Hair and Philippine culture (2) | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Hair and Philippine culture (2)

/ 05:04 AM July 02, 2020

I didn’t fully realize how important shampoo was for many Filipinos until the quarantine. Once, I was doing groceries for my mother and when I saw her shopping list, most items were vague, but there were detailed instructions on which brand, color, and size of shampoo to buy.

A conversation with Jerard Eusebio, a colleague from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, is also illustrative. He asked me what shampoo I use, explaining that he went to a particular supermarket because his regular shampoo was only available there, and wondered if others would similarly go the extra mile.


My response is that I normally just end up with a regular brand of shampoo that has been effective in keeping me dandruff-free — a concern that would not have been strange to precolonial Filipinos, given that the word balacobac already appeared in the 1613 San Buenaventura vocabulario, along with now-defunct synonyms like balayubay and lutap.

Of course, back then, people went to the forest — not to the grocery store — to make gugo shampoo, which only makes it interesting that nowadays, the bark is making a comeback in online stores, alongside a plethora of various other shampoos with everything from aloe vera to argan oil.


Shampoos are manifestly to clean the hair and make it look good, but it involves two other senses: the tactile and olfactory. Thus, shampooing one’s hair — or having a shampooist do it — can be a pleasurable experience in itself, reminding me of the Brazilian word cafuné, which, as I learned in São Paulo, means running your fingers through someone’s hair as an act of intimacy or tenderness.

Then there’s the olfactory: When I asked Jerard the same question he asked me, he mentioned an herbal shampoo that he likes “because it smells great.” His criterion would likewise not have been strange to our ancestors, whose epics “waxed lyrical” about the “breathtakingly strong” and “sweet” hair scents of their heroes. Neither would they have been new to our advertising agencies, who conjure commercials of men sniffing the hair of Liza Soberano. Such “commodification” of our preferences, I should add, helps explain why people buy gels, pomades, mousses, conditioners, shampoos, not to mention hair dryers, curlers, and a host of other products.

Facial and body hair constitutes another domain of practice, which includes whether — and which parts — of one’s body to shave, trim, remove, or let be, either in ordinary circumstances or as part of “quarantine looks.” Lest we consider any generation particularly vain, let us bear in mind that 16th-century Filipinos meticulously removed their body hair with pairs of clam shells, and ladies plucked their eyebrows every month to the horror of Spanish friars.

For obvious reasons, body hair is more difficult to historicize. The meticulous diarist in Rizal must have found it unfitting to include such details in his journals, let alone his novels, and no one—not even Ambeth Ocampo—knows if Maria Clara shaved her armpits.

What is clear, however, is that facial and body hair practices likewise draw from (changing) notions of gender, beauty, and identity. Having a beard, for instance, may conform to masculine ideals in some cultures, but in other places and time periods, they might be frowned upon, or be simply seen as unfashionable. Even shaving one’s body or pubic hair can signify or subvert “figurations” (to borrow from Norbert Elias) of gender—as when feminists call for an “armpit hair revolution,” or when footballers shave their legs (Real Madrid fans may recall that Marco Asensio got injured while doing so).

Going back to hair proper, we see that practices, too, vary across time, each of them rooted in a peculiar history—even as they also give people a sense of agency over their bodies and lives. Hair rebonding may have stemmed from racialized notions of beauty, but young people today take their cues from Hallyu, not Hollywood. On the other hand, celebrities like Meryl Streep or George Clooney are also inspiring older folks to take pride in their white or “salt and pepper” crowns.

Speaking of hair and aging, I sometimes wonder whether I will have the enviable hair of my Lolo Basilio, still intact at age 84, or that of my Lolo Apolonio, who exhibited male-pattern baldness. Regardless of what the future brings, one thing is clear: Hairstyles and hair practices come and go, but hair will always hold a special place in our culture.

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TAGS: Gideon Lasco, hair and culture, Second Opinion
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