The politics of physical appearance
When Nancy Binay ran for senator in 2013, memes circulated in the Internet poking fun of her “dark” skin, notwithstanding the fact that many Filipinos share her skin color. The jokes have persisted, but in a sign of political savvy, her camp has played along. “We have nothing against the memes. We love it. We don’t treat this as a form of online bullying because it’s part of the Filipino freedom of expression,” explained her media relations officer.
As Senator Binay can attest to, the physical appearance of politicians is “fair game” in Philippine politics. Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is nicknamed “pandak”—the Filipino word for short, with slightly pejorative undertones. Some of President Aquino’s critics call him “kalbo,” with others even going as far as to associate his baldness with a lack of seriousness in his administration.
The fact that these jokes and discourses have currency means that a lot of people find them funny and entertaining. But what really happens when politicians’ looks are made fun of?
First, it distracts us from more serious issues. Comedian Vice Ganda, reacting to Nancy Binay’s candidacy and seemingly-inevitable victory, famously asked, “Senator agad (so soon)?”—and this should have been the starting point for criticism. Yet another is how her election would herald the ascension of yet another political dynasty. Though these issues were raised, it can be argued that their gravitas was somehow diffused by the discourses on her skin color, given the limited space in media coverage and people’s attention.
It is interesting that people’s physical appearance is spun differently, depending on the candidates’ political fortunes and the writers’ own politics. Carlos P. Romulo was 5’4” with shoes, but in the aftermath of a successful diplomatic career, he is hailed as proof that height doesn’t matter. While GMA was popular, she, too, was admired as “small but terrible,” but as her political star waned, “pandak” stuck. The volatility of these labels means that they have no real validity.
Second, this kind of name-calling puts politicians on a moral high ground. Responding to the so-called “Oplan Stop Nognog 2016,” Vice President Jojo Binay called its architects “elitists and antipoor.” He explained: “Whoever thought of ‘Nognog’ was clearly being insulting. Surely those who thought of that word are wealthy hacenderos, because ‘Nognog’ is a slur against those who are dark-skinned.”
As VP Binay knows, physical appearance can be used as a sign of solidarity with those who share it. Sen. Antonio Trillanes, by labelling VP Binay as “kulay mahirap, asal mahirap” (roughly, “of the same color and behavior as the poor”), did him a favor by reinforcing his narrative of poor vs. the elite.
Surely, whatever were their views on GMA, there were many “vertically challenged” people who sympathized with her when she was being derided for her height. Ditto with P-Noy among people who are bald either by choice or circumstances.
Indeed, by ridiculing politicians for their physical appearance, we elevate them to a moral high ground, even as physical similarities can mask glaring differences between politicians and their constituents.
Finally, and more importantly, this kind of “bullying” reinforces a culture that overvalues physical appearance. How can we be surprised that so many Filipino women (and men) are applying all kinds of skin-whitening products when public figures like the Binays are called “Nognog”? By making fun of dark-skinned politicians, we are upholding a standard of beauty that privileges white skin. We uphold the primacy of the mestizos and the foreigners, effectively bringing a “colonial mentality” upon ourselves.
How can we be surprised that various jobs in the country demand height requirements when we belittle the holder of the “highest job in the land” for smallness? Because the poor, due to undernutrition and poor quality of life, are more likely to have a short stature, in privileging tallness in our society we add a layer of discrimination to the underprivileged.
By making fun of various physical features—such as baldness—we uphold the primacy of certain beauty standards. Is it then surprising that many celebrities win in our elections? Perhaps, aside from their star power—and merit, in some cases—their appeal lies in their physical attractiveness. But there is a risk of turning politics into a beauty contest if we judge candidates based on how they look, and consider all the vital debates with the levity of a “question-and-answer portion.”
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With the 2016 elections less than a year from now, we need to desist from attacks on the physical appearance of politicians. Journalists in particular should be mindful of their power to dignify certain discourses, no matter how inimical to the political process. We cannot be distracted from more relevant parameters with which to hold politicians to account. We cannot gift them with a “persecution” that gives them a moral high ground and obfuscates and absolves their moral and legal failings.
More importantly, by casting politicians’ physical features in a negative light, we are perpetuating a culture that overvalues physical appearance, upholds certain standards of beauty, and renders harm to our countrymen who share these features.
Indeed, if we are to elevate Philippine politics to a certain measure of dignity, if we are to make people proud and respectful of the diversity of the ways people look, we must spare the physical appearance of our politicians from ridicule and verbal abuse.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.