Sunday, July 05, 2009

Beauty contests: Filipino culture or mad tradition?

Whether at home or abroad, only Filipinos can claim that their love of beauty pageants and singing contests is a significant part of their culture.

Here in Greater Toronto, where close to 200,000 Filipinos have settled in this affluent metropolis in the Dominion of Canada, that’s exactly what the spokesperson of one of Toronto's prominent Filipino community organizations claims. And that is without batting an eyelash, no shame or any guilt at all.

In her own words, “In Toronto alone, we have quite a number of beauty queens, as well as many singing idols and sensational singers.”

Seriously speaking, is this penchant to parade our women—young or old—as beauty queens an important attribute of Filipino culture? Undoubtedly, singing is a widespread talent among us that we can proudly say to the world we are indeed a country of talented singers—not just of pop music but other genres as well, including operatic or classical arias.

We will grant the Toronto spokesperson the benefit of the doubt that singing contests reflect well of our culture because love of music is a fine art that is cultivated like culture itself. But beauty pageants and queens, that’s a totally different story.

Perhaps as a form of madness or idle pastime, for Filipinos beauty contests produce beauty queens who are admired and treated like stars or celebrities wherever they go. For ambitious and pretty women especially, participating in beauty contests could be the quickest way to climb the social and economic ladder.

One Filipino newspaper writer and beauty expert wrote: “A beauty title is a good credential on a lady’s resumé! It’s also a sure passport to getting job offers, be it in modeling, in the movies or even on television.”

Beauty contests are just about everywhere in the Philippines, or anywhere where Filipinos have settled in the world. In the Philippines, three Binibining Pilipinas, one Mutya ng Pilipinas and five Miss Philippines are crowned every year to represent the country in international beauty competitions. This is not even counting so many other “Misses-whatever” who are proclaimed in schools, in offices and in remote barrios and farflung subdivisions. No wonder, beauty pageants have become a national pastime, right up there with boxing and cockfights.

During the recent Pistahan Santacruzan organized by the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) in time with the celebration of Philippine Independence Day, a procession of 14 beauty queens highlighted the event, each queen representing a biblical or historical character carrying a symbol of her character. Not to be outdone were Miss Manila 2009 and her entourage of runners-up all dressed up for the parade at the Nathan Phillips Square.

What was the connection between Santacruzan and commemoration of Independence Day in the first place? It would have been more apt to parade all the different flags symbolizing the Filipino revolts against Spain or the transformation of the Katipunan flag. Somehow the organizers have lost their sense of history that they had forgotten what June 12 really meant to Filipinos.

But to deem these beauty queens as a reflection of Filipino culture is rather out of taste and shows an utter lack of understanding of cultivated behaviour which underlies one’s culture. Do these beauty pageants and beauty queens represent a way of life that we could be proud of? Just because these beauty contests are held from year-to-year does not mean they are a Filipino tradition that we can transmit from one generation to the next, and thus develop as a vital part of our culture. Have we really stooped so low that in the estimation of other people Filipinos have become a beauty pageant-crazy nation? Continuing to cater to this predilection only magnifies our collective low self-esteem—that there’s really nothing we can be proud of but our “Miss-whatever” contests or “Reynas” as our most important social function.

As part of our culture, do beauty contests perform a relevant and useful function in our community?

Beauty contests reinforce the notion that women should be valued mainly for their pulchritude or physical appearance, and thus puts tremendous pressure on women to look beautiful by spending time and money on fashion, cosmetics, hairstyling and even cosmetic surgery.

Our collective love for beauty contests can be traced to our people’s malleability to product and commercial advertising, popular films and television series, and other forms of media manipulation that idealize a certain type of beauty as a standard for all women.

Naomi Klein in her book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, argued that women’s insecurities are heightened by unrealistic images of beauty. She wrote: “Every day new products are introduced to ‘correct’ inherently female ‘flaws,’ drawing women into an obsessive and hopeless cycle built around the attempt to reach an impossible standard of beauty.”

True enough, images of beautiful female bodies everywhere, in magazines or on television, make a lot of women insecure about their own appearance such that they are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet aids. Thus, the need to worship beauty queens, today’s ideal and perfect women.

Beauty contests can put undue pressure on women since they promote an ideal to which only a minority can realistically aspire to, but which adds to the pressure for all women to conform. This in turn can be harmful to women by encouraging dieting, eating disorders and cosmetic surgery, or simply by making them feel inadequate and unattractive.

For the most part, beauty contests promote an unrealistic and shallow standard that sets the norm for future generations to be “like beauty contest winners” if women want to be regarded as beautiful, thus negating the importance of a more profound understanding of beauty. Critics and feminist groups argue that beauty contests are degrading both to the viewer and the contestant, comparing them to a cattle market of women.

This reminds me of a story about a group of researchers who generated a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions. The researchers found her back too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and her body too narrow to contain more than half a liver and few centimetres of bowel. Their logical conclusion: a real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition.

Perhaps, one beauty queen a year is enough. That’s not too taxing to our sense and sensibility. But to parade 14 of them every year is insane and—to proudly proclaim to all and sundry that beauty pageants are part of Filipino culture—betrays a lack of understanding of our deep cultural heritage.

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