By NIKKI H. HUANG
If there is one thing my return to Manila has reminded me of, it is just how obsessed with beauty the Philippines is.
Our fascination with beauty pageants is evidence enough, but the fascination with beauty that I am thinking of is more mundane: Manila is a city that is focused not only on what people are doing with their lives but how good they look doing it. We are a beautiful city, Manila. On a recent night out in Poblacion, I stopped for a second, turned to my friend, and said: “Wow. Why are all Manila girls so stunning?” And stunning, everyone was. The Manila girl, it seems, has grown to embody urban chic. She combines grungy high waist jeans or a miniskirt with a carefree lob, a puff sleeve blouse, and sexy kitten heels. Her makeup is light, suited to the tropics, and always there when she’s out of the house. I’ve been told, by American friends, that “Manila kids give off the vibe that they are just too cool for school.”
To me, it seems that every year Manila only gets more attractive. People are becoming fitter and more fashionable by the season. Whether out at night or walking through the streets by day, one can see just how much Filipinos—Filipinas, in particular—are investing in their own appearances and self-care.
As much as I am excited to be coming of age at a time when beauty and luxury are becoming less of a premium experience and more of a staple in everyday life, I find myself anxious to engage with my audience about what it really means to be beautiful. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the 19 years I’ve been alive and exposed to fashion, beauty, and luxury retail, it is that looking good is but a fraction of the equation that makes up real beauty. The meaning of real beauty can be easy to forget in a society that tends to shove very narrow ideals of attractiveness down the throats of its people (in particular, young women).
Take my experience coming home from my first semester of college as a key example. “Oh no, you put on weight!” This is the first thing a relative of mine said on Sunday lunch, after I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for the four months I was away at college. Well versed in appearing unfazed in many a social situation, I automatically swallowed my shock. I was so taken aback, however, that I didn’t respond the way I wish I did: By saying “Did I? That’s not important.” Or, “It’s good to see you!” I wish I’d responded in some way that, though still polite, prevented his comment from carrying any more weight than it deserved (none at all).
Instead, already nervous at seeing my extended family after a long time, I smiled, grimaced, and then said “I know…It’s so bad.” In retrospect, I cringe at seeing myself perpetuate one element of Filipino culture I do not stand by. The hyperfocus on the bodyweight of younger people, especially women, and the free pass those close to them, such as their relatives, have to comment on it. In fact, the first two weeks I was back in Manila, I was subject to a steady stream of comments about my appearance. People told me I gained weight, others told me I lost it. I was told I looked better, looked the same, or looked worse. At the end of the day, no matter what it was, there was some evaluative comment about my physical appearance. At the end of it all, I was bursting with the desire to quip: “Let me assure you that gaining or losing weight was far from the most important thing I did with my life while I was away. I have learned about new people, about living alone in a foreign country, about pushing through life despite a notable lack of happiness in my day-to-day. I have learned about cultivating warmth from within while the world around me was freezing cold.”
Women, know that you are capable of looking beautiful, sexy, elegant, and ravishing at a variety of body weights. True beauty is not measured in pounds, nor is it measured in inches.
Of course, there was some truth to be found in the evaluations of my appearance from those close to me. My time in the US had me push self-care further down my priority list, while it sits high at the top when I’m in Manila. I am not demanding that nothing be said about how I looked then versus now. Rather, I am hoping that our society grows such that physical appearance is not the only facet of young women’s lives people find themselves at liberty to comment on.
Growing up in the world of fashion, I have a very deep understanding of exactly how I am “supposed” to look, and how my current appearance measures up against current global standards of what look is “in” and “attractive.” That being said, I do not find it necessary to constantly focus solely on what I look like on the outside. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I’ve been fixated on counting every single calorie, step, and gram. Let me tell you that is not what constitutes being truly alive. I could be perfectly petite if I wanted to. I’ve been in the game of diet and fitness long enough that I know exactly what I need to do to look a certain way and fulfill the more traditional Asian ideal of being a small, svelte girl. But I never take it upon myself, anymore, to push my body to a size and composition that it is not happy at. I am too busy living, exploring, growing, and adventuring.
With the triumphs and falls of life, especially the turbulence of life as a young adult, come fluctuations in your body weight. Women, know that you are capable of looking beautiful, sexy, elegant, and ravishing at a variety of body weights. True beauty is not measured in pounds, nor is it measured in inches. In so many moments of my life, it’s been proven to me that while the way I looked at the time might have opened a metaphorical door, given an ideal first impression, or enabled a certain opportune interaction, it is what I said, how I said it, and how I felt, intuited, and acted that really created magic and meaning.
I’m sure many of you, my readers, are pretty, fashionable, accomplished women. I’m sure you’ve mastered —or are in the process of mastering— presenting the most attractive version of yourself to Manila society. Well, congratulations, woman, you look good. Now get on with it and start living your life. Allow yourself to. Eat the freshly baked bread, take the fourth (or fifth) shot, sip the sugary cocktail. Sleep in after a good night out or a magical date instead of getting up to do your cardio. Don’t even think about a workout the whole week you’re at the beach or in a new country, exploring (unless you truly want to exercise). You will soon grow frustrated and insecure trying to chase a standard of perfect physical beauty. The reality is that, as a woman (or a man), you should be empowered by your physical beauty, not held captive by it. An ability to radiate life, emanate adventure, drip with confidence and intelligence, and exude compassion is what makes you truly beautiful.
You all said it yourself on Instagram, when I polled people on what they thought about what makes a woman her most attractive self.
Remember, readers, that it is not overwhelmingly important, nor is it deeply validating, to have people’s perceptions of you to end at “she looks good.” Sometimes society convinces us—young women, in particular— that looking good is one of the main responsibilities we have to society.
Therefore sometimes, we must take the time to remind one another that life revolves around so much more than the pounds of weight, inches of body, colors of skin, lengths of hair, face shapes, and styles of clothes that make up our outer selves. Faces and bodies are but a first impression. How you make someone feel in the moment you both share is what really counts.