Imperialist Beauty Standards Rule in the Philippines

Rachel Peters crowned Miss Universe Philippines 2017

Once again Western standards of beauty are on display in Asia, with beauty contest officials inevitably picking a mestiza to be Miss Universe Philippines 2017. Rachel Peters’ father is British, her mother a Filipina.  Last year’s Miss Universe was Pia Wurtzbach, who had a German father. A former Miss Cebu, Raine Baljac, had a Croat father. Megan Lynne Young, a Filipino-American, was crowned Miss World in 2013. There have been precious few pure Filipina finalists in any recent beauty contests in the country.

Obviously Filipino women who gave birth to those contestants, to name a few among many, either traveled around the world where they met their partners, or foreign men were the ones who had gone to the Philippines. The fascination, even obsession, with Western standards of beauty dates back to the former western colonials which relegated the indigenous population to a lower social stratum.  Analysts of colonialism have pointed to the socio-cultural problems which arise from that.  But in developing countries like the Philippines, mestizos tend to be admired.

Some countries view such minorities either with contempt or a tinge of admiration.  In colonial India, the offspring of Britons who married the natives were labelled “half caste,” “Anglo-Indian” or “Eurasian,” among others.  (In Africa there were the Creoles or Mulattoes.)  The mixed-race actress, Merle Oberon whose exoticism took her to the Hollywood zenith in the 1930s and 1940s, was born in India but claimed she was born in Tasmania, a secret she kept till her death.

It was former US President Barack Obama who spelled things out clearly when he described himself in an interview as a “mutt” soon after he was elected in 2008 as the media were digging into his antecedents. Curiously, he chose to call one of his biographical pre-election books “Dreams from My Father.” This may have been to highlight the racism that pervades much of American society towards what were first called “negroes,” then “colored folks” and finally “blacks.”  The era of miscegenation lasted centuries, when marriages between white and black couples were often ostracized.

Even though Obama had a white mother, which makes him only half black, that tended to be overlooked by racists whose attitudes are deeply entrenched in America’s social, cultural and political life.  Tales whipped up by the present President Donald Trump about Obama having been born in his father’s country, Kenya, festered in the minds of a segment of Americans who hated the thought of America having a black president. The Texan husband of a close relative of mine told me when Obama ran in his first presidential campaign: “I don’t want no nigger in the White House!”

Diluting the “pure”

The early waves of migration throughout the world from China, India and the Middle East served to “dilute” those races which wished to keep themselves “pure,” as it were.  Those considered beyond the pale were seen as mongrels.

Today’s ease of jet travel encourages the itinerant nature of different races moving from their birthplaces to various corners of the globe. The mixed marriages that take place have produced progeny that populates today’s multi-racial world.

Mestiza product

I’m the product of such a phenomenon. My grandfather hailed from Tennessee and joined the army during the time of America’s only colonial adventure. He was stationed in Cebu, the central region of the Philippines, where he met a local teenager who spoke only Cebuano and Spanish (learned from the Spanish colonials who occupied the Philippines for over 300 years). The Americans did not rule by the cross and the sword like Spain had when they took over as the new colonials although they ultimately prosecuted an ugly repression. But they also brought over the English language, education and technology, making native nationalists, later called their compatriots “little brown Americans,” who allowed the new rulers to exploit the country.

My Cebuana grandmother, who learned pidgin English from her foreign husband, produced 10 children who naturally became part of the mestizo class. My father, being the eldest, obtained an engineering degree from a top Manila university, which qualified him to run a cement plant in his mother’s birthplace, where I myself was born in the last century.

Growing up as the child of mestizo parents (my mother had a Spanish father) made me realize I was a bit different from some of my friends. My yaya (nanny) would sometimes tell me I was lucky because I had a straight nose, not a flat one like hers and most others’.  She made me feel glad of this fact, which I later realized was just a colonial hang-over.

Whiteners, colonial hangovers

For decades, pharmacies throughout the archipelago promote “whitening” creams and light-colored hair dyes that are snapped up by women (and men) wishing to emulate western celebrities. Those are also colonial hangovers epitomized by Hollywood, but many among the general mass of people continue to derive satisfaction from aping current trends.

There is a larger infusion of Chinese blood in Thailand than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but fair skin is treasured by women in China, and especially Hong Kong where beauty salons advertise procedures that give women  wide Western-type eyes with double eyelids.

Cookies from the cutters

Much has changed around the world today, with nationalist pride flourishing in even the smallest nations.  A country like the Philippines, which attaches “world class” to even minor victories and glories in a prize-winning pugilist, has fielded the most Westernized-looking models in beauty contests so as to join the big league. The belief is that “kayumanggi” (brown-skinned) girls wouldn’t make the grade. Mestizas, of which there are countless numbers in the Philippines and Latin America, will go on being “cookie-cutter” Western types aspiring to reach the top of the beauty pile. Rachel Peters is the latest example. She won’t be the last.

This piece originally ran in the Asia Sentinel on May 9 2017.

What’s in a Name?

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Christine Mae Calima (5th from right) with her comrades in the 2016 graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy

Who are Pia Wurtzbach, Cherrypie Picache, Empress Schuck, and Christine Mae Calima? The first is a no-brainer; all Filipinos know she’s last year’s Miss Universe, and the celebrity culture has always been alive and well in this country.

Sober or bizarre, one’s name is one’s most treasured possession. When I once took the course of Teaching English as a Second Language for Hong Kong students, I learned a riddle for young learners: “What belongs to you but other people use it more than yourself?” It was a real puzzler, and when they were told the answer, “Your name,” everyone said, “Of course!”

One’s name is truly one’s brand. Nowadays name recognition is very important because it upholds one’s individualism, especially among egotists (for example, Donald Trump). Notorious celebrities and eminent personages are instantly recognizable. Making a name for oneself drives many humans forward.

Today’s pervasive media which foster the celebrity culture means that Pia Wurtzbach’s name is better known around the archipelago than Christine Mae Calima’s. This is because the latter has barely had publicity despite her fine achievement at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), where she placed second in the 2016 graduating class.

It may be natural for a country like the Philippines that struggles with its lopsided economy to be fixated on beauty contests because these provide dreams of celebrity for many folks faced with the daily struggle to survive. Doubtless, Filipino beauty queens, even those with foreign fathers, make many of us believe that our pretty women put the country “on the map,” as was said of Imelda Marcos in her heyday. People who feel the nation lacks real champions feel a sense of national pride, which is why boxer Manny Pacquiao is seen as a hero despite his many flaws.

Sadly, not much attention has been paid to Miss Calima, whose life seems to have been dedicated mainly to her studies. While the media focused on the winners of various Miss Universe pageants, half-German Pia Wurtzbach was hailed like a conquering hero. But no one praised a young Pangasinan girl for her academic and military achievements.

Because Miss Wurtzbach is leggy and busty (something unknown in our society’s early Maria Clara days), her triumph has been viewed as a great achievement. The media binged on her long “struggle” to learn the ropes of modeling, high fashion and cosmetology, and the overblown prose over every bit of trivia in a Filipino woman’s reaching the apex of Hollywood perfection highlights the usual emphasis on the Western concepts of beauty, to the detriment of Asians. It showed the Filipino penchant for popular entertainment, beside which serious academic achievement pales.

In her few media interviews, Miss Calima was reported as long having hankered to enter the PMA and having consistently earned top marks in her early studies. Placing second in the PMA’s graduating class was no mean feat for the determined young lady.

Interestingly, one of Miss Calima’s colleagues in the lineup of top graduates (who placed fourth) proudly bears the name of Joseph Stalin Fagsao, whose father thought that Russian dictator was “a great leader.” Indeed, other Filipinos sport equally extraordinary names: One of Pacquiao’s daughters was christened Queen Elizabeth, a Cebu reporter goes by the name of Princess Dawn Felicitas, and then there’s a Davao newspaper columnist named Mussolini Lidasan. For a country that has elected officials like Vice President Jejomar (Jesus/Joseph/Mary) Binay to high office, this is perfectly normal.

It’s nice to have a sober name like Christine Mae as a role model in a society awash in names like Bongbong, Dingdong, Jocjoc and other colorful monikers. It shows that Filipinos shun the drab and don’t mind the absurd because it makes them stand out among the crowd of plebeians.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Feb. 5, 2017 –