The Price of Beauty

Growing up in the Philippines, my beauty regimen was pretty simple. So simple in fact that it was practically non-existent. No agonizing decisions over an invigorating jacuzzi vs a relaxing soak in a bubble- filled bath. Even showers were frowned upon. My singing in the shower made me take longer, thereby wasting more water, or so the old folks said. So I was stuck with the old balde and kabu (pail and dipper.)

This was my routine. I would fill up the balde to the brim. Next I would dip my fingers in the water then I would touch my forehead first, then my chest, then finally both shoulders, making a sign of the cross. There was a double purpose to this. First, as Filipinos we are very religious and start most everything with a prayer. Second, as kids, we were “kandingon,” which was an expression that meant that like goats, we hate getting wet, therefore, we hate taking baths. Touching different areas of my body with water was a way of easing me in. So there I was, psyched to take the first plunge, or should I say the first douse of the water from the kabu. As soon as the water fell on my head, I would let out a whoop and do a frenzied version of Flashdance. I would then quickly follow it up one after the other with more cupfuls of water, yelling and making brrrr noises all the way, until my body got used to the water temperature. That’s the point when I started enjoying myself and didn’t want to stop. Shampoo, usually Palmolive or Sunsilk, was then quickly applied. Giving the shampoo time to work, I would then lather up my entire body with a bar of soap, keeping one eye open to see what I’m doing and the other closed to avoid getting shampoo in that eye. Tearless shampoos were unheard of back then. If I was extra motivated that day, I would scrub myself with a lugod, a pumice stone to rid my body of tagiptip, or stubborn dirt. Then I would quickly rinse off and towel dry, so I can go out to play in the sun and come back as dirty as before. Very simple, right?

Fast-forward to the present when everything simple is now so complicated. You stray into a spa to get yourself a facial and immediately the guilt trip begins. To admit to using regular soap on your face was sacrilegious. You are supposed to use an exfoliant and a face cleanser. It doesn’t end there. Peering closely at your face under an illuminated magnifying lens, the aesthetician looks for blackheads, white heads, skin tags, age spots, liver spots and a host of other things you did not know existed before you wandered in. As a kid, your knowledge of skin imperfections were limited to bugas (pimples AKA rice or NGA,) taumtum (freckles), awm (mole) and lagum ( hideously big mole that looks like a giant fly.) Now you have to worry about all those, too? Ayyy, caramba. Shaving and plucking of unmentionables are a hassle, but you haven’t known real pain until have undergone threading and waxing. Ouch!

After a bath, if you want your face looking soft and smooth, they recommend a toner and a firmer. Oh and don’t forget the sunscreen lotion with SPF higher than 35. Turns out, even if you are nowhere near the beach, UV rays are everywhere just lurking around trying to tag you and make a prune out of you. Such horrors. Back when we were kids, we played in the sun all day and went swimming without applying sunblock. The next day we were all sunburned and thought nothing as we peeled the skin off our shoulders and arms. Skin cancer was the furthest thing from our minds. We never tanned either. We just turned dark and darker, depending on what color spectrum we started from. In a country where fair white skin is prized, tanning salons would never prosper. Bleaching stations would have a better chance. Oh and talking about sunglasses, I thought they were just worn for fashion. Turned out these actually shield your eyes from the sun’s UV rays because your eyes can actually get sunburned. Who knew!

Hair has not been spared from this modernization either. Now regular shampoo from the little pakete ( packets) is not good enough. There has to be a certain pH to meet your hair’s type, texture and condition. You have to use a conditioner afterwards, either leave-in or the one you rinse right after. Don’t even get me started on hair products..

Getting a haircut is not so simple now either. Back then, when your bangs were getting too long that your own mother could not recognize you, your mother made you sit in a chair while she cut your hair. Most of the time it turned out okay, although I have seen haircuts and bangs in my lifetime that I am sure needed years of therapy for the hapless owner.

Nowadays, you might need therapy not for the haircut, but for the shock of the final payment after you add up cut, shampoo, color, highlights, lowlights, perm, hot oil treatment and the tip. God forbid you forget the tip…

As a kid, my mom went through this phase where she dressed me “terno” with my older sister. I know a lot of you have been victims of this. Admit it. It is when our mother’s overzealous but totally misguided love for us makes her think that dressing us and our siblings in similar outfits is adorable. At that time, it was probably cute. Now people can use those old photos for blackmail.

When I was in high school, I remember the rage was Calvin Klein jeans and of course, Levi’s. Mine were custom-made. That meant the local sastre, or seamstress, sewed them. The depth of uncoolness. I could have pestered my mom enough for her to relent and get me some cool but expensive outfits, but I knew my mom had enough on her hands, with five kids in college and in private schools. Besides, she was knee-deep into humanitarian work long before Angelina Jolie made it Hollywood chic. My sartorial problems were the least of her worries. I did make one half- hearted attempt at one point.

I waited for the perfect moment to ask. My mom was relaxed and in a good mood. I asked her in our dialect, “Mom, can I have a new pair of jeans?” I dared not say designer jeans. “I’ve been wearing the same ones over and over again to school. The ones I have are so old.” And embarrassing, I wanted to add, but I didn’t want to push it.

I felt my mom softening. That new pair of jeans seemed to be within my grasp. Then my older sister had to butt in. “Why do you need a new pair for jeans? What do you think school is for anyway? A fashion show?” With those words, she squashed any hopes of me getting a new pair or joining the rank of the cool.

I thought that as a wage-earning, time-card-punching adult, I could buy myself all the clothes, shoes and bags that my heart desired. Alas and alack, I found out that being an adult also meant putting other people’s needs first. Thus, the budget for the True Religion jeans went to my daughter’s prom dress, the one for a fancy pair of heels went to the other daughter’s school shoes, and the money for that Coach bag… Well, it did buy a Coach bag but I gave it to my mom for her birthday. So those Jimmy Choo shoes, Louis Vuitton purses and serious bling- bling are as out of reach for me now as those coveted designer jeans way back in high school. I don’t know if it’s force of habit or financial necessity but I passed on my frugal sense of fashion to my two girls as well. I am relieved to note that although these two are not fashion disasters, neither are they slaves to fashion. They are not hung up on brand names nor do they equate their value with their looks. They have perfected a formula of looking like princesses but spending like paupers. Yes, necessity IS the mother of invention.

In the quest for perfection, it would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful world of cosmetic surgery where the perfect face or body is just a nip and tuck away. Botox, face lift, breast implants, tummy tuck, liposuction, vaginal repair… The possibilities are limited only by one’s pocketbook. I can only hope and pray that an inordinate dose of good luck, common sense and self-esteem will not necessitate my visit to such foreign and expensive territory, not in the near future anyway.

Beauty may only be skin-deep, as they say, but considering that the skin is the largest organ in the human body, it is understandable that we humans have always been in search of it. Since time immemorial, poets and lovers have pursued it, basked in its splendor and sang of its charm. Even mathematicians are not oblivious to its effects. In their attempt to quantify it, they have come up with a formula for beauty they call The Golden Ratio or phi. It postulates that an object may be deemed beautiful if the ratio of its parameters to each other is 1:1.618. Say what? Leave it to men of science to addle up an already perplexing subject.

As for me, I believe that beauty is a dimple that peeks shyly from one cheek. It is a smile that starts from the corners of the eyes and spreads to the heart. It is God at his workbench putting in the usual formula of two eyes, one nose and one mouth, yet somehow coming up with a different delightful combination each time. Beauty is that something that ignites a sparkle in one’s eye, quickens the pulse in another or inspires fanciful notions in others. Beauty may come with a price, but real beauty is one that money cannot buy. It is a kindness of the heart, a quickness of the mind, and a spirit full of compassion. It is that kind of beauty that one cannot put a price tag on that is the most valuable. Indeed, it is rightfully said, that what is essential is invisible to the eye.