THE true test of a phenomenon is gauged by the extent it passes through a people’s consciousness and grafts itself into popular culture.
Beauty, particularly in the female form, holds a particular fascination for Filipinos. The hold of telenovelas and beauty contests spawns not just a generation of daughters named Marimar and Dayanara but variations of the same theme, with beauty tilts trickling down to campus searches, town fiestas, and even jail “rampahan (parade).”
With the country hosting the Ms. Universe international beauty pageant for the second time, today’s coronation will not even depend on the outcome of the bid of Ms. Philippines, Maxine Medina, to ensure that the event will hold sway for months, even years, in the imaginations and aspirations of girls and young women.
The beauty competition’s preoccupation with form draws criticism from sectors worried about the messages transmitted subliminally by a competition that ostensibly highlights beauty and brains but attends more to spectacle than to substance.
For instance, the national costume segment of the Ms. Universe pageant ideally showcases the creativity of designers and the grace of the contenders to highlight the uniqueness of a country and a culture.
However, the 2017 tilt resulted in a version of fashion brinkmanship that also assaulted the senses and dignity of some contenders and their countries. Last Jan. 27, the news website of “The Telegraph” ran an article on “the most outlandish” national costumes paraded during the Ms. Universe 2017 pageant.
Photos carried in the online article showed not just skin-baring outfits that have never been associated with traditional culture but grotesque headdresses or spectacular props that must have posed a physical challenge to the women who had to balance on her head a castle, hoist a replica of a horse, or sashay while pretending to be a human-sized snowflake.
Such visuals clash with the appreciation and respect with which one should regard the national costumes representing history, art, and culture.
Reduced to caricatures, these beauty contestants exemplify what John Berger described as the “social presence” of women. In “Ways of Seeing,” Berger discussed that men draw power from their actions while women, from their manner of appearance.
“A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her,” he wrote.
Critics condemn the sexism inherent in beauty pageants that reduces women to objects. However, Berger suggested that women can control not just how they are surveyed by others by first learning how to survey themselves.
While relations between the sexes is often reduced to men being the surveyors and women as the surveyed, Berger observed that by “containing” and “interiorizing” the process, women “can demonstrate to others how her whole self would like to be treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes her presence.”
Within the conventions and confines of a beauty contest, this reinvention is a challenge. It is not just the contestants who must challenge the social representations of surveyor and the surveyed but also the industry packaging the women as beauty commodities, the companies marketing the product, the masses demanding escapism, and the mass media supplying this entertainment.
The battle must be waged up close and personal. Parents and teachers can influence their children’s and students’ “ways of seeing” and socialization.
For instance, Philippine schools observe United Nations Day every Oct. 24 by requiring students to come in different national costumes. By encouraging students to research about other countries and discussing the global community, families and schools promote diversity, fraternity, and co-existence.
Such sensitivity should go a long way in a world encroached by sexism, exploitation, bigotry, and other forms of hatred, beauty’s antithesis.