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Beauty, Gift or Curse?

On being forced to be ‘beautiful’ and Imelda Marcos


By Sol Jose Vanzi

Artwork by Norberto ‘Peewee’ Roldan (Image by Pinggot Zulueta)

Artwork by Norberto ‘Peewee’ Roldan (Image by Pinggot Zulueta)

It was at my favorite aunt’s wedding in the mid-‘50s when the Filipino standard of beauty first darkened my path. I was not considered pretty enough to be a flower girl because my skin was brown from too much outdoor games; my hair was straight and not curly like the popular Shirley Temple dolls.

Worse, I was tomboyish and preferred to ride carabaos to cutting paper dolls. It was decided that I was not fit to wear the satin-and-lace, ruffled flower girl’s gown.

On the day of the wedding, I ran to the salt beds and rice fields, refusing to join the family trip to the church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Pasay and dinner at Max’s on Dewey Boulevard. I hated lace, ruffles, and other frilly stuff.


There was no escaping family obligations and community traditions, such as being Hermano Mayor for fiestas and the May time Santacruzan; it was Lolo’s turn to play host. As oldest granddaughter, I represented the family and was Reyna Elena, the star of the evening.

To prepare for the big event, I was not allowed to run around outdoors for weeks lest I get injured. The precaution was also hoped to lighten my skin a bit. I felt like a prisoner. But the worst was yet to come.

The day of the procession, I was scrubbed vigorously all over and taken to the only beauty parlor in town, where my hair was washed with sudsy perfumed shampoo. It was my first visit to the place; everything was new and strange.

Two beauticians took turns cutting my hair short, soaked it in a smelly chemical, pinned it in sections, rolled up the sections on heavy metal rods, and sat me under an electric contraption that had clip hanging down from cables like tentacles of a large octopus. The clips were attached to the metal rollers holding my hair, and the curling machine was plugged in.

Slowly, I felt heat all over my scalp. I was warned not to move or risk getting burned. From where I sat, I could see my reflection in the mirror; it was not pretty. I looked like Medusa.

While waiting for my hair to cook, a manicurist worked on my nails, reminding me constantly to keep still as she pushed my cuticles, trimmed my nails, and painted them pink. By the time my nails were done, the scent of cooking chemicals signaled that my hair was ready. A thorough shampoo washed away the foul-smelling curling solution. Only then was it rolled up again in coiled sections held in place by metal hairpins. After a long session under a hot hair drier, everybody was happy. I had Shirley Temple curls!

The experience traumatized me; I swore off beauty parlors and similar places. I learned to cut my hair, later deciding to keep it long enough to tie back with rubber bands.


 University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman in 1960 was not the bastion of freedom and equality now taken for granted by all. Strict rules on attire, appearance, and behavior were observed, with or without written orders from authorities.

Unlike other universities and colleges, UP did not require school uniform, but female students had to wear skirts and males were required to don long pants. Everyone wore leather shoes, sports footwear, and skimpy sandals were only allowed outdoors and in the gym.

Pressured by peers, I bleached my skin using a bag of soap flakes and peroxide bought from a cosmetics supply store in Plaza Miranda. I wound up with painful blisters all over my back.

I also developed blisters around my chest from the ill-fitting cheap bras I had to wear at all times under a chemise under my blouse. I felt stifled physically and emotionally, and grabbed the first opportunity to leave school and be independent.

Bra-less, tanned, with long straight hair, wearing inexpensive homemade clothes and bangles, I fit right into the poster image of the developing hippie movement and its unorthodox idea of beauty which cherishes individuality.


About the same time, the Philippine political and social arena was toasting a new face: Imelda Romualdez Marcos, married to Senator Ferdinand Marcos who was popularly expected to run for president against Diosdado Macapagal.

Tall. fair-skinned, and with chiseled features revealing Spanish and Chinese ancestry, Imelda waved, smiled, and sang all over the country during her husband’s campaign against the incumbent president. She is openly credited by political analysts for contributing to her husband’s landslide victory. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Fate willed that our paths would meet—Plain Jane working alongside Fabulous First Lady. To my surprise, she liked the way I dressed in long skirts, cowboy boots, and homemade strands of cheap beads.

During provincial trips aboard the presidential yacht, she would talk to me about missing the simple life in the family’s Leyte beach house, and revealed the pressures of maintaining her image of perfection from manicured toenails to her signature bouffant hair style.

She revealed that she woke up very early daily and never left the bedroom until she was picture perfect. It is expected of her, she said, and she did not like to disappoint anyone. Proof of all this hard work is the fact that to this day, one cannot find a photograph of Imelda with disheveled hair, soiled hands, or wrinkled clothes.


Inevitably, however, the Marcos magic spell waned and the couple’s popularity crashed, leading to their ouster and forced exile in Hawaii where Ferdinand died.  Uncowed, she faced legal and financial problems while vowing to return home.

In 1991, she flew back from exile in Imeldific style aboard a chartered jumbo jet financed by a hundred foreign journalists who paid to cover what turned out to be one of the major international stories of that year.  Among them was a French journalist who blamed Imelda’s looks for the victory of the 1986 uprising.

According to him, Imelda fit the image of the anti-heroine in Filipino novels and movies: flamboyant, tall, light-skinned, with a Castilian nose and glittering jewelry. Cory Aquino was the exact opposite: comely, with a seeming humble demeanor and undecorated with flashy accessories or movie star makeup.  Packaged as a simple grieving housewife, Cory was the perfect symbol around whom the anti-government forces rallied.

That, the journalist explained, sealed the fate or Imelda and Ferdinand.

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