Wednesday, September 28, 2005

strutting our stuff: vanity and the pinoy male

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Machos in the Mirror
by Dean Francis Alfar
(i Report, September 2005)

I don’t generally think of myself as a vain person, but then again, there’s this incident I remember from high school: some friends and I were assembled at my house so that we could all ride together to a party. As we were getting dressed in our Spandau Ballet-inspired finery (then the height of fashion), one of the barkada produced, from out of the depths of his bag, a can of mousse, which none of us hapless males had ever seen or even heard of before. Naturally, we all had to squirt some into our hands and smear it on our hair. Not knowing that we were then supposed to blow-dry or otherwise style it, we left the house feeling snazzy, while looking pretty much the same as we had prior to applying the mousse—at most, our hair was a little damper, vaguely crispy in texture, and certainly stickier than before. But we felt utterly transformed. We felt gwapo.

These days (long past high school, thanks), I don’t exactly wander around feeling gwapo, but according to a survey by global research firm Synovate last year, a good many Filipino males do—48% of us, in fact. This is just a slightly lower percentage than males in the U.S. at 53%, and considerably higher than our Asian neighbors: 25% of Singaporean men think they’re sexy, and only 12% of guys from Hong Kong.

Moreover, while less than half of us (which is already a significant figure) think that we’re God’s gift to Pinays, a whopping 84% of Filipinos rate their looks as “quite” or “very” important to them. Assuming that the survey is accurate, this means, statistically speaking, that there is no male racial group on earth vainer than Filipino men. And, to my shock, I am one of them.

I have the uncomfortable feeling that female readers will not be surprised to learn that Pinoys are full of themselves. I myself was astounded by these figures, and I don’t think my wife has stopped laughing yet.

If you think about it, really, the evidence is all around us, and has been for decades. Way back before the term “metrosexual” was ever coined (in 1994, by British journalist Mark Simpson, in case you’re interested), Filipino businessmen were going around toting clutch bags—which I’m told are meant to hold guns or money, but which also frequently contain combs and the occasional small mirror. Your average Pinoy traffic cop, while likely to sport an enormous gut that completely engulfs his regulation belt, is just as likely to brandish gleaming, rosy-hued, meticulously-manicured fingernails. And practically everyone has at least one uncle or other older male relative who keeps his hair so slickly brilliantined that everyone else can conveniently fix their own hair by merely glancing in its mirror-like surface.

Those are just what we’ll call the “traditional” examples. Among the younger set, I recall a time when you couldn’t walk into a classroom of boys without nearly asphyxiating on the overwhelming communal scent of Drakkar cologne. Nowadays the choice of fragrance is more varied, but the rabidly enthusiastic application of cologne, aftershave, or that hybrid substance strangely labeled as “deo-cologne” remains constant. The Synovate survey tells us that Filipino men bathe an average of 1.5 times a day. (I’m not really sure how one takes half a bath, but I’m told by informed sources that such regular male hygiene is a source of relief and delight for Filipino women.) Since the ‘70s, the majority of Philippine beauty salons have become “unisex”, resulting in a large and growing number of young men who have never even set foot in a barber shop, which means that most of us go to salons—every three weeks or so, according to salon magnate Ricky Reyes, “for pampering”.

Not that barber shops themselves are exactly bastions of simplicity and pure functionality anymore. High-end ones offer “personal care” services ranging from facials to foot scrubs to ear cleaning. (Does ear cleaning count as vanity?) Men also go to massage parlors—real ones, not quote-unquote massage parlors—not just to soothe their tired muscles, but often for skin-improving treatments like mud baths and herbal wraps. And speaking of skin treatments, more and more cosmetics companies are coming out with “just for men” lines of grooming products, including face scrubs, lotions, and astringents. What’s significant is that more and more Pinoy men are actually buying them: just ten years ago, men accounted for only 10% of the total Philippine beauty care buying public. That figure has now mushroomed to 40%, meaning that there are nearly equal numbers of Pinoys and Pinays out there, snapping up creams and cleansers.

Even cosmetic surgery has become not just acceptable, but desirable for many Filipino men—from standard dermatology for simple problems like acne, to unapologetic vanity procedures such as liposuction and “age-defying” Botox injections. Dr. Vicky Belo of the popular Belo Medical Clinic has confirmed, “Before, (men) only accounted for one-fourth of my total clientele. Now they are about one-third.” It’s gotten to the point where “Who’s your derma?” is a topic that can actually enjoy lengthy discussion time in a man-to-man conversation; and surgical treatment has become something of a mark of status in Philippine showbiz. Actors Albert Martinez and John Lloyd Cruz, as well as singer Janno Gibbs, among others, readily (and proudly!) admit to being regular clients at the Belo Medical Clinic.

Can all this male vanity be laid at the door of celebrities like these and metrosexual poster boy David Beckham? Apparently not. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, the Filipino trait of being vanidoso well predates Becks and his ilk. Besides, a metrosexual, by definition, is “a male who has a strong aesthetic sense and spends a great deal of time and money on his appearance”. While it seems that we Pinoys certainly do make the time and shell out the cash for our looks, we don’t always have enough of an aesthetic sense to know what we’re doing… unless there actually is a segment of the female populace I don’t know about that really does swoon over pink, manicured fingernails on a man. I can’t be sure there isn’t, having never tried the look myself.

As for why we’re willing to spend so much time and money, it may, surprisingly, be a product of social and economic factors. During the American recession, it was observed that lipstick sales shot up, only to taper down again once the recession was over. Consistent repetition of this phenomenon led economists to conclude that, when consumers feel less than confident about the future, they tend to purchase small, comforting indulgences such as lipstick rather than splurging on larger items like appliances and electronic gadgets. Correspondingly, Ricky Reyes has noted that more customers flocked to salons during the 1997 economic crisis in the Philippines, turning to relatively low-priced services like haircuts in order to make themselves feel better in an unstable living environment.

While the purchase of lipstick per se may not exactly be applicable (so far!) to the Filipino male, we can obviously draw a corollary with your average Pinoy, who might be understandably reluctant to buy, say, a flat-screen TV in a country where coup d’etat rumors circulate at least twice a year. Instead, he might choose to spend his money on his appearance, perhaps subconsciously reasoning that his shiny, bouncy hair; glowing, healthy skin; and, yes, tidy pink nails are all conveniently portable in the event that he should need to duck and run for cover. And these are straight guys we’re talking about here.

According to Noel Manucom, head of planning and strategy at Splash cosmetics, the quest for beauty may also be perceived as a quest for social equality. "Filipinos, especially those in the C and D (classes), are still influenced by their colonial mentality that a white skin and a tall nose are what those in high society have,” Manucom has said. “They may not be able to afford to have their nose done, but the desire to have a fairer skin can be met by buying… products.”

In fact, the double-digit growth in skin care popularity among Filipino males over the last six years is largely attributable to skin whitening formulas. Pinoys are still devoted to hair care products and fragrance above anything else—with growing interest in bath washes, oral hygiene, and weight loss or gain—yet skin care is acknowledged to be the main fuel of the Philippine beauty industry. This has led to some very disturbing (to me, at least) TV ads, particularly the one where a twenty-something young man testifies, with evident smugness, that his male friends have been telling him, “Pare, pumuputi ka yata, ah!”

Now personally, I have never had a verbal exchange like that with any of my friends, male or female; but I am beginning to dread that I just might someday. Not that I use whitening products, but, given the evidence from that time in high school up to the present, it seems irrefutable that I am, contrary to my previous belief, vain.

I visit my barber in Greenhills once a week—and while this does, indeed, occur at a barber shop, I not only have my head shaved and my beard and moustache trimmed, I have my feet tended to, as well. When I feel particularly filthy, I have a facial. Once in a while, my barber takes it upon himself to shape my eyebrows with a razor—I’m still not sure I approve of this, but I’ve never stopped him, either. And that’s not all my barber shop offers. I can opt for an Iontophoresis, Deep Laser Cleaning, Skin Bleaching, Skin Whitening, Underarm Whitening, Wart Removal, Paraffin Waxing, Hair Dyeing, Hair Rebonding, something called “Kilay”, and a host of other services I never thought would be found in a bastion of manliness.

These days, most women will tell you that they don’t necessarily pamper and primp in order to please men—they do it to please themselves. Most vain men, I think, will tell you exactly the opposite: we like to look good because women like men who look good. Because when all is said and done about socio-economic factors, media proliferation, and all that, what we Pinoy peacocks really have in common, before anything else, is that we are romantics.

Unlike males of many other ethnicities, we still take courting seriously. Even married men like me still make ligaw, in a sense, and we go whole hog when we do it: we buy the flowers, we pick up the check, we open doors and pull chairs out for the objects of our affections. Heck, many of us would probably still be willing to whip our name-brand jackets off our backs and lay them across mud puddles so our women wouldn’t have to step ten measly inches out of their way. Compared to that, what’s a little extra effort to smell nice and try to look like someone they’d actually be willing to be seen with in public?

So what I’m saying is, when you get right down to it, Filipino male vanity probably stems from one unifying cultural imperative: to woo women (or, well, men, depending on your gender preference). Even women we’re already married to; even women we have no actual romantic or sexual interest in; even women we know we don’t have a chance in hell of even speaking to, anyway. It’s not just to get someone into bed (not that we’d mind, not that we’d mind); it’s to merit, at the very least, that look in a woman’s eye that says, “You know, that guy’s not bad.” Because this is what we’re thinking (well, let’s just say we’re a little more visceral about it) when we look at women all the time; it’s simply nice to have the positive appraisal reciprocated once in a while.

Therefore, ladies, when you see men like me preening or looking bewildered yet grimly determined in the facial cleanser aisle of your favorite personal care store, remember that we’re most likely doing it, ultimately, for you.

Now will you please stop laughing?


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