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Understanding the Philippines' unhealthy obsession with beauty

Miss Philippines Pia Wurtzbach, who is part German, blowing a kiss to the audience after being crowned Miss Universe in Las Vegas, Nevada on Dec 20, 2015.
Miss Philippines Pia Wurtzbach, who is part German, blowing a kiss to the audience after being crowned Miss Universe in Las Vegas, Nevada on Dec 20, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

The Philippines' obsession with beauty pageants probably began in 1969. It was like lightning. It came out of nowhere, and it struck with such force, ferocity and light that till now, Filipinos are blinded by it.

In 1969, the first man landed on the moon. But something else made that year even more magical for Filipinos.

That year, an 18-year-old Filipina - Ms Gloria Diaz - was crowned the most beautiful woman on the planet.

Since then, the Philippines has followed beauty pageants as wildly and passionately as some nations follow the World Cup.

It has pageants everywhere.

The country has over 40,000 barangays - local districts, each roughly the equivalent of a kampung - and every one has its own beauty queen.

There are pageants for straight and gay men and women, for transgenders, transexxuals and cross-dressers, for little girls and boys, and for housewives and grandmothers.

There are a bevy of titles that will befuddle future anthropologists, including: That's My Boy, Little Miss Philippines, Mr Handsome, Little Miss Handsome, Miss Gay Philippines, Miss Supranational, Manhunt International, Mr Marketplace and Super Mermaid.

Why is this so? I guess one big reason is that we keep winning pageants.

So far, the Philippines has snagged one Miss World title, four of Miss International, two of Miss Earth, and, with 26-year-old model Pia Wurtzbach winning in last year's controversy-marred pageant, three Miss Universe wins.

For feminist writer Jessica Zafra, the love of beauty contests - Miss Universe, in particular - is just hardwired into Filipinos.

"We can rage all we want at how beauty contests demean, exploit and objectify women, promote body image issues, and so on, but what is incontestable is that Filipinos love Miss Universe. It is part of our history," she writes in her column for Interaksyon.com.

University of the Philippines professor Andrew Evangelista, an expert in queer sociology and popular culture. says another reason is that "we want to imagine ourselves as a nation of beautiful people".

"I think pageants like this help validate that kind of notion," he says.

I guess it's a natural thing: to want to be beautiful. Beauty, after all, is a function of natural selection.

We are attracted to men and women who are young, strong, quick, large and fragrant because these traits - all attributes we consider beautiful - are signifiers of health and virility.

When we have a desire to reproduce, we are drawn to people whom we think can give us healthy, beautiful children.

But my beef with Filipinos' idea of a beautiful human being - towering height, chiselled chin, angular nose and fair skin - is that it has been a bit of a drag on our national identity.

Even depictions in art of beautiful Filipinos are mere renderings of the Graeco-Roman ideal: Adonis and Aphrodite, but dressed in traditional Filipino barong or saya.

This, of course, makes us think we are never beautiful enough. So, we spend more on skin-whitening products than most everyone else in Asia.

This isn't necessarily our fault.

Three centuries of having Caucasians as masters have conditioned us into thinking that it is always better to be white than brown.

It has not helped that the mass media has been complicit in the collective put-down.

Companies still book models who look like they just stepped off the set of a movie about the endless virtues of being tall, white, and having sea-green eyes.

A recent obsession has been with celebrities who are part-Filipino and part-something else. Ms Wurtzbach, for one, is part German.

On television and in movies, characters with dark complexions are relegated to the roles of the sidekick or comedic foil, or the supportive househelp. Afternoon variety shows still run gags where being dark and snub-nosed, or having curly hair, is the punchline.

I remember a couple of years ago when the Philippines went ga ga over a dubbed telenovela that saw two Mexicans, singer Thalia and heartthrob Eduardo Capetillo, speaking in fluent Tagalog. It was surreal, and sometimes painful, to watch.

I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to be beautiful. But we should really stop obsessing over wanting to be who we are not, and who we can never be.

We can't rewrite our DNA, and we shouldn't really be thinking about marrying a white man or woman just because we think our bloodline isn't good enough.

I know it's a cliche, but it still holds true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And as actress Carrie Fisher, who was slammed online for looking less-than-gorgeous in the latest Star Wars movie, so eloquently responded: "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they're the temporary happy by-products of time and/or DNA. Don't hold your breath for either."