The beauty, the brain, and the breast: A cultural criticism of the colonization of women images in Philippine pageants

Linggo, Marso 25, 2012 by Orestes C. Magdaraog III


             Not only are Filipinos so affectionate in playing in the realms of basketball courts; beauty pageants are also an inexplicable pastime of us. As such, there are three recognized major Philippine beauty searches: Binibining Pilipinas, Miss Philippines Earth, and the Mutya ng Pilipinas, all are specially organized to determine our country’s representatives to the wide-array of international beauty competitions abroad. This includes the most favorite ones of the Filipinos: the Miss Universe pageant, Miss World, Miss International, Miss Asia Pacific, and Miss Earth (Capili, 2003, 149).

            These brands of beauty pageants—local and international—are all one in the same trend. Beauty contest vary from place to place. However, similarities are seen because these contests showcase values concept and behavior that exist at the center of a group’s sense of it and exhibit values of morality, gender, and place. The beauty contest stage, through media, is where all of these activities and diversity are observed, and are made public and visible.

            In discussing my thesis in this paper, it is pretty much convenient and reader-friendly to delimit the topic into one Philippine pageant that I shall later on attack with criticisms about its cultural configuration in Philippine pop culture. Binibining Pilipinas pageant is undeniably the largest and most prestigious nationwide search for the most beautiful Filipina women in the country, thus I decided to go for this one. The Binibining Pilipinas (2011) is a fund-raising activity that donates to the charitable institutions in the country. It also distributes aid to the victim of natural disasters and supports livelihood projects for poor women.

Beauty contest: a colonial agent of women representation

            Times have changed, and as every year is added to the history of Binibining Pilipinas pageant, significant developments are seen. From the conservative gowns to the skimpy swimsuits and bikinis to the backless and tube gowns, this pageant hugely contributed and initiated the present trends in fashion and lifestyles of many Filipino people.(Capili, 2003, 141) Not surprising enough to say the least, in this pageant, the purity of being Filipina beauty is never the topnotch in this search for beauty. In its entirety, The Binibining Pilipinas spawned different standards of beauty and partly because of this reason why there are controversies and issues regarding contests and the contestants.

            I already gave hints (the word colonization in the title; the foreign management of Binibining Pilipinas) on how this paper will delve its studies, that is, a well-researched review of the colonization of women images in Philippine pageants. One may have already suspected that this paper will take its study on the plight of sexist representation of women in pageants: treating women as an object of entertainment; male deciding the worth of women on the basis of her beauty; judged by the panel of judges; the display of skins and the other demeaning heights that may have oppressed, as to most people, women. It is on these issues that pageant fans and feminists collide.

            Unfortunately, I will not go that way. Instead, I will take a very different dimension in criticizing women images in this annual competition of Binibining Pilipinas. I will not fill in the shoe of a radical feminist in discussing beauty pageants. Radical feminists “oppose beauty pageants because they allegedly treat women as commodities and perpetuate their image as sex objects.” (Fernando, 2007) I do not see pageants as oppressive to women as they were said to be projected as sex objects to be ogled by men. Rather, “the pageant showcases a liberal feminist conception of woman as a man’s intellectual equal, capable of independent rational thought and moral deliberation.” (Fernando, 2007) In my personal opinion, there is nothing wrong in parading one’s beauty. The beauty of feminity should not be considered as a liability, but as an asset. Contestants of these pageants are proud to be women and are unafraid to express it to the world.

            Thus, in this paper, I will argue that beauty pageants, in the example of Binibining Pilipinas in particular, are used as a colonial agent in redefining the cultural thought of the Filipino People, who are gullible to such kind of popular culture, about women images. In this post-colonial time, Filipinos are still hooked up with the westernized commodifcation of all things—especially in pop culture. The current setup of our popular culture  is still under the sphere of influence of the American culture. By properly framing the study of the paper, I partitioned my arguments into three that will prove my thesis statement I just said sentences away from here: (1) the very defilipinized concept of beauty; (2) the preference of the English language in pageants; (3) and the westernized conception of body image among Filipina women.

A defilipinized Filipina beauty?

            In a country where people are pretty much diverse in terms of their racial affinity, perception of what is beautiful in beauty pageants is paralleled to the idealization of white, i.e.: light skin. Obviously, among Filipino people, light skin is the epitome of feminine beauty. As a result of colonization and the mass media of Europe, the majority of Filipinas to be considered beautiful have been light-skinned. (Hall, 2006, 57) In the aftermath, light skin color evolved as the Filipino standard of beauty; however, the impact of that standard on Filipinas has sustained a void in the esteem of those who are dark-skinned. Beauty, poise, and overall appeal were associated with their lighter skin.

            In the past Binibining Pilipinas editions, audience applauded for the fairest maiden of all the contestants. There had been an adverse antagonism against those contestants who possessed the true Filipino color. Though there was still handful of Filipina beauties that ended up snatching the crowns, nonetheless, the ideal beauty queen for the Filipinos is one that almost looks like westernized in both facial and skin features. Subsequently, it is the “stigmatization of dark skin and the idealization of light skin that has made the difference in what Filipinos prefer in self, and/or potential standards of beauty.” (Hall, 2006, 56) Why must the Filipino color burden the name-calling of the word “exotic”? And the white skin color as beautiful? A great effect of the colonial aggression of the past western occupations already yielded its effect even at the farthest as the Filipinos' perception of beauty.

            When Venus Raj won the Binibining Pilipinas Universe 2010 title, she was neither a real queen so to speak since she had this dusky look that is far to be called a queen. She is an exotic Filipina looking queen. When juxtaposed to her co-winner, BBP-International 2010 Krista Kleiner, Venus' beauty features are perceived to be less feminine.  Thus, “as per the Western ideal, light skin is feminine, i.e. “beautiful,” because dark skin is masculine.” (Hall, 2006, 56) Krista Kleiner is bi-racial, Filipino-American to be exact. Though Venus is also half-Indian of decent, her racial beauty is still not an appetizer for the Filipinos, because western or Caucasian looking ladies are the only real beauties that register to the colonial mindset of the Filipino people.

            Venus, in her interview in the show, Bottomline of Boy Abunda (2010), confessed her life prior to becoming a beauty queen. Her exact words read as, “nung bata ako, lagi ako tinutukso na ang panget panget ko kasi ang itim-itim ko, sobrang kulot pa ng buhok ko non, at ang haba-haba ng leeg ko.” From the mouth of the queen herself, having dark skin color is not a facet of beauty. “The plainliness and ugliness, however are not inborn; they are culturally born, nurtured by shame culture that worships literary modes of beauty.” (Holmberg, 1998, 157) The concept of beauty, indeed, is only culturally nurtured. In case for the Filipino people, we are colonially cultured. Thus in a former colony like our country where light-skinned people are more preferred, the real native color in and of itself is seen as a sign of grotesque taking for example the Binibining Pilipinas winner, Venus Raj.

            A former judge of Binibining Pilipinas 2009, Richard Gomez, exposed in his blog his thoughts and reviews about the pageant and choosing the winners. He said, “scoring the beauty of face was the first portion done as they come out and introduce themselves. This was the part where they shout their names and where they come from. Once done, the tabulators will ask for our scoresheets and tabulate that portion only.” (Gomez, 2009) One more interesting note here is how the type of beauty (i.e. mestiza-looking; morena beauty) is being classified to which of which international pageants the winners will be competing. Richard Gomez continues:
            “We were asked to go back to the briefing room to deliberate on who will be crowned as Bb. Pilipinas-World and Bb. Pilipinas-International because their scores were tied at 90.83. The primary consideration in choosing a winner for the both titles was where the location of their respective pageants would be held.
             Ms. International will be held in Japan this year and according to beauty pageant stats, judges from that part of the world have favored mestizas and that was the reason why Melody Gersbach was chosen. Ms. World pageant, on the other hand, will be held in Bahamas, so, a morena girl will have to be put in place, Ms. Marie Ann Umali.” (Gomez, 2009)
            True enough, in choosing the winner of Binibining Pilipinas, her beauty must suffice the international standard of beauty. Can the contestants just be judged on their own merits? Not on what type of beauty they possess just so to conform the international appeal? As a function of Western Beauty standards, “light skin has been consistently portrayed as beautiful, as if dark skin were not. In the aftermath is a belief that the only attractive women to be found in the Philippines and elsewhere, are influenced by Western Domination and extend beyond the various categories of race to include hair texture, eye-shape, and body type.” (Hall, 2006, 90)

The “miseducated” beauty queens

            Perhaps the most terrorizing part of the Binibining Pilipinas pageant is the interview or the question and answer portion. It is when the selected group of candidates is drawn to pick up one question and is given ample time to articulate all their thoughts. Some delivered great answers; some fumbled with their answers. The cause of that inarticulateness lies in their proficiency of the colonial language: the English. A nationalist historian, Renato Constantino said that:

          “Language is a tool of the thinking process. Through language, thought develops, and the development of thought leads to further development of language. But when a language becomes a barrier of thought, the thinking process is impeded or retarded and we have the resultant cultural stagnation.” (Constantino, 14)

            Language is our expression of our thoughts, and speaking in the foreign language that inhibits our thoughts to get expressed results to inarticulateness. There had been a great debate whether it is English or Filipino in considering the medium of instruction used in schools. In the same way, beauty pageants like the Binibining Pilipinas also practices the “miseducation” of the Filipino people, particularly women.

            In Constantino’s term, miseducation should not be construed as a term relating to unprofessional or totally out-of school people. Rather they are people who finished education but in an unfilipino way (illustrated by the prefix mis). They are the product of the colonial upbringing of our education. Surely most contestants who joined this pageant are miseducated. By just taking a quick browse in the interview portion of the past editions, all contestants answered their questions in the foreign language.

            A perfect example of this is the very controversial question and answer moment of Janina San Miguel in Binibining Pilipinas 2008. In the question and answer in that year’s pageant (2008), a female judge asked the contestant what role her family had played in her preparation in the contest. Janina started first with a confident introduction earlier but in the question proper, she answered:

“Well my family’s role for me is so important because there was the, they was the one whose very, ha-ha; oh I’m so sorry. Ah my family, my family, oh my God, I’m, okay. I’m so sorry; I, I told you that I’m so confident; ah wait, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, uhm, sorry guys because this was really my first pageant ever, Because I’m only 17 years old, and I did not expect that I came from, I came from one of the top 10; uhm so, but I said that my family is the most important persons in my life. Thank you.”

              This was very terrifying for the candidate to swallow after messing up her interview. On the other hand, this piled a laughing stock among the audience who thought of her answer as unintelligent for a beauty queen. The host Paolo Bediones (2008) already preempted her to that she can speak in Filipino as he already noticed that the candidate was already feeling uncomfortable in answering in English. Her flawed grammar and petrifying pronunciations in English reflected the rest of the Filipinos who also experience the same way in using the colonial language.

           A lawmaker has filed a bill seeking to reinforce English as the medium of instruction in all school levels after the contestant spoke in fractured English during the beauty pageant aired on television. Cebu Rep. Eduardo Gullas, an educator whose family owns  one of the oldest schools in his province, was annoyed by the 17-year-old beauty queen’s reply during the pageant’s question and answer portion. (Ronda, 2008) “Her sensational failure to answer a simple question in straight English betrays the fading competence of a growing number of young Filipinos in the world’s lingua franca,"  he said.

            In last year’s Miss Universe pageant (2010), our delegate, Venus Raj, a Binibining Pilipinas winner, also made a "major major" mistake in the Q and A portion of the international battle of beauties. She was asked what is one mistake that she had done in her life and what did she do to make it right. Her reply (2010):

         "You know what, Sir, in my 22 years of existence, I can say that there's nothing major, major problem that I've done in my life because I'm very confident with my family, with the love that they are giving to me. So thank you so much that I'm here. Thank you, thank you so much!"

            After answering that question, her answer was counted as the one big mistake that she had done in her life as it cost her to win the Miss Universe crown. Had she brought an interpreter and answered in the most comfortable language, let us say Filipino, she would have won the crown or placed a better runner up finish.

            The question is: is speaking English a measurement of one’s intellectual capacity or rather incapacity? Why must our Filipina beauty queens always speak in the foreign tongue not in their mother or native language. Pageants like this when shown on television reinforce the brainwashing of the former colonial ruler that defilipinized most of our people. English is preferred in all quadrants of the Philippine society. This, in turn, has resulted to the Filipino language’s loss of prestige and recognition as the truly national language of the country.

           People are not only disoriented by their colonial education but also by what the Americanized popular culture showed on television. “Our national language is practically neglected. It should be one of the main pillars of an independent country.” (Constantino, 14) In analogous to the previous quotation, only when beauty pageants realize that a Filipina beauty queen must personify a true nationalist perspective such as speaking or answering in Filipino can people or audience be free from colonial manipulation. Otherwise, these miseducated queens are being used as a representation of a fractured colonial mentality.

The westernized body image

            It is a less surprise fact anymore that the body image that Filipinos adapt is also influenced with the frame of the western body. Looking sexy is one major criterion that a beauty queen should have in order to take a breeze in winning the pageant. Richard Gomez (2009) once more showed in his blog the criteria of judging the Binibining Pilipinas candidates: Body figure and Poise are both comprised of 20 percent respectively. Hence, it is almost a half of your chances of winning if you have a perfect body figure and the right number combination of body statistics.

            It need not be said anymore that the local pageants here are influenced with the trend of international pageants. Thus, swimsuit round always has its presence in the show. Radical feminists, however, contest that “they are criticized for their focus on sexual desire, since the swimsuits are considered the most important part of the contest…The phenomenon of swimsuit, it is argued, provokes pornography and undermines the vulnerable sense of sense of sexual worth among women." (Capili, 2003, 154)

            Setting aside the radical supposition of flaunting a woman’s body, why is then a Filipina body a colonial body? Filipina women in beauty pageants conform their body to the western ideal of it. What is more, “bodies are instruments that can be read as texts, through….any activity that the body engages itself allows an outside party to view it and get an understanding or race and social difference. Spectators around the world are reading the bodies of contestants and making an assumption about the nation they are representing. The perfect candidate would fit the ideals of both the world’s notion of beauty and the countries goals that are going to be represented by this candidate.” (Capili, 2003, 118) In brief, the contestants joining the Binibining Pilipinas framed their body figure in compliance to the international standard of the body must be the same 22-inch waistline of Venus Raj when she competed in Miss Universe 2010.

          On the Binibining Pilipinas pageant nights, candidates are expected to compete with one another through various rounds.  They have to do exaggerated poses to reveal their sexiness in the swimsuits. And they have to walk and project regally in their evening gowns. Ideally, the judges choose the best candidate in the contest. That is why there are criteria for judging. (Capili, 2003, 152) These images of westernized Filipina body put a great effect to the audience's perception of their own bodies too. After seeing the battle of body perfection, they can think that “women were expected to have large breasts and perhaps hips. Anyone who does not conform to this body image may be considered plain, if not ugly." (Holmberg, 1998, 156-157) Obesity is now congealed as culturally unnatural. (Capili, 2003, 157)

         In addition, in Binibining Pilipinas, being tall is also a must for the candidates; if not satisfying the height requirement set for the screening, candidates lose their chance of getting past to the competition. Being tall is a western trait. (Hall, 2003, 71) Thus, the candidates that are sent to compete abroad should have towering heights aside from having those curves. In relation to the people who watch and see tall girls battling for the crowns in pageants like the Binibining Pilipinas, an idea can be made that “short people and, particularly, the little people, are subject to aversion by taller people." (Holmberg, 1998, 157) They encounter a sense of shame about it.

        The pageant organization also mandates the candidates that they must suffice all the requirements set for all applicants. In its website (2011), the qualifications are: Single, of good moral character, at least a high school graduate, must be at least 5'5" inches in height, with pleasing personality, and must be a Filipino citizen. It is 5’5” height requirement for those Filipina women who wish to join the pageant. However, in statistics (2007), the average height of Filipina women is only 4’11". A very far shot for the ideal height requirement of the pageant that is set on the western standard. Filipina women are deprived of the chance while only those who are blessed with racial genes can join, mostly bi-racial and multi-racial women.

       Furthermore, one of the best examples of this insistence on the outward beauty of women is put in a teenage fashion called Barbie, a western pornographic toy. (Guiuan, 2003) Out in the market in 1959, just seven years after the unveiling of the Miss Universe, this top-selling toy in the United States is the icon of feminity in consumer society. She is always the perfect fit with her changeable outfits and identities yet her body remained ageless and untouched by age. Had we scaled Barbie to 5’4” (average height of women in the United States), her chest, waist, and hip measurements would have been 32”-17”-28”, clinically anorectic to say the least. As the icon of feminity, she combined perfectly the necessity of consumption to achieve feminity and the appearance of an appropriately gendered body size. Playing with Barbie is not only a training ground for the emergence of womanhood in a girl but also an introduction to all kinds of discriminating knowledge on fashion and taste for social relations and status. (Guiuan, 2119)

         This sociological perspective conveys that the immutable measures for beauty, expressed in the Miss Universe pageant and in the popularity of the Barbie doll, as applied to pagandahan[beauty contest] is demeaning and alien to indigenous Filipino thought. (Guiuan, 2003, 119)  The modern usage of “ganda” [beauty] is very outward and physical, to the effect that it becomes exploitative in a consumerist culture. That to be said, beauty, as synonymous also to the body image, had gone way too physical just so to follow the colonial idealization of women perfection.

A conclusion: in the end, beauty contests are nothing but a weapon of post-colonization

             In brief, it is sufficient enough to conclude that the image of Filipina women, as shown in beauty pageants like the Binibining Pilipinas, as a strand of popular culture, is a fruition of another colonial manipulation to reanimate the Filipino thinking of it. “Those Filipinas who are characterized as dark-skinned are stigmatized as inferior and undesirable.” (Hall, 1998, 167) Other manifestations prove that Western context of beauty can make it exploitative directly to women and girls and indirectly to society. The international pageants like Miss Universe and the illustration of the Barbie doll extol beauty as physically outward. Thus, Filipina women tend to be swayed with the international agenda of being beautiful.  The preference of the English language in pageants also perpetuates the conception that speaking colonial language reflects one intellectual ability and education. In result, Filipinos' neglect of one’s own language. In a year or more, more girls will be crowned in beauty pageants like the Binibining Pilipinas, but there is still a glimpse of hope that beyond those crown and sash, they can still be vigilant to the colonial manifestations of them being Filipina beauty queens.


        Binibining Pilipinas. 2011. Available in: (accessed on May 14, 2011)

        Capili, Jose Wendell (Ed.) et al. Mabuhay to beauty!: Profiles of beauties and essays on pageants. Quezon City: Miraflores Publishing, Inc., 2003.

        Constantino, Renato. Miseducation of the Filipino People. Available in: (accessed on May 11, 2011)

         Fernando, Emmanuel. Feminism, Beauty Pageants and the Environment. December 15, 2007. Available in: (accessed on May 10, 2011)

         Gomez, Richard. Binibining Pilipinas Pageant from a judge's perspective. 2009. Available in : (accessed on May 10, 2011)

         Guiuan, Gerardo. “Pagandahan (Beauty Contest): An experience of grace and sin among Filipinos,” Research Journal St. Paul College of Manila 4, (2003): 112-126.

         Hall, Ronald. Bleaching Beauty. Quezon City: Giraffe Books, 2006.

         Holmberg, Carl. Sexualities and Popular Culture. California: Sage Publications, Inc., 1998.

         Janina San Miguel - Binibining Pilipinas 2008 Question and answer portion. 2008.  Available in: (accessed on May 16, 2011)

         Pedroso, Kate. Figure it out. Sunday Inquirer Magazine. April 29, 2007. Available in: (accessed on May 16, 2011)

         Q an A of Venus Raj from the Philippines in Miss Universe 2010. 2010. Available in Youtube: (accessed on May 16, 2011)

         Ronda, Rainier. “Beauty Queen’s bad English an eye-opener for RP education.” The Philippine Star, March 18, 2008.

         Venus Raj on the Bottomline. 2010. Available in Youtube: (accessed on May 16, 2011)


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