By Rachell Arteaga

This summer I traveled to Colombia and stayed in Cali, a city known for being the country’s “capital of beautiful women.” Knowing this I was even more intrigued to see how gender roles and representation play themselves out.

I saw some crazy things:

Reads “Anorexia Style Shop”

Yep, a store named after the devastating eating disorder, complete with tiny bare belly advertising jeans in the window. I was walking around with a Colombian friend who is a bulimia survivor herself and was OUTRAGED. As a mother, she works every day to ensure that her 7-year-old daughter grows up with a healthy body image despite unrealistic beauty standards – and crazy stores like these.

There were A TON of these around — mannequins with GINORMOUS boobs! Cali is the international Mecca for plastic surgery. Not so surprising with such enormous plastic chests modeling clothes everywhere. Ironically, aforementioned mom even had a nose job and said that plastic surgery is quite common (boo!).

One of the most disturbing things I saw, though, was a beauty pageant for little girls. These children were sashaying around a stage amidst cheering crowds, caked in makeup, wearing bikinis and heels:

But it wasn’t, by far, all doom and gloom. There were some amazingly refreshing things, too. The event that stood out the most was an informative sex ed workshop for teens given by the Christian organization I volunteered with. It was a frank conversation, filled with valuable advice. Teens spoke honestly about their experiences, were told about all options available to them, and there was plenty of emphasis on empowering girls to hold their own and make critical decisions. My favorite part – when the boys were asked about hypothetical situations were girls were pressured into having sex, the boys always said that the girl had the right to say no and shouldn’t be involved with anyone who thinks differently. Woot! Other great efforts include local organizations like Colectivo MEJODA (site in Spanish) who are giving youth the power to take media into their own hands by providing camera training.

Even though it’s clear that the sexualization of girls and women is a global issue, it’s good to know that there is push back worldwide to create an environment where equality is not the exception but the NORM. I look forward to going back and seeing more innovative strategies Colombian girls, youth and their allies create.