In a Season 1 episode of my favorite Golden Globe-winning comedy series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” tough girl Rosa Diaz admonishes Amy Santiago for being annoyingly competitive toward her. Inside her car, she tells Amy that, as the only female detectives working in a dude-dominated precinct in New York City, the two of them should instead “have each other’s back.” With that, Amy turns her attitude around and treats Rosa as her true gal pal.
I loved that scene.
In high school, I witnessed how other girls, some of whom I considered friends, would bring others down, usually through the use of the most painful (wo)manmade weapon of all—words, cruel, spiteful words. At times, these words were written on armchairs, and at other times, on the walls and doors of the girls’ toilets. I steered clear of being embroiled in such (usually covert) catty behavior, but still I was not spared from being described as a “whore,” “bitch,” “malandi,” or “pu-a.”
The first time I saw my name written—in big bold letters—on the door of a toilet cubicle, I was mortified. What did I do to anyone to deserve being called a “pokp-k?” A sophomore then, I considered it the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Amid my uneasiness, I tried to recall any recent incident where I might have (unintentionally) offended any other girl on campus. I was confused, convinced as I was that I had no enemies.
When I got home that day, after much hesitation I told my mother everything. Not the biased kind of mom who would automatically side with her child, she first asked me the question I asked myself earlier: Did I have enemies in school? I said that as far as I knew, I had never behaved in a way that would make people despise me.
Ever since I was young, my mother, a Binibining Pilipinas semifinalist in the 1980s, had always told me to “be humble,” to “never act proudly,” to “be modest,” to “be kind,” to “not be self-absorbed,” to “not be vain,” and so on. I distinctly remember how these gently spoken reminders sometimes came shortly after anyone—her colleagues, visiting relatives, commercial casting agents, beauty queen makers, complete strangers, etc.—would casually compliment me on my looks and height (I’m 5’9” now). Even as a child, I already knew that she was guarding me against turning into a conceited monster.
I know my imperfect self well enough, and I will say that I did not turn out to be that way. But I will also be honest enough to say this: I feel pleased when somebody compliments or praises me. I am not ashamed of feeling that way. Isn’t that the most natural human reaction to a positive comment anyone makes about you? But I don’t act giddily or jump up and down when a compliment comes my way. I have learned to graciously say “Thank you po” even as I blush, then I find a way to smoothly change the topic (“I like your shirt/bag/jeans/shoes,” “Is there heavy traffic today?” or “Have you watched Maleficent?” etc.)
Having intently absorbed my distressing story, my mom advised me not to let it demoralize me. She felt that whoever wrote that about me was provoked, not by my behavior, but by that person’s own feeling of envy. She pointed out the incident’s possible connection to the fact that I had then started appearing in TV commercials and on the pages of teen magazines that some girls read in school. She added that I should be more conscious of my actions (short of saying “Be more humble pa”) and mindful of how I related to guys, especially those from higher batches who were extrafriendly to me. Lastly, she said that “teenagers can just be vicious.”
The next morning, she went to my school, spoke with my personal adviser, and requested him to suggest to the principal to have the maintenance personnel paint over the part of the cubicle door with my name on it. Fortunately, the request was granted that same day; it was painted over, together with the other vandalized doors.
That singular experience three years ago somehow prepped me for what was to come in the next two years—a few less alarming incidents where someone would whisper to me that this senior said I was this, these freshmen girls called me that, a loud sophomore compared me to whatever, etc. These were girls who barely knew me! Much as I tried taking the higher ground by “making dedma,” I felt angry about being the subject of this unfair backstabbing. Also, as a consequence, I regrettably brushed off my classmates’ suggestions that I join the school pageant, or be my batch’s sportsfest muse, or be one of the usherettes during school programs, etc.—all for the sake of keeping a low profile.
Now, I’m studying in the same university where my mom was once proclaimed “Miss Thomasian” and where my dad wrote for the Varsitarian. The very place where they met and fell in love. As I write this, it’s been one week since classes started and it’s been nothing but good vibes from everyone so far. I hope that this positive energy prevails as my classmates and I journey through four years of college life together. After much reflection, I’ve decided not to restrict myself anymore from activities that interest me (like joining the university pageant when I’m in third year). I will stop being too guarded with my actions. I will stop being overly concerned about what others might think of me. I just want to enjoy this phase in my life by being spontaneous, by being free, by simply being me.
Sistahs, listen up! How about we uplift and stand by one another? Celebrate each other’s triumphs in whatever endeavor? Be each other’s comforter, shoulder to lean on, rock, support group, family, etc.? Look, we are living in a supposedly modern world where women are still unfortunately objectified (by some men) as mere pretty little things and sexual objects. What’s more, other women have warned that it still can be tough for a lot of us in the professional world out there. This is a major battle we can never win if we ourselves are scratching and pulling each other down. So keep those claws sheathed, right?
Let’s be each other’s Rosa Diaz.
Cielo Quinto del Castillo, 17, is a first year tourism student at the University of Santo Tomas. “By choice,” she says, she paid for her own tuition this semester with her income from her modeling gigs. She is part of a “beauty camp” that trains young women for local and international beauty pageants.
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