In a society that's obsessed with appearance, beauty has become a “form of currency.”
Being white and polished lends one a sense of belonging to an aspired social stature or status. In the Philippines, plastered on billboards along EDSA are faces of so-called "halfsies" or Filipino models and celebrities with foreign blood. This indicates what women really want: high-bridged nose, deep eyelids, high cheekbones, an hourglass figure.
Ads peddling promises of fairer skin, longer and silkier hair, and even alabaster armpits paint a picture of a woman who is white and polished through and through. Cosmetic surgery clinics have sprouted everywhere, promoted by the chosen movers, shakers, and "influencers" who were probably already blessed since birth with features and bodies we can only dream of. Or pay for.
Beauty is both boon and bane. In the workplace, beauty is something one has to handle with care. The idea of being attractive is a line that should be walked on with great care.
One needs to be aware of the amount of make-up one uses, or how one dresses up. Too much makes one vulnerable to a barrage of feudal and patriarchal abuses. Labels come to mind: whore, flirt, provocative. The "beautiful" needs to work doubly hard to establish her value beyond the pretty façade.
Meanwhile, too little of it renders one uninteresting. The movies say it all — the wallflowers rarely get the attention that merits their true value. And this is certainly not helpful if one wants to climb the work ladder.
To be beautiful is a science that is continually mined and experimented upon by an industry that plays on the insecurities of women. We have creams and lotions that promise to defy age; shampoos and conditioners that guarantee hair that a man’s fingers can sift through with ease; and a rainbow of colors to give that blush on the cheek, sultry shadow on the eyelids, vixen red lips — all in the name of the prized Prince Charming’s attention.
As "The Beauty Myth" author Naomi Wolf stated: “The concept of beauty is a weapon used to make women feel badly about themselves; after all, no one can live up to the ideal.”
The problem, Wolf added, “is when beauty is defined as thinness, pertness, and youthfulness taken to extremes — extremes that are literally unattainable because it isn’t healthy and after all it isn’t reality.”
According to stories published in The Huffington Post and Women's Wear Daily, there was a boom in the beauty industry in 2012 by 8% or a US$1.8-B increase in sales. 74 million pieces of makeup were sold in the first 6 months of 2012. Beauty is a commodity, fiercely marketed for money. And as the industry rakes in profit, women of all ages are becoming more subject to objectification and sexualization.
In an increasingly “beautified” society, the natural is shunned. One is not willing to accept that we do age, that our body changes, that youth is something one goes through and cherishes with beautiful memories. The quest for beauty has become a pursuit for control and power. Power as profit for the beauty vendors and capitalists. Power as social currency for the consumers. It is a ruthless cycle of unforgiving self-criticality wherein one loses the true self.
How many times have we heard that we need to stay beautiful so the men don't cheat? It is acceptable to lay the blame on the woman cheated upon just because she has “let go” of herself? The woman who gives birth, who manages the home, who cooks, who works, who multitasks, who does not get enough beauty sleep — she is subject to expectations to be both hardworking AND attractive. At least attractive enough so the husband will go home to her.
The concept of beauty peddled by capitalists has seeped even inside the homes, putting undue pressure on the woman.
We need to break through this brutal beauty myth. The best way out is to celebrate ourselves for who we really are.
I have a list of thoughts that I go by to feel beautiful inside sans makeup and enhancements, and I'm sharing it with you:
1. Our beliefs and values define who we are, not our looks.
2. Learn from women in history to find inspiration. The real heroines end up in the pages of history and not in glossy mags and ads.
3. Nurture and cherish the self. Be alive and see that you are valuable to your loved ones and to your community.
4. Live an honest life, one that avoids hurting others. When we have an ugly outlook and bad intentions towards others, one ceases to be beautiful.
5. Don’t wait for the approval of others when it comes to appearance.
6. Keep your dignity and self-respect in any situation.
7. Love yourself as deeply as you might love your partner or child. This is a love that cannot be verified by others. You are worthy because you know you are.
The cost of keeping a pretty face has been pricey — literally — and much more figuratively when our self-worth, conscience, and values are relentlessly twisted to make us feel always dissatisfied with ourselves.
What we need to recognize is that beauty is a hegemony or dominance. The pursuit of it in extreme is a form of violence. Enhancements, going under the knife, starving — these may damage both the body and the soul.
What’s crucial and important is what’s inside of us, who we are, what we can be, and what we do.
Nikki Luna is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. She is a renowned artist who delves into a visual discourse of women’s struggles and social consciousness. She is also the founder of StartArt project, a non-profit organization providing art and therapy to women and children who are victims of wars and injustice. Women and children advocacies are endeavors she is currently studying in depth as she takes her Masters in Women and Development Studies in UP Diliman. Follow her on Twitter @nikkiluna
This story was previously published in Rappler.com, a Manila-based social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change.