That most cultures celebrate aesthetics and human beauty in some manner may blind observers to the distinct ways in which socio-historically constructed spaces have come to interact with beauty and what those interactions may reveal of the particular socio-historical construction of those spaces. Over the last two decades, academic scholarship across the humanities has sought to surpass the boundaries of the nation-state that artificially harden what are in fact porous, contested, and contingent borders. Without seeking to reify the nation-state, I have recently explored in my research a putatively national subject—Filipina beauty—in order to illuminate the historical construction of the nation-state through the instrumental imagination of the Filipino national project and the role of beauty within it. In this, while rejecting culturally essentialist, timeless understandings of beauty, I also take seriously the cultural specificity and continuity of such articulations.
The public Philippine discourse on beauty posits the existence of a uniquely and identifiably Filipina beauty that accumulates within the socio-historical and spatial borders of the Philippine nation and centers predominantly, if not exclusively, on the female. It celebrates this feminine beauty as one of the prides of the Philippine nation. In “Las Dalagas Filipinas” (Young Filipina Ladies), from Claro M. Recto’s 1911 play Bajo Los Cocoteros, the Filipino poet, politician, and legal adviser declares that the Filipina beauty is “all a harmonious, pleasurable ensemble” (“todo un conjunto armónico y grato”), “that the fervent Spanish lady and impassive American “Miss,” the princess that the heaven of Russia shelters, and the lady that feels the fever of Paris, envy” (“que envidiara la ardiente castellana y la impasible miss, la princesa que el cielo de Rusia cobijara y la dama que siente la fiebre de París”). The Filipina beauty distinguishes the Philippine nation, placing it in conversation and comparison with international images of femininity.
A further example of this is the industry of coffee-table books on the subject of ‘The Filipina Beauty,’ which sell alongside coffee-table books treating other aesthetic-national categories, such as Filipino architecture. One such book, The Beautiful Filipina, published in 2007 in cooperation with the Department of Tourism, features glossy photographs of Filipina faces alongside quotes from national figures, mostly male, on their definitions of Filipina beauty and its distinctiveness. The quotes cluster into four themes, and feature examples of the discursive conflation of beauty and virtue: the Filipina beauty as a transcendentally multi-racial blend (“harmonizing the East and the West”); the Filipina beauty as the heternormatively domesticated wife and mother; the Filipina beauty as quiet, modest, and submissive; and the Filipina beauty as a source of national strength and vessel of unconditional love. Though concepts of beauty evolve and proliferate, and are marked by contested, polyvocal meanings, since the late nineteenth-century Philippine Revolution, the predominating discourse has repeatedly returned to these four themes when discussing the role of women and of feminine beauty in the Philippine national project.
That a concept of beauty can radiate upward to the national level and infuse the national project reflects the importance of and attendance to beauty at the daily, prosaic levels—in social relations, media, and understandings of the world. On her ethnographic work in Bicol in the 1990s, Fenella Canella writes: “people in Bicol are extremely interested both in the art of giving a successful performance and in the art of making oneself (or others) beautiful. Since . . . it is very important to present oneself well in public, the two often go together and everyone hopes to be found magayon or guapo/pogi or at least to be approved of as being ‘respectably dressed’ and not to have his outfit mocked as baduy.” She asserts: “It is these preoccupations which frame not only the most obvious performances, but also many events in ordinary daily life.” This observation aligns with one of the conclusion I have recently come to in my research that in the Philippines beauty is situated socially and that attendance to one’s appearance is a form of societal participation, which accounts for what I observe to be a particularly collective investment in individual beauty in the Philippines—a proposition, among others, that I will outline in my column next week.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.