Two of the conceptions of beauty that the national discourse on ‘Filipina’ beauty features are those of beauty as divine and as derivative of historical power relations, with “maganda ang maputi” and “simple lang” as physical ideals, the latter of which relates to marianismo and Christian ideals. To this I add the interpretation of beauty and of attendance to one’s physical appearance as participation and protection in societal relations. It is this that in part distinguishes the function and logics of beauty within Philippine society, as compared to in other societies, in which beauty does not have as great social situatedness nor the same semiotics or collective dimension.
The linguistic conflation of “beauty” and “goodness” in Philippine language cultures often reveals beauty as the preferred, or more effective, transcendental in discussions of social relations. There exists in Philippine languages a rich, nuanced lexicon to express “beauty,” especially in description of feminine beauty, and the Visayan, Tagalog, and Ilocano language cultures all feature a conflation of “beauty” and “goodness.”
For example, according to Fr. Leonardo Mercado, in Ilocano, the word “sayaat” relates beauty and virtue in an explicitly societal or social context; it variously means: “good, pretty, beautiful, handsome, comely, graceful, charming, elegant, becoming, gracious, decorous, fit, fitting, seemly, appropriate, proper, suitable,” and substitutes “beauty” for “goodness” in the expressions “nasayaat nga ina/anak/aramid/biag,” which mean ‘good mother/child/deed/life.’
In the Tagalog language culture, there is a common substitution of ‘maganda’ for ‘mabuti’ and ‘magaling.’ Moreover, Fr. Mercado asserts in his book The Filipino Mind, “between the choice of the good and the beautiful, the mother prefers the beautiful as the approach to the ethical,” such that mothers will forbid their children to do something because it is “pangit, hindi magandang tingnan, nakakahiya” (ugly, not nice to look at, shameful).
In the latter Tagalog example, beauty as goodness is not mobilized as an individualized, transcendental, Christian goodness, but as a relational goodness, as an attendance to one’s situatedness within a web of social relations. Though there exist individual and spiritual understandings of goodness, beauty-as-goodness refers particularly to a social context. Scholarly works on Filipino culture tend to cite the concepts of ‘hiya’ and ‘utang na loob’ as the two explanatory cultural concepts organizing Filipino society, and link beauty and appearance with hiya. Attendance to one’s appearance becomes a form of respectful deference to and cooperative participation in a social web—which one supports and upholds, and in which one is subsumed as but one part, rather than as a strident individual; hence: ‘simple lang’ as an aesthetic ideal.
Collective participation and investment in an individual’s physical beauty is anecdotally observable in Philippine society, and often surprises foreigners who visit. It is also often a family pride that can reflect upon the extended relations. Scholar Fenella Cannell’s fieldwork led her to observe: “for Bicolanos in the barangay, their own and their children’s appearance is extremely important, and sending family members well dressed into the world is a source not only of family pride, but also of care for that person and the desire to protect them from ‘shame.’” There is a family investment in and even responsibility for an individual child’s appearance. Further still, even those outside one’s immediate family often participate in an individual’s appearance, particularly if considered beautiful. A beautiful child is often identified in youth, and family friends and acquaintances will remember the child as beautiful and eagerly seek to watch the child grow, to observe the child’s beauty, and to see how this beauty evolves.
The participative aspect to an individual’s beauty thus works both ways: other people participate in an individual’s beauty as much as an individual’s attention to his/her appearance represents participation in that society. This creates the particular Philippine context in which it is socially acceptable for strangers, family, and one’s employees alike to comment on one’s appearance. After some time away, Filipinos’ first social experiences upon returning to the Philippines seem to inevitably include immediate comments upon their appearance (fatter; thinner; handsomer; more afflicted with acne; more or less becoming fashion, make-up, and hair styles, etc.).
Attendance to one’s appearance is not merely participation in social relations, but also a form of protection within society. This obtains in the avoidance of hiya through compliance with social codes of self-presentation and attendance to social norms, as well as in a more individualistic understanding. Within historically constructed power relations, beauty functions as individual armature. Cannell argues that, “becoming beautiful in the Philippines has historically been seen as a protective process, emphasizing a person’s humanity and right to respect, and conferring [via amulets and tattoos]a layering of power, logics which still apply to the use of anting-anting and the practice of embalming the dead.” In this light and within the logics of colonial power relations and socio-economic inequalities, physical beauty represents cultural capital—it is a social tool that can empower the otherwise powerless.
Through its emphasis on the physical form, beauty is also a reminder of an individual’s humanness. It is faith in affective human connection that beauty can be powerful enough to bridge, even if only in fleeting flashes of feeling, disparities of power. For this reason, beauty also appears in the Philippine discourse as divine or transcendental.
Adopting the proposition that beauty is a reflection of the divine provides additional logic to the collective investment and participation in individual beauty observable in the Philippines. Through its divinity, beauty endows its possessor with protection that allows one to transcend the material or utilitarian realities of society. This echoes in José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, in which María Clara, through her romanticized mestiza beauty and passive self-sacrifice, which invokes the feminine ideal of the Virgin Mary, transcends space and time, such that she can elide the violence of colonial Philippine history that created her—illegitimate, unacknowledged, and abandoned daughter of Spanish priest, Father Damasio.
What the consequences of these conceptions of beauty are for women, as the Filipino discourse primarily identifies beauty with femininity rather than masculinity, I will explore in my column next week.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University