In Colombia, money generally goes further than it does back home. After I moved to Bogotá in 2013, I started going to beauty salons more often. They place a lot of importance on physical appearance in Colombia – it’s totally normal for a Colombian man to get a manicure, for example – so it’s not uncommon to find three or four hair and beauty salons on the same block. As the offering is plentiful, this means you can get a manicure for around $4 in Bogotá, and a wash and blow-dry for $3-5 – about ten times cheaper than in London, my hometown. I soon learned that hairdressers and beauty therapists love to talk and ask questions, so the salon is also a great place to practice your Spanish. However, you will need to be very secure in yourself or develop a thick skin to survive regular visits to the salon, because they will be only too happy to point out all your flaws (and generously offer to fix them for you).
One afternoon, I was browsing on Facebook when I saw an angry post from my friend Emily, who also lives in Bogotá:
“I just went to the salon to get a manicure and they asked me if I wanted my mustache waxed!! I do NOT have a mustache!!! (It’s true. She doesn’t.)
This story sounded familiar. I hadn’t been aware of my moustache before I moved to Colombia. But now whenever I get a haircut, the standard question they ask me at the end isn’t whether I would like to buy any of the products they’ve used on my hair, or whether I’d like to schedule my next appointment. They ask if I’d like to have my moustache removed for an extra $3,000 pesos. They even ask me this when I’m not the customer. Not long after arriving in Bogotá, I was in a salon with my boyfriend reading a magazine on the couch while he got a haircut, when one of the staff asked (loudly) if I wanted to get my moustache waxed while I waited. I could feel myself blushing, and narrowed my eyes as I responded: “Do I really have a moustache?” The lady approached me slowly and, like one of those cartoon detectives that goes right up to the TV screen with a magnifying glass, examined my top lip close up. I raised my eyebrows and glared at her. Sensing my hostility, she retreated giving a noncommittal shrug.
You can also rely on Colombian in-laws if ever you’re in need of a healthy dose of brutal honesty. One time I was in front of the mirror at home brushing my hair when a female family member came and stood beside me and said: “Parece que tienes bigote.” (Translation: “It looks like you have a moustache”).
“Gracias…” was my deadpan reply. I later explained that in England it’s considered rude to comment on a woman’s facial hair.
“But I didn’t say you had a moustache!” she said defensively. “I just said it looks like you have a moustache…”
It’s normal to notice cultural differences when you move to another country, and the best thing you can do is learn to adapt to them. I learned early on that if you have spots, crooked teeth, male-pattern baldness, are overweight, very skinny, very tall, or have neglected to wax your top lip, Colombians will comment on it. But there are usually good intentions behind the comments. It’s as though people think they’re doing you a favor by pointing out your flaws, just in case you hadn’t noticed them, so that you’ll be motivated to fix or hide them.
I remember the Agony Aunt columns that I used to read in my teenage magazines. An angst-ridden 15-year-old would write in saying how self-conscious they felt about their spots and that they had tried everything to get rid of them. The Agony Aunt would reply reassuring them that they shouldn’t worry about it, that most probably no-one else had even noticed them. In Colombia, the Agony Aunt would probably advise them to try any number of solutions to get rid of the spots at all costs, because other people WILL have noticed them, and were probably also talking about them with their sister, aunt, mother-in-law, best friend, boyfriend’s cousin and anyone else who would listen.
This aptitude for uninhibited honesty wasn’t an entirely new phenomenon for me. I’ve also lived in Argentina and Mexico, and there are some cultural similarities. I was once in an elevator in Buenos Aires when the lady next to me tilted her head sympathetically, evidently zooming in on my spots, and advised me to eat less chocolate. I half-grimaced-half-smiled, while the 19-year-old inside me was screaming “I’VE HAD SPOTS SINCE I WAS 13, IT’S NOT THE CHOCOLATE!!!!” When I was teaching English in Mexico, I inevitably gained a bit of weight (Mexican food is just too darn good!). One day, a couple of colleagues remarked, “You know what? You’re fatter!” 23-year-old me considered this, and came to the conclusion that “meh… who cares? Chicken in mole sauce is sooo worth it!”
With time, I developed a thick skin. In Latin America, you have to learn to love yourself, “flaws” and all, in spite of the comments, or you’ll go crazy! I’m in my 30s now and I still get spots, I don’t wax my top lip, and I’ve gained 10 pounds since moving to Bogotá. But I don’t let it get to me. I know Colombians worry about me and mean well with their comments, but I’m okay! I’m okay with my barely-there lady-tache, I have a good foundation for my skin and eating Buffalo Wings in teriyaki sauce is a guilty pleasure that I’m not ashamed of or giving up any time soon! Nowadays, each time a well-meaning hairdresser offers to help me out with my moustache, I smile and mischievously reply: “No thank you, you’re very kind but I’ve been working hard on this moustache and I’m actually quite proud of it.”