Ethics and aesthetics in the Senate | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Ethics and aesthetics in the Senate

/ 05:13 AM March 01, 2024

Mariel Padilla may have deleted her controversial Instagram post having an intravenous (IV) drip inside her husband’s Senate office, but it is worth revisiting and analyzing as a teachable moment on popular notions of ethics and aesthetics, as well as, more broadly, how health (which we can broadly define to include wellness and beauty practices) relates to culture and even politics. How are ethics and aesthetics “enacted” in this inglorious episode, if we were to ground them in people’s lived realities?

Let’s start with the ethics. Based on the online reactions, it seems that one dominant response is expressed in the following terms: “Ginawang beauty salon ang Senado.” Regardless of political persuasion, many people saw the act as out of place, insulting the dignity of the Senate, and by extension, the public. That there seems to be consensus around this view—at least judging by the backlash the celebrity got—is interesting in itself. People seem not to mind electing celebrities to the Senate, but there seems to still be some expectation of decency and integrity that’s ascribed to the office itself. Padilla’s counterargument—“wala naman akong inapakang tao (I didn’t step on anybody)”—seems to have fallen flat with netizens: a reassuring (if not entirely reliable) sign that people are able to see other forms of harm beyond the physical.

Another ethical charge is the additional impropriety of advertising a product using the Senate as backdrop, and/or promoting a product that does not have any Food and Drug Administration approval. As the Department of Health warned in aftermath of the incident, IV glutathione is neither approved nor recommended for skin whitening. Some years back, I wrote about Shiryl Distor, who died after receiving IV glutathione: a tragic incident that underscores the risks of such procedures (“Death by glutathione,” 2/20/20).

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Padilla later claimed that she received “a vitamin C drip, not glutathione, under the medical supervision of a professional nurse” adding that her intent was “to inspire others that even amidst various activities or wherever they are, they can still prioritize their health by taking vitamins.” This explanation, of course, is just as dubious from a medical standpoint, given that intravenous Vitamin C is only indicated for very rare situations like scurvy, and as such, is clearly not needed by the celebrity endorser.

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I must also add, although this deserves another column, that vitamins have long appealed to Filipinos as an unqualified good—and therapeutic claims of their efficacy have gone largely unchallenged, notwithstanding the lack of robust evidence support most of their purported uses, which in Padilla’s case, according to her, included “collagen production, whitening, energy, metabolism, immunity, and so much more.”

Sen. Nancy Binay hinted at all of the above in her initial reaction: “I’m not sure if the Ethics Committee can extend its jurisdiction dito sa nangyaring insidente since hindi naman member ng Senado si Ms. Mariel. But we also need to closely look into it because it involves issues of conduct, integrity, and reputation of the institution and matters that concern health and safety.” Sen. Robinhood Padilla has since sent letters of apology to Binay and Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, and true to form, the senators seem to want to quickly move on from an incident that involved one of their own.

Meanwhile, more fundamental than ethics is the aesthetics that equate “fairness” or “whiteness” with desirable characteristics like beauty and status—and relate certain kinds of treatments as a sign of prestige, as IV seems to have achieved among certain circles. As I’ve written in this space several times in the past, the pursuit of whiteness is not as black and white as it seems, just as the desire for fair skin goes beyond just colonial mentality. As I also wrote in the above-mentioned 2020 piece: “Who can blame [Filipinos] for desiring whiter skin when they observe that ‘pleasing personality’—a euphemism for attractiveness in job advertisements—can lead to better economic and social opportunities? And what philosophical or moral distinctions can we make between different forms of beautification—pills, powders, ‘pushes,’ plastic surgery?”

Still, safety should be paramount and whether in the Senate, a beauty salon, or in people’s homes, nobody should have to risk their health—or spend their money—in unproven, possibly unsafe practices. Beyond the rightful outrage, this incident should lead to a renewed effort toward testing and regulation not just of the beauty products themselves but how they are advertised, promoted, and marketed.

“For me, we should always be comfortable with the skin given to us, right?” Sen. Binay said after accepting her colleague’s apology. “I think it’s confusing; the fair-skinned come here to darken their skin, while the dark-skinned strive to lighten theirs.”

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