September 2005
The Presidents and the (Jueteng) Lords
Focus on the Filipino youth: The Lost Generation

The business of beauty

Shampoos, skin whiteners, and assorted other beauty products find a ready market among young women.

Filipinas pride themselves on their looks and deservedly so. [photo courtesy of Malaya]

THE QUEUES in mall bathrooms attest to our national vanity. With all the women putting on lipstick, powdering their noses, and whipping their dangerously long, buhaghag-free hair between vigorous brushstrokes, it is nearly impossible to get to the sink to wash hands. Whether the vanity is cause or effect, I’m not sure. Probably a little of both.

Cutting una bella figura, as the Italians say, is important in the Philippines. Filipinas pride themselves on their looks and deservedly so. Filipinos are a beautiful people, a product of a beautiful heritage. Even the men haven’t been spared the urge to look good, and in recent years they have become increasingly willing to splurge on beauty products. But the majority of buyers is still female — and, it seems, getting younger. A quick browse in “Primp and Prettify” forum on GirlTalk, a popular message board dedicated to young women easily turned up threads on facial and underarm whitening, rebonding, dieting pills, and make-up brands. I can empathize. Being vain can be an empowering experience. As in: I am woman. I exfoliate.

In the Philippines, manufacturers and advertisers are eager to tap into the youth market, especially when it comes to personal care products. After all, the youth market is huge. In 2001, about 57 percent of the population was under 25; 15-24 year olds made up almost 20 percent. Also, “me” products such as cosmetics, haircare, and beauty products do better with youth who are increasingly savvy, product-aware, and more willing to pamper themselves. And they also have more disposable income than older demographics. Plus, their being Pinoy means they will spend more time on their looks than most other people on the planet.

If much of that marketing is still geared toward young females, well, girls have always been assumed to be conscious about their physical appearance. But these days it seems even those who are not yet quite in their teens are already worrying about how they look. Recently, our family was enjoying a birthday feast in honor of my grandfather when we noticed my 12-year-old cousin just picking at her plate. It turned out she had put herself on a diet. I remember when my girlfriends and I were the same age and we thought nothing about stuffing our faces with French fries and chocolates. Back then, only moms and much older sisters struggled with diets and exercise regimens.

That wasn’t so long ago, yet things seem to have really changed since. Today the pressure to look good starts years before girls even hit puberty. The other day, my friend’s niece wistfully said she wished she were more maputi (fair-skinned). She is only six years old. Perhaps she aspires to be Snow White and she wants her very own set of seven dwarfs. Or she may have just walked away from the television set in which ads were extolling the virtues of fair skin and the other supposed standards of beauty.

It seems we believe beauty is an ideal-especially when we leaf through glossy fashion magazines and see photos of gorgeous models. Or turn on the TV and wait eagerly for that magical moment when the kampanerang kuba (hunchbacked bell ringer) is transformed into a beautiful mestiza. Incidentally, that’s a teleserye that has kids among its target audience. Billboards, radio jingles, television commercials, magazine flyers, newspaper ads, and press releases — media exposure has real impact, especially among more impressionable youth.

A 2003 study by advertising giant McCann-Erickson found that media have become “surrogate parents” to the country’s youth. The media act as arbitrators of right and wrong, hip and cool, what’s in and what’s as passe as last year’s ponchos. TV viewership especially rates high among the youth who spend about eight to 14 hours a week watching TV.

NOW MAYBE it’s easy to make a six-year-old believe she has to be maputi to be considered pretty, but have that kid grow up a bit and she may not exactly be snapping up just any beauty product that promises to make her fair-skinned. Teens are a fickle market with no brand loyalty, says Art Ilano, assistant marketing professor at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. They switch products easier, unlike older markets that tend to settle for certain brands. Because of this, companies have no choice but to bombard the youth market with constant reminders to “Buy me! Buy me!” And boy, do they bombard.

According to market research company AC Neilsen, the personal-care industry poured P23.4 billion in advertisements in 2004, a quarter higher than in 2003. In comparison, telecommunications is a distant second at P13 billion, and we already know how ubiquitous mobile-phone ads are. At P6 billion a year, skincare is second to haircare in ad expenditures, which stand at P10 billion (oral care is third at P3 billion). These numbers probably come as no surprise to people who drive down EDSA or read newspapers and magazines, and especially not to those who watch television, the most popular ad outlet.

But it’s the skincare ad category that has seen the highest rate of growth. This is largely attributed to the increasing popularity of whitening products. According to a 2004 Synovate survey, skin-lightening products are popular across Asia. Some 38 percent of women surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines use skin-lightening products.

Filipinas, however, are the most avid consumers with 50 percent of respondents reporting current use. My neighborhood Watson’s store displays shelves upon shelves of skin whitening products. Most companies now include a whitening component in their entire product line, from soaps and moisturizers to toners and sunblocks and creams.

Having fair skin, though, is not enough to be called a real beauty these days, at least based on the nonstop ads. At any given time of the day — and night — there is bound to be a shampoo commercial extolling the virtues of having long, shiny tresses. Once primetime hits, suds and bubbles practically spill out of the TV sets with all the hairwashing going on.

On ABS-CBN between 6:00-6:30 pm, a shampoo commercial comes on air like clockwork. “Bounce!” it exhorts, “Freshness! Bounce!” while yet another mestiza model sashays around a basketball court bouncing her hair all over the place. Fifteen minutes later, there’s another shampoo ad, this time done like a bad MTV video with an inanely catchy refrain, dancing girls and a storyline that goes, girl wants boy, boy snubs girl because she is bruha-looking, girl uses shampoo, boy falls in love with girl, and they live happily ever — or until she stops using the shampoo. The commercial seems to last five long minutes. The tagline: instant ayos, parang magic talaga, kinamay lang inayos na (perfect hair instantly, just like magic, just with the fingers).

A confused confession: I use that brand but my hair doesn’t ayos in a similar manner, instantly or even after I tug at it with my fingers for an hour. I still need to use a brush or a comb. I concede an advertiser’s creative and artistic license, and the small print does say “results may vary.” But I’d like to do a real-life test and see if any girl can attain a perfectly straight, perfectly shiny ‘do just by running her fingers perfunctorily through her hair.

ALA PAREDES, 22, host of IslaMusik on ABC5, as well as writer and model, is the proud owner of a crown of curls. She finds the current crop of haircare and skincare commercials “abominable” because they don’t promote uniqueness or diversity. “Instead of celebrating physical differences,” she says, “they make people think you have to look a certain way to be beautiful.”

UNCONVENTIONAL LOOKS. Model Ala Paredes has curly hair in a country where long, straight hair (right) is considered the epitome of female beauty.

She should know. In an industry that prizes fair skin and straight hair, her morena skin color and loose, voluptuous curls are considered unconventional. This demand for an “ideal” look has cost her jobs, she believes, because casting people who deviate from the norm is risky. To think she already has a perceived edge, being the daughter of Jim Paredes of APO Hiking Society fame.

People who look “different” are usually given character roles, while the lead goes to a fair, straight-haired girl. Curly hair may look gorgeous on Jericho Rosales but put the same mop on some girl’s head and there will be people thinking she could be Valentina’s longlost sister. Curly hair is often associated with messiness or wildness while straight hair is more malinis or neat to look at. Similarly, when it comes to skin color, white is associated with cleanliness and purity.

Of course one can argue hair and skin color is a matter of preference. But you will almost never hear a person say about an actress or model, “I don’t like her because she has straight hair” or “Yuck, look at her, ang puti niya (she’s so fair)” — unless we are talking Sadako-white (then again, she was more on the gray shades). Obviously, says Paredes, a norm has been set.

Some companies are not even above using blatantly discriminatory or politically incorrect methods to sell their products. Paredes cites a whitening product ad where a mestiza couple is having their baby baptized. The priest smiles at the couple but when he pulls the baby’s blanket back, he looks aghast. The camera then zooms in on the baby who has dark skin, and then zooms out to show the mother’s relatives having brown skin. Translation: mommy used the product. Says Paredes: “I felt they were presenting the baby in a ridiculous manner. The majority of Filipinos have dark skin, including me. I felt personally offended.”

She’s not the only one. From talking to my young cousins and their friends, there seems to be a consensus that the marketing of these skin-whitening products is vaguely disturbing and occasionally offensive on some level. It raises many questions. What is wrong with our skin color? Why are we trying to look different from what we are?

TO ME the culprit is the plethora of advertisers imposing a lanky model with abnormally bouncy hair and porcelain-white skin on us hapless mortals. But Art Ilano disagrees. He says advertising isn’t really to blame for our seeming fixation with straight hair and white skin. According to him, “it’s ingrained in our culture.”

Ilano argues that advertisers only ride trends; they don’t create them. “Someone somewhere tried skin whitening and saw there is a market for it,” he says. “Papaya soap used to be a niche market with no budget for advertising but people liked it. It had strong sales in the provinces. That’s when ads come in.” Advertising only does the market research. It does not transform people’s opinions but it serves to accelerate trends. “Besides,” Ilano adds, “marketers aren’t that creative.”

Well, neither is the popularity of skin-whitening products caused by colonial mentality alone. Other countries like Korea or Japan which haven’t been colonies of Western powers also go ga-ga over whitening products. So if “culture” is to blame, that may really mean our Asian culture.

As for long, straight hair, there used to be a time when this was associated with those who came straight from the provinces, or people who wanted to look “ethnic” or had ambitions of marrying foreigners (hence the phrase “export beauties”; for some reason, most Western men seem to pick women with long hair whenever they go hunting for a partner in Asia). Once upon a time, the mark of a mestiza was a head of wavy locks. It was the indios or natives who had straight hair. Actually, either that or kinky hair. Anyway, all these make it hard to argue that culture led to our present obsession with long, straight hair.

But maybe it’s not a matter of culture vs. advertising. For all we know, they could be mutually feeding on each other. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with just the obvious: a constant assault of images and products promoting only one type of beauty and leaving little room for diversity. (Where is Benetton when you need it?)

Yet despite the double-digit growth of skin whiteners and the prevalence of shiny, longhaired artistas in the country, many teens are aware, at least in theory, that beauty comes in many shapes, colors, and sizes.

Sometimes, a company comes along believing that, too. In 2003 the local girls’ clothing line Bayo launched Kat Alano in its “A Girl Like You” campaign. An EDSA billboard depicted a pretty girl with a mop of curls. The emphasis was on being different. The campaign was a great success and today Kat Alano’s career is thriving. Perhaps this means that young Filipinas, as personal care consumers, are open, if not eager, for different types of beauty on our billboards and television screens.

Now if only more advertisers and marketers become a little bit more creative and take note.

Cheryl Chan was an intern at the PCIJ and is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism at the University of British Columbia. She shakes her fist at the television every time a shampoo commercial comes on.