Revolution Starts with Self-Love
Historians colonized my mind, religion colonized my spirit, and pageants colonized my self-image. All of my education be it the “knowledge” I learned in the classroom or the “care” I received at home had bent me to the will of the colonized mindset.
You don’t have to go to another country to see the effects of colonialism. Whether you see colonialism in the faces of young Puerto Rican kids in the streets of the Bronx or the newly immigrated Southeast Asian family that moved in the middle of America — it is present everywhere in America and even more present in all Americans’ mentalities. I am interested in how colonialism has an effect on the individual psyche and the social impacts it has. Moreover, it is important for me to closely analyze the intersections of race, gender and class through a contemporary medium such as Miss Universe.
The adoration of Western standards of beauty is rooted in its colonial past — in the violence and brainwashing of 400 years of foreign occupation in the Philippines. While Miss Universe can incite cultural pride, uniting a country for a night, the admiration for lighter skin and Western concepts of beauty reflects a history of cultural genocide and oppression.
When I was a child, my family would host large viewing parties of Miss Universe every winter. Every moment before the announcement of the winners, the tension would mount between my mother and myself, embracing on the couch with a hopeful glee. This winter we finally felt the moment we anticipated when everyone roared as our country won the title in 2018. We smiled at each other, my mom beamed with pride and I looked at her, returning the joy but, unfortunately, feeling something else, a whisper of a problem.
Catriona Gray’s win embodies the unique role pageants play in a country that is roiled by poverty and pervasive violence as victories cannot be claimed in everyday life. Unknowingly to mainstream audiences, pageants have become a place of respite for citizens burdened with an unjust system.
As I mentioned, I was proud to see my country get the crown. Being brought up Filipina, I glorified pageant queens and Miss Universe was of the few representations of Filipinas I got to see in mainstream American media. I saw that they had a real platform to initiate change and to fight for their own place in the universe. I wanted no more in my life than to identify with them.
However, what I saw in myself could never measure to the “Queens” our country sent to compete in Miss Universe. The Filipina beauty represented in pageants were mixed-Filipinas with pale skin, wide eyes and hair with no kink in sight. Needless to say, I was striving for beauty standards that were impossible to reach. This developed within me a “mestiza consciousness,” in where I started to navigate the pluralities of my Filipina identity in a patriarchal and colonized space. When Miss Philippines won, I saw how what I perceived as beautiful echoed our colonial past.
“I realized that every time I bring myself down for my appearance, I would also be bringing my grandmother down. And I did not want to do that.”
For Filipina Americans, watching beauty pageants involved an unconscious rejection of anything Filipina and an automatic preference for anything American or Western. Mothers would pinch their daughters’ noses in hopes of them developing a higher nose bridge. They would hark at their daughters for wanting to play in the sun — because darker skin would signify a lower-class status. Although American raised Filipinas are 7,000 miles away from Philippines, they are raised in an American landscape with colonialism embedded intergenerationally, seeping into how we look and react to ourselves in the cold gaze of the mirror.
In a workshop I led with six Filipina American women from my university, we reveled in our shared experiences of growing up Filipina in the ever so complex environment of America. Each woman felt the joys, traumas, laughter, and challenges of one another. There was something powerful in that room that one cannot simply describe but the feeling can be reduced to the simple idea that perception of one self and the outside world is called into existence when one is recognized and understood by the other.
This obsession with beauty pageants can be credited to the country’s history under colonial rule — first under Spain, then under the United States. J. Pilapil Jacobo, an assistant professor of gender studies at Ateneo de Manila University and pageant enthusiast explains, “Imperialism [deprived] us of our own indigenous standards of loveliness, a beautiful body, good character, art and aesthetic.”
“I had to deal with anxiety, and often times alone. Mental health is not really perceived as a real thing in the Filipino community.”
This is not just a matter of wanting to be beautiful. Distorted self-images among Filipina-Americans have its real consequences on mental health. Based on the data collected in 2013 by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the depression rate among Filipina-American adolescents was 13.6%, which places them higher than any other Asian-American adolescents. It is crucial to understand the catalysts of our colonized thoughts, attitudes, emotions and behaviors. This entails critically observing what we once saw as beautiful and standard in pageants like Miss Universe, as toxic and damaging to the body.
Throughout workshops I participate in Filipino cultural clubs, I have found inspiration and empowerment in the shared experiences and connection among other Filipina-Americans dismantling the effects of colonialism. The hashtag #MagandangMorenx is a campaign that translates to “beautiful brown skin.” Many beauty brands from hair products to cosmetics realized the needs and demands for their products to reflect the communities they market themselves to. The movement of #MagandangMorenx challenges the enforced beauty standards among Filipinas and promotes a culture of radical self-love.
Ultimately, someone has to win the pageant competition, but the biggest winners are the women who reclaim those victories and collectively position themselves in a process of healing from a history that follows us to this day.