The hardest lessons about beauty I learned on my own. I learned how to take care of myself, not through handed-down anecdotes and rituals from my mother, but through self-discovery.
Not to say that she didn’t play a hand in how I see beauty, but I guess like most women my age, we grew up inheriting habits of thinking and doing that we end up unlearning along the way. Most especially when you’re a Filipina living in the Philippines.
Because of Filipina beauty standards, we are accustomed to iron our frizzy hair, reach for kojic soaps and lotions to lighten our skin tone, and wonder why our noses are more hills than mountains in the topography of our faces.
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My mother had a common and by-the-book approach to beauty. She liked imported Bath & Body shower gels sent by our wealthy relatives living in the States, collected Victoria’s Secret perfumes, and had her own stack of Estee Lauder sampler lipsticks. As a child, I kept my own collection of Careline makeup that I experimented with as a form of play. At an early age, I learned how to combine different eyeshadows and apply concealer on my face still unblemished by pimple scars.
I amused all my titos and titas because I was an 8-year old girl who eyed her armament of make-up like her collection of Barbie dolls. “She is going to be a beautiful girl!” “How precocious for a child of her age!” They considered me nearer to the cusp of womanhood than most girls my age.
Every year, my class took a vote on who they wanted to be classroom officials and I, along with a Prince Charming, was elected the Muse of my class three years in a row. They were swayed to vote for us because of one simple thing: we were the most good-looking boy and girl in our class.
This penchant for harmless vanity vanished when I reached adolescence. My face was pock-marked with cystic acne, I was 4’11 and weighed 150 pounds. Boys paid attention to prettier girls in my class whose bodies were blossoming - the opposite of what was happening to mine. I had a terrible time grappling with these changes, of reckoning with what once was. My weekends consisted of appointments to my dermatologist, sitting through painful facials and exposing myself under her microscopic gaze.
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Now, when my mother comes to visit Manila from the province every few months, she always recalls that time I asked her in highschool, “Mom, am I ugly?” and laughs. I wasn’t sure if that kind of response was to gawk at the absurdity of my question, or to elude it.
Our mother-daughter bonding takes the form of driving to the mall to shop for clothes. She likes doing this - picking out jacquard mini dresses and utility skirts for me. She doesn’t notice that I see her look of satisfaction when I come out of the fitting room wearing a piece of clothing that fits me perfectly; a size 2, 30 pounds lighter and clear-faced at 22 years old.
She doesn’t know that I still ask the question, “Mom, am I ugly?”
It was in that moment in highschool, confiding the question to my mom by whispering the words out shamefully that I began to realize that I could only rely on myself to uncover the answers.
My mother, born in the 50s, was a product of a cultural thinking influenced by capitalist consumption, and thus was sustained and trapped by her desire to become the ideal woman set by her own generation. So, I’ve come up with this personal list to remind myself at times when I feel the question slowly rising up my throat:
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Don’t Be Afraid Of Your Own Body - Speak Openly About Your Troubles
There is a kind of revolution about being able to talk openly about how you’re struggling with your body. The only way to reach acceptance is to have a conversation about it.
Don’t tiptoe around things that bother you. “Why is my hair frizzy?” “Why is my skin tone so dark?” To reach the answers you need, you have to ask the hard questions. Even then, we need to realize that wrong questions can exist because the world was built to diminish those that don’t adhere to ideal beauty standards, especially us Filipinas. We don’t have Eurocentric features lauded and loved by magazines.
So, when I say, don’t be terrified of your own body, I actually mean to ask the questions that magnify us - “Why is the shape of my body not equally worthy as hers?” “Why is my skin tone not represented more?”
Learn To Embrace Your Own Unique Features
A guy I met who eventually became my boyfriend told me, “Your individual features combine themselves to look and become something beautiful.”
At first, I relied on that statement for validation, but over time, I repeated them to myself like a mantra. Because of it, I’ve learned to look at my features, my Filipina skin tone, as a personal story I’m telling the world.
As one English professor told me in college, “Everyone has a unique story, all equally true and valid.” Isn’t that nice?
Keep tending to your own story, to the garden of flowers sitting on your lap, that eventually turns into a mix and match - a bouquet of your own beauty.
Never Lose Your Spirit Of Experimentation
What’s lacking in the beauty space is the messaging that it can, in fact, be fun.
It can be daunting for some, but the act of preparation is, as I seemed to have discovered when I was young, a sort of play. There is liberation when you see beauty in this lens. You see that on Instagram accounts like MakeUp Coyote that really push the boundaries of make-up not just as a superficial process, but an artform.
The same goes for fashion.
Because I had negative thoughts towards my body, my complicated relationship to clothing was sequential. I limited myself to sweaters and loose-fitting pants, my personal style suffering in consequence. It was my ache for a bolder self-presentation really buoyed my clothing choices forward.
I believed in the magic of the right outfit to change my impression of the world and vice versa. One day, I mustered up the courage to don a denim jacket. I bought high-heel black boots and chose to wear a patent leather skirt.
Did I believe that I deserved to wear these pieces of clothing? Not right away.
These seemingly inconsequential choices taught me the valuable lesson of carving out a space for myself, a breaking loose.
My Filipina Beauty Journey is Different From Other Women
I assailed myself a lot for not being as confident with my body at a young age, even until now. I wondered how a lot of Filipina girls developed the persistence to groom their bodies to more likeable and acceptable forms.
I would look at a pretty girl in class and think, “When will I look as beautiful as her?” “What rituals did she abide by and how did she struggle to get to that place of effortlessness?” Thinking that if we struggled enough, put our bodies through hell enough we would also reach that level of shining invincibility, as if beauty were not doled out by gene lottery or class differences.
A dated concept of beauty denies these factors and refuses to acknowledge its endless definitions. There is no one-way ticket to shining invincibility, and no one is ahead or behind. There is only your story and mine.
My mother and I grew up in different generations that taught different lessons about how to take care of our bodies. This created a divide between us and continues to cause tension even to this day.
But another thing that the years have taught me is there is no perfect mother-daughter relationship. It’s not black and white where daughters grow up to either be the exact replica or the antithesis of their own mothers.
In minute, often unnoticeable ways, I am still like my mother. But for the most part, I am learning from who she is and how I could be different. Our mothers are like the starting lines from which we push ourselves out into the world and begin the work of choosing who to be.