By Chelsea Barner
In many cultures, to teach a child what things are, you hold it up and repeat what it is. Often, if it is an animal, you can include the sounds the animal makes. For instance, you would hold up a stuffed dog and say, “Dog. Woof.” During a visit to a neighborhood in Lipa City in the Philippines, I recognized this technique coming from a woman holding her toddler son in her arms just a few feet from where I stood. She was gesturing to me with a smile as she repeated the word, “Beautiful.” The toddler stared at me, unsure whether to cry at my different skin and different eyes, but he still listened intently as his mother insisted that ‘beautiful’ is me. All I could do was smile, send a wave to the little boy who looked utterly embarrassed.
The word “beautiful” was not uncommon during the trip. During my first walk through the streets of Lipa City, I received two very distinct phrases: “Where are you going?” and “You are beautiful.” These compliments of beauty came mostly from the women in no specific age range, but they were consistent.
Based on my own experiences where I was raised in America, I’ve come to the unfavorable conclusion that the tendency is to raise girls with the idea that being beautiful is our top goal in life. Statistics say a higher level of attractiveness can bring career success, romance, happiness, and so on. Think about it. When our grandmothers call us beautiful we just shrug and roll our eyes, but when boys call us beautiful we suddenly feel like we’ve accomplished this goal. Despite the many sexist and flawed theories about this way of life, it is one that many girls and women struggle with every day. Validation is sometimes indistinguishable from confidence, though where society has influenced us to feel this validation from is where things get complicated.
Based on this idea, during my walk through Lipa City I was waiting for that little spark of celebration when everyone complimented my looks, but it never came. I was a little puzzled at first, wondering why I wasn’t constantly blushing. I talked to my advisor about it, not sure why I wasn’t preening at the attention. I was receiving constant validation for my appearance, so why wasn’t I emotionally reacting? I feared that internally I was valuing their compliments as less significant than had it come from someone from America or Europe: a white country. I was so afraid that this was my self-conscious reaction to what was happening and that despite fighting against the stigma of cat-calling in America and “dressing for men,” it was internally festered in me to only feel good about a compliment if I respected the judgment of the commentator. This idea made me sick and at first I feared it would be a reaction I’d never be able to get rid of and I was forever trained to only feel that flutter in my chest after compliments from the white American man.
It was after this terrifying personal realization that I decided to see how the young Filipino girls responded to compliments from myself. For some background, during the first week of my trip we stayed in Lipa City and aided a family in rebuilding their home. The Bagay family has seven children and out of these children I got closest with Diane, who is now 14, and Daisy, who is 17. During a conversation, where they complimented my physical features, I expressed my appreciation for their beauty. Both are beautiful individuals inside and out, but they are very different in their personalities. Diane worked just as hard as the rest of us with the physical labor, didn’t care about the blisters she received or how bad she was sweating, and had a more standoffish attitude. Daisy spent more of her time socializing with our group and taking photos with us. She wore “girlier” clothes and sometimes makeup, while Diane wore large t-shirts and sandals. When I said they were both beautiful, they disagreed and said, “No, she’s ugly” at each other. Though they were laughing, it did not feel like an atypical comment. Instead, it felt like it was something they called each other often. And the way they reacted to calling each other ugly differed, both equally breaking my heart. Daisy pouted and nodded like she didn’t want to accept this fact but ultimately she believed she deserved it. Diane, on the other hand, agreed with the comment so casually that it seemed alien to consider herself anything but ugly. They refused to believe me no matter how hard I tried to convince them.
Another moment about beauty ties along with the idea of rarity. My driver’s license lists my eye color as hazel. In Lipa City, my eyes were blue and everyone I met loved to point them out. Blue, beautiful. When I discussed how my eyes weren’t technically blue to a peer along with me on the trip and instead closer to green, a black woman with dark brown eyes who had been receiving questions concerning whether or not she had Filipino descent in her blood, responded about my confusion. “They’re just not brown, like theirs,” she told me. This quote was probably the turning point for me during the trip when I began to emotionally respond to my environment. I was stunned at first and responded with, “Oh.” It was expressed to me in an academic paper concerning why Filipinos seemed to praise Americans. The author writes, “they are not looking to be [American] but rather, they aspire (as many of us do) to be slightly different versions of themselves.” From this I realized that my eyes weren’t special because they were blue—they were special because they were different. It is a similar concept used to express why most of us dislike our appearance—it is something you see every day, so it will get repetitive and boring very quickly but it is not an accurate reflection of yourself.
At the end of the trip I pondered about the little boy being taught what beauty is. I wondered, should I have done something different? Could I have done something more significant? By doing nothing was I encouraging the implications that my features are what is beautiful to this toddler? Will he grow up to tell his mother that she’s beautiful? Or will he forever see his own family and his own self as not white, as not American, as not beautiful, as not like me?
Check out Chelsea’s photo: Basketball