We’re Ugly. Who’s to Blame? Pinoy Mass Media in Conveying Notions and Concepts of Beauty
Filipino men and women are obsessed with beauty and there has to be a powerful social force that triggered it. This theoretical paper explains the relationship between the ubiquity of Pinoy mass media and the incessant desire of Filipino men and women to be beautiful. It identifies colorism, racial mix, physique, and power as the notions and concepts of beauty dominant in various platforms of Pinoy mass media. It adopts the Cultivation Theory by George Gerbner to explain how constant exposure to these notions and concepts shape a common perception of beauty among Filipino men and women.
This world is obsessed with beauty. Men and women are both vulnerable to developing intense desire to be beautiful. Beauty captures eyes the same way it ensnares hearts. It has the power to uplift self-esteem and boost confidence. Even Plato perceived beauty as one of the major aspirations of man when he once said, “The three wishes of every man: to be healthy, to be rich by honest means, and to be beautiful.” No matter what place and time, beauty has been a desire of many.
An eastern archipelago where probably some of the world’s most beautiful faces are born, the Philippines is an oriental paradise that is home to men and women having much fascination with beauty. In fact, the cosmetics industry in the country alone registered a 7.7% growth rate a year (“ASEAN Integration,” 2014) signifying high demand for beauty products among local consumers. Various researches are also leading to similar interpretations. In 2004, global market survey company Synovate ranked Philippines among four other Asian countries as the top nation with the highest usage of skin whitening products (Lapeña, 2010). Filipino men also put importance on beauty as another Synovate study conducted in the same year showed that 84% of men in Manila agreed that good looks are everything (Ravelo, 2013). Adding to this is another survey suggesting that Filipino men are twice more likely to value good looks and spend time and money on grooming than other Asian men (“Survey says Filipino,” 2006).
These survey results are not a surprise for someone who grew up to a plethora of beauty products in the household. My young eyes had witnessed a sister who, in her teenage years, bathed with papaya soap instead of germicidal soap because it promised brighter complexion; a mom who habitually tried newly launched shampoos, conditioners, lotions and beauty products even when they guaranteed the same effects; a group of aunties sharing shopping catalogues of cosmetics and garments featuring mixed race models whose beauty they can never achieve. But despite the reality that their physical appearance can never be any closer to these catalogue models regardless of makeup combinations, the clothes they wear, and the frequency of skin whitening product usage, they were blinded by the fantasy of beauty in their heads.
This incessant desire of several Filipinos to look physically attractive must have originated from somewhere. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, it has to be relative. Then how come majority of Filipino beholders adhere to the notions that white complexion and well-shaped physique are the physical characteristics considered beautiful? Or rather, how come some of us think that beauty means physical attractiveness? These notions of and obsession with physical beauty could not be and were not born from nothing. There has to be a social force so powerful that it can influence malleable minds to perceive the world the way it wants us to. And if such social force exists, it has to be so ubiquitous that the probability of isolation from it is low. This is the part where Pinoy mass media and its role in public perception of beauty become more pronounced.
No Escaping Pinoy Mass Media
Wherever you go, there will be mass media. An unending series of billboard ads flanks major roads and highways, particularly EDSA. Glossy magazines and newspapers are displayed in restaurants, beauty salons, and convenient stores. Television rules the home as a main source of news and entertainment while the Internet means life in the office as it makes business and communication fast and easy. Various forms of mass media are everywhere and most often than not, they all share a common element – beautiful people.
With the presence of mass media, pretty faces and gym-carved bodies will haunt us whether outdoors or in the comforts of our homes. We are reluctant recipients of nonstop barrage of images and messages about beauty. And we cannot dismiss them as irrelevant because they are capable of unleashing insecurities buried deep within us. They can influence us to embrace the idea that the more physically beautiful we look, the better we will feel about ourselves and the more we will feel superior to others. Can Pinoy mass media actually do that? How is it possible? There must be something with the ubiquity of Pinoy mass media and the way they communicate beauty that shape our perception about it. George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory will help us understand this phenomenon.
Cultivation Theory and Beauty
George Gerbner (1998) explained the cultivation of shared conceptions of reality among otherwise diverse publics. In cultivation theory, Gerbner was concerned on the effects of television viewing on audience’s beliefs about the world around them and the feelings connected to those beliefs (Griffin, 2012) even though television does not necessarily reflect the actual world (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008).
While Gerbner used violence and television as major elements to carry his cultivation theory, mass media as a whole have the power to saturate the audience with messages it wants to communicate and beauty is also a popular concept existent in Pinoy mass media. Thus, it’s possible that constant exposure to the barrage of images and messages about beauty can also cultivate the perception of beauty among Filipino men and women. And by virtue of the mainstreaming effect or the proposition that heavy exposure to similar images and labels can cause disparate groups to develop a common outlook (Griffin, 2012), Filipino men and women highly exposed to Pinoy mass media have the tendency to cultivate a common perception of beauty. If this is true, what kind of images and messages about beauty are Filipinos getting from Pinoy mass media? And how are these related to our shared perception of beauty?
The beauty industry had its first personal encounter with me during the early days of my career. My work experience as an editorial assistant for HAIRnow under One Mega Group (formerly Mega Publishing Group) had me witness the relationship between magazines and beauty. HAIRnow was a new publication to be launched back then, and what we were preparing was its maiden issue. As a neophyte, I saw this as a great opportunity to learn about the world behind glossy pages and the way magazine editorial team works. What I found was interesting to ponder.
One Mega Group established its name in the Philippine publishing scene with its flagship magazine, Mega. It’s a well-respected high fashion and beauty magazine published monthly. As such, its pages are teeming with images of foreign and mixed race models, cosmetics and beauty products as well as feature stories about lifestyle, fashion and beauty. Aside from Mega, One Mega Group also caters to the younger market with Meg, a lifestyle, fashion and beauty magazine for teens. Given such portfolio, it’s interesting why a publishing company would decide to launch another beauty magazine when it already has two titles covering the same interests and recording high circulation rates.
In cultivation theory, Gerbner introduced the institutional process analysis as one of the three prongs that help understand the impacts of high exposure to television (or mass media as a whole in this paper). This particular type of analysis penetrates the behind the scenes of media organizations to understand why they produce the messages they do (Griffin, 2012). In the case of One Mega Group, another beauty magazine was launched despite the presence of two magazines serving almost the same purpose and offering similar stories for a significant reason. That reason is that beauty sells. It sells not only to Filipino readers but also to advertisers.
At the end of the day, many Mega and Meg advertisers, particularly the cosmetics and beauty brands, were also present in the pages of HAIRnow. By giving an old magazine concept a twist, the publishing company was able to come up with a new publication that was a big hit to advertisers. With less effort in editorial production, advertisers were lured to pay a huge amount of money to be part of its glossy pages and increase their presence in newsstands. Beauty sells.
The Color, Mix and Shape of Beauty
One of my best friends named RJ has a newfound goal in life. RJ is five feet and seven inches tall with dark skin, medium built, and curly hair. Despite his neat and decent look, he cannot find contentment with his physical appearance. He is a regular in beauty salons where he does not only get a haircut but also avails hair rebonding services. Just recently, he applied for a gym membership to workout not for fitness but for a leaner built and toned muscles. In one group conversation with RJ and other friends, he shared that after achieving his desired body built, the next thing he wants to have is brighter complexion. We asked why and he replied, “I want to look good.”
RJ is not alone in this thinking. He’s just one of many Filipinos who believe that light skin parallels to beauty. In a study conducted by Synovate, Romeo Apelado, a fisherman at Laguna de Bay, was asked why he wears a face mask and a long-sleeved shirt whenever he goes fishing at the lake. He answered, “We already have dark skin, we’ll be ugly if we get even darker (Ravelo, 2013).”
Filipinos are victims of colorism or the notion that individuals with light skin are superior to the dark-skinned (Rondilla, 2009), and it is impossible not to think that Pinoy mass media have nothing to do with this. TV commercials, billboard ads, and other print ads for skin whitening products bombard us with compelling images of dark-skinned models juxtaposed with the white-skinned ones, implying that the latter looks more beautiful. Even our pastimes during the night have been penetrated by this notion. Many story concepts of primetime TV drama series such as Negrita and Mirabella show acts of mockery on characters with dark complexion. And if this kind of media content was not influential, then we would not be hearing kids mocking their dark-skinned playmates with terms like nognog, negrito, or tostado. Perhaps, RJ would embrace his natural complexion instead of wanting to have whiter skin color and Romeo might have opted to answer the survey question with sun protection rather than dark skin color.
In reality, skin color is just one of the notions of beauty presented to us by Pinoy mass media. If your keen observation does not fail you, you will notice what other notions of beauty are dominant in tri-media and the new media. In 2012, Filipino netizens turned to social media to express their rage over Bayo’s “What’s Your Mix?” advertisement, which prompted the women’s fashion brand to take down the ad campaign immediately. Featuring mixed race models, the advertisement had a controversial copy that implied superiority of mixed race beauties:
“Call it biased, but the mixing and matching of different nationalities with Filipino blood is almost a sure formula for someone beautiful and world-class. We always have the fighting chance to make it in the world arena of almost all aspects (“Bayo draws flak,” 2012).”
Whether it was poorly executed or not reviewed well, the implication of the message offended the viewers. But while the disagreement of Filipino netizens with the ad was clearly expressed, the practice of favoring mixed race beauties still lurks and is dominant in Pinoy mass media. Many of us don’t see it because it’s not as explicit as the Bayo ad campaign. But if you will pay attention, it’s not hard to notice that a large population of advertising models and showbiz personalities are consisted of mixed race and foreign beauties. The world of television, film, and other forms of Pinoy mass media are ruled by popular mixed race showbiz celebrities like Kim Chiu, Gerald Anderson, Heussaff siblings, Anne Curtis, Bea Alonzo and Sam Milby whom we see almost everyday. Fans do not only idolize them but also strive to look like them. They copy they haircut and even their fashion style. More than anything else, given the Filipino notion that the beautiful have higher chances of entering the showbiz industry, one can easily connect the dots.
Other than skin color and mixed race beauties, Pinoy mass media are also guilty of saturating us with unlimited images of skinny women and muscular men, shaping our belief that beauty also means obtaining such kinds of physique. A bus ride from Taft to North EDSA where billboard ads of derma clinics, clothing and fashion brands, and cosmetic products are from left to right would be the easiest way to prove this right. If you are not convinced, then think about this: RJ would never go to the gym on a regular basis for toned muscles and leaner built but for fitness.
What is with beauty that Filipinos are obsessing with? What does it mean to be beautiful? What do these images and portrayals of white-skinned and mixed race beauties tell us? If high exposure to the notions and concepts of beauty communicated by Pinoy mass media can make us feel insecure about our physical appearance or feel the need to have lighter complexion and good physique, then beauty must have power. Beauty might mean power.
Beauty is Power
Power comes in many faces, e.g., political power, class power, financial power, and economic power. Whatever form, power has its own perks, hence the desire of many to obtain some. Pinoy mass media have been playing a huge role in promoting to its audience a different kind of power – beauty.
Several local TV drama series like Bakekang, Mirabella, Kambal sa Uma and Hiram na Mukha are enough proofs to support this claim. Here, protagonists portrayed as physically unattractive are becoming sources of ridicule and amusement by other characters, particularly by antagonists who are characterized as physically beautiful. These scenes, which show the superiority of individuals meeting the public standard of physical beauty to the less beautiful, are being repeated several times until they become normal to television viewers who watch the show five times a week for half an hour. TV drama series are produced in a way that they look more like the actual world. According to Gerbner, viewers are susceptible to TV’s cultivating power when real-life environment is like the world of TV (Griffin, 2012). This is called the resonance effect. If he’s right about this, TV drama series addicts have the tendency to develop a belief that they are superior to others they perceive as less physically attractive.
Another interesting example is a 2014 online video ad campaign by Vaseline Facial Wash for Men which answers the question, “What gets you hired?” The big idea is to inform Filipino job-hunters about the important points to clinch a desired position. However, the online video ad, which claims to be a social experiment, has a strange suggestion. It begins with a question, “Do looks matter when getting a job (Vaselinemenph, 2014)?”
It features two male job-hunters with similar credentials applying for the same position in an anonymous company. One is mestizo while the other is moreno and geeky. Both are portrayed by the same guy. At the end of the interview, all three female hiring managers pick the mestizo candidate over the other for a reason that “he’s a total package.” Whatever they mean about the statement, it’s evident that the video ad shows the power of physical appearance to win the tight competition among job-hunters. Unless the vacant position is for a modelling job which obviously is not, the video ad disregards the beauty of intelligence, personality, and skill set which are supposedly the main requirements observed by hiring managers. It even ends with a compelling statement “Pogi Matters (Vaselinemenph, 2014).” Beauty has power. Beauty is power.
The Ugly Truth about Beauty
Many Filipino men and women have become prisons of the twisted belief that beauty is paralleled to physical attractiveness. There’s no doubt that Pinoy mass media as a powerful social force are guilty of leading us into this kind of thinking. Its ubiquity constantly exposes us to the notions and concepts of beauty that promote colorism, mixed race, perfectly shaped physique, and power. Whether in the forms of print and TV advertisements, drama series or other kinds of media content, these dominant notions of beauty are ever-present in Pinoy mass media. And because it’s hard to hide from mass media, it’s also hard to hide from its influence.
The cultivation of a common perception of beauty among Filipino men and women buries the idea that it is only skin deep. It is not limited to good looks, race, or color in contrary to what the mass media bombard us with. Aside from physical appearance, beauty comes in other faces too – the beauty of exceptional intellect, pleasing personalities, altruism and more. These kinds of beauty also possess power – the power to create positive change in the community or to bring good influence to others. They do not fade overtime. They are not only seen by the eyes but also felt by the heart. If such notions are the ones dominating the Pinoy mass media content, Filipino men and women will cultivate a more beautiful common perception of beauty. However, Pinoy mass media failed to do this and chose to follow a different path. It focuses more on the superficial and transient kind of beauty which is easy to sell to both the Filipino audience and advertisers. This practice is already widespread. It, however, makes the concept of beauty nothing but ugly.
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