As a young, blonde woman, I get attention from sleazy men everywhere. I’ve been whistled at my whole life, and I’ve tended to take it as a compliment—well, a creepy, unwanted compliment. In Beirut, Lebanon, things are no different. On my way to the store today I must have gotten four “Oh-my-God!”s, kissing sounds, or whistles in the ten minute walk. What is strange about this, however, is that I look frumpy. Since I’m living out of only one backpack for two months, my clothes are plain, my hair is never done, I have no make-up, and, to top it all off, I’m wearing dorky glasses. On the very same streets, Lebanese women are always dressed to the nines. The average Beiruti wears at least four-inch heels, has her hair done, has her lips glossed, and has her nails freshly polished in the brightest pink available. Even the hijabi girls are wearing huge heels with pants and shirts so tight they would make people blush in any culture. After all, Beirut is the plastic surgery capital of the Middle East, and it makes sense that many women want to show off their work. So why do I seem to get all the attention?
In most places, it’s a safe bet that natural blondes get so much attention because they are both rare and the Western epitome of a young, attractive woman (think of the archetypal “blonde bombshell”, Barbie, or Cher from Clueless). But in Beirut, I have very recently realized that I knew nothing about the attention that I was getting, and it makes me feel dirtier than ever.
My friend Pam directed me to an amusing blog on Beirut: www.ourmaninbeirut.com. The latest post titled “Sex, but No Sex” describes this hypocritical, hyper-sexualized culture I was describing, but goes further to include why Arab men harass Western women. According to him, Lebanese associate Western blondes with whores. As he writes:
For the men it’s different. They are coached from their earliest age to have double standards, namely that Lebanese women are pure and respectable and foreign women are to be used as vessels for sexual discovery. Many Lebanese men have their first sexual experience at the hands, quite literally, of Eastern European prostitutes in seedy hotels North of Beirut filled with the pungent odour of desperation and lost youth. Men then go on to embrace this concept of the “Western Whore” and consider anyone remotely blonde that they meet ripe for the taking.
I mean, this theory comes from just another blog (and we all know what those are worth…), but it certainly gave me due cause to shoot some nasty glances at the dirty old men on the street. That is, unless the cat-caller is a military police officer—they carry automatic weapons, after all!
After a week or so, I found a way to move past the bitterness that results from being constantly objectified in a society with few traces of gender equality. I took the stereotype and adapted it as a “weapon of the weak”. With my new Lebanese friends, I joke that I draw attention not because I look good, but because people assume I’m not just promiscuous, but also promiscuous-for-profit. They laugh about it with me, and it has become a running joke. Whenever I get treated differently or draw “knowing glances”, we joke about my double life as an Eastern European hooker.
Sure, maybe I deserve a feminist critique for making light of this horrible stereotype. Yet, I hope I’m taking small steps toward de-bunking the rumors about Western girls-gone-wild through a little self-mockery. Maybe the more I can get people to laugh, the more they’ll pay attention to how they perceive “outsiders”. At the very least, they’ll understand that I am one blonde who is not interested in having “more fun”.