been a true shift in Italy in the last ten to fifteen years.  […] Which is a relief, because for a while there I was afraid it was me.  I mean, I was afraid maybe I wasn’t getting any attention because I was no longer  nineteen years old and pretty.” 

– Gilbert, Elizabeth.  Eat Pray Love.  p.67

* * *

Some years back, I had the chance to visit my sister in The Netherlands for a short summer vacation.  It was springtime when I visited her.  Before, when I thought of spring, the image of countless flowers, cool air and mild sun would immediately enter my mind.  Apparently, it’s not always like that in that part of the world. Yes, there were oceans of flowers but the skies were always gloomy and rains followed wherever we go.  And for someone who’s in love with the sun and has spent her entire life living on its surface, springtime can be a pretty numbing experience.

But I didn’t always find myself donning thick clothing.  One time, I found the weather comfortably warm and decided to wear a plain shirt and denim skirt.  When I got outside the house, I saw that most of the locals were wearing long coats, scarves and boots, like everyone was feeling cold.  And there I was, looking all summery. “Shouldn’t they feel warmer than I do?” I thought to myself.

Anyway, on that same day, my sister and I were on our way to the Philippine Embassy.  We were walking on the sidewalk and noticed that a few meters ahead were a group of men. I got a little bit uncomfortable to be walking in front of a throng of men, especially I was wearing a tiny skirt, but my sister assured me, and said that to be fair to the Dutch men, they weren’t the type who would holler or harass women. That no matter what women were wearing, unlike Pinoys who would immediately say “Hi Miss Beautiful” and other annoying comments, the Dutch would only keep their silence. They would probably look at you but they will not say anything.  I was about to laud the gentlemanliness of the Dutch when all of a sudden, by the time we got in front of them, they all started throwing comments at us like – “Hi Miss. How are you today?  Is everything good?  Goodbye, Miss.”  I just looked at my sister and said, “As you were saying?”  My sister only replied, “This is the first time something like this has happened to me!”

But that was not the first and last time that it happened to me.  And on those succeeding occasions when it did happen, I was not wearing any short skirt, mind you!  My sister said that it was probably the color of my skin (my sister looks more mestiza than me). The Dutch are all pasty white and my morena complexion definitely stands out.  She teased me as an “exotic beauty” complete with long, straight dark hair.  I’ve always hated that description! It’s so stereotypical! There were times when I only wore plain jeans and top and I’d get comments still.  I’d wear a simple dress and seemingly respectable police/security would suddenly bid me “Good night, Miss.  Are you on your way home, Miss?  Be careful now.” A bunch of teenage boys uttering “Mooi, Mooi.”  (Beautiful, beautiful) as I walked inside a train station.  A man would wave at me while riding his bike. Someone would bump himself with other people because he had eyes on me rather on the street.  My “Memoirs of A Geisha Moment.”

Are Dutch men really just friendly to tourists?  Attracted to dark skin?  Or simply appreciating beauty when they see it?  When I told someone, who also went to Holland the year before about these instances, I was surprised to hear her comment. “No one did something like that to me when I was there!”  Her statement, by the way, had a jealous tone rather than expressing it as a matter-of-fact.

After hearing that remark, honestly, I was amused.  Modesty aside, I thought, hey, I am pretty after all!  But it also got me thinking – did I do something to earn such unsolicited remarks?  (But I’ve always maintained that decent Pinay behaviour when I was there in the Netherlands)  Is it something cultural?  (No one took notice of me when I went to Spain but got a few looks when I was in Belgium and especially in Holland.) Why do some women feel disgusted when they get such treatments but get upset at the same time when they don’t?  Is there some sort of a competition going on among women in this arena?  Where do women draw the line between flattering and disrespect?

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