pop goes the world: gender, sexuality, and body image

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 14 October 2010, Thursday

Gender, Sexuality, and Body Image

So, what about reproductive health again?

The RH issue may have receded from the front page and editorials recently, but for a great many people in this country, it is still very much a focus of utmost concern.

First, let us give kudos where they are due. As the character Elle Woods in the movie “Legally Blonde” would say, “Snaps for President Aquino!” Despite pressure from the Catholic Church in the Philippines, the President did not flinch from his – the government’s – stand to disseminate information on family planning options as well as to give away condoms and other forms of artificial birth control as necessary.

With the word “excommunication” floated by some church leaders (not all of them, showing that the Church is in fact internally divided on the matter, though they present a united “corporate” stance), the President stood firm and asserted that it is best that the state adopt a policy of making available information on reproductive health, presenting it as “responsible parenting”.

Had he buckled under the pressure, we would have been dragged back all the way to the Middle Ages, instead of being only partially in them, considering how much influence the Church still has in society.

At present, the RH Bill that has been filed in Congress is still being debated.

Much has been said by others about the issue directly; let’s talk about the ramifications, the threads that hang off the woven fabric, because RH also touches upon the topics of gender, sexuality, and body image, among others.

In the United States, bullying of homosexual adolescents and young adults has increased in recent years.  Last March, Constance McMillen, an “out” lesbian student of Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi, was forbidden by school authorities from attending her senior prom with her girlfriend. She complained, filed a case, and made global news.

Constance McMillen stood up for gender rights. Image from here.

In the face of public scorn, and a judge’s decree allowing Constance to attend with her date, the school set up a prom for her and other similarly-oriented students, while at the same time staging a secret prom for Constance’s other classmates.

At that same school in February, transgender student Juin Baize, born male, was sent home for wearing feminine clothing and makeup to school.

The school’s harsh treatment of gender variant students sends a very strong signal that in that place at least, homosexuality is not accepted. However, the larger, and frightening, concept that surfaces is that being different in Itawamba practically means social death.

In other cases, it leads to the real thing. Last month, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate streamed his same-sex dorm room encounter on the Internet.

Tyler Clementi was also a talented violinist. Image from here.

In the Philippines, the culture shows more acceptance towards gay people, although bullying is not uncommon. “We didn’t let them pee alone”, said one graduate of a Catholic boys’ high school. His son, who goes to the same school, now says that a clique of gay students from different grade levels often walk together for “protection” and are assertive enough to stand up for themselves.

However, organized religion still looks askance at the LGBT lifestyle, and gender-variant people are often exposed to public ridicule. Entertainment culture often depicts male homosexuals and transgenders as objects of comedic fun, whereas lesbians go largely unmentioned.

In terms of body image, the Filipino standards of beauty are still largely Western-oriented and place greater pressure on women rather than men. Mestizas are still the rage, which is obvious in all the forms of mass media, whether print (models in fashion magazines and print ads), broadcast and film (actors and actresses in telenovelas, television commercials), even outdoor (billboards).

In addition, there is considerable social onus on women to become slim, even if this is not their genetic body type; to whiten their skin, stretch out wrinkles, lift their noses, gain big breasts, and, for those of Chinese heritage, to acquire eyefolds – again, all to achieve the mestiza look, along with a youthful ideal. This is why Dr. Vicky Belo and other “celebrity” plastic surgeons are famous and wealthy – because they cater to this distorted sense of beauty that is not about acceptance but about change.

It is women that get the raw deal when body image is discussed. With their attention focused on their looks and age rather than on their brains and character, their power in society is diminished and their potential contributions unrealized. A ploy, some feminists say, in a patriarchal culture, to repress women.

As for sexuality? There are few mentions of women’s right to sexual pleasure in the culture. Perhaps only in the ads for “men’s teas”, which still emphasize the importance of men’s staying power in bed to please his woman – not necessarily his wife.

Which again brings to mind the RH bill and the Church. Many Filipinos, even those who profess to be Catholic, are just doing what they want and enjoy sex using condoms and other kinds of artificial birth control, despite their religion’s frowning upon such. Preference often takes priority in a person’s life over dogma, especially when the latter is deemed impractical.

The discourse on reproductive health should make one think about not only birth control, but also about the entire issue of gender and sexuality. In other words, we must approach the RH issue from a holistic point of view. As business expert Peter Senge has advocated, “systems thinking” has proven successful for analyzing social systems. Instead of breaking the issue up into small parts and taking these one at a time, we need to look at RH as a whole, taking into account the complex and interrelated interactions, loops, and links that affect it.   ***

Orlistat billboard image found here, Rhino Tea ad here.

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3 Comments on pop goes the world: gender, sexuality, and body image

  1. Bea
    14 October 2010 at 3:07 pm (3549 days ago)

    I just noticed that we’re a lot more tolerant of gays and a lot more respectful to women than other nationals. When I watched the Stoning of Soraya M., I really felt lucky I live here. Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done…

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