Dalagang Pilipina, my mom called it – the ‘do I’d been sporting for most of my life, and soon I’d only see it again in pictures. I wanted the shortest bob they had on record – at least, the shortest they could manage without making me look like a victim of dress code politics from an all-boys Catholic elementary school. I wanted it dyed light brown, with gold and blonde highlights.
They told me it was going to be drastic, but that was the whole point. Drastic was good. Drastic was great. Drastic was a big fuck you to all the paralyzing thoughts that plagued me for most of my years and left me lingering at the fringes of life and all its wonders. Did you know people from Japan cut their hair short to symbolize a changed life? Either way, I thought it was poetic. And my hands were clammy. But that was okay. For the first time, I wanted to do something for myself.
My hairdresser smiled as he combed through my hair, a practiced smile, the kind surgeon’s used on you before they gut you open. A question: “Okay lang ba sa boyfriend mo?”
I didn’t have a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. And if I did, why would they need to be “okay” with it? It was my hair, and it was my choice. I was confused and a little bit miffed, but alas, manners don’t simply dissipate into thin air. Years of social and cultural integration did that to a person. No, I told him politely, and he gave me this sly, knowing look, like he’d just thumbed through my old diary and suddenly knew all my dirty little secrets. “Weh, di nga. Shouldn’t a pretty girl like you have a cute boyfriend?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. I still don’t, to be honest. At least, not an answer involving any form of sassing that would potentially have merited me a horrible haircut and a thousand pesos, all gone to waste.
Point is: it stuck with me, that conversation. I think about it a lot, along with many other cookie-cutter scenarios that all end with me progressively feeling angrier and more disappointed with humanity. Another development: the day I came to class donning anything but my trademark T-shirt + jeans combo, my lipstick devastatingly red (me! lipstick!) and my winged eyeliner so sharp it could kill a man, a friend came up to meal astonished and whispered happily, “There’s finally a man in your life!”
Something about the way she said it made me want to punch something. “Or,” I replied, trying to salvage something, anything. “Maybe I just like make-up.” She snorted. Her eyes were laughing: oh, you’re so funny, they seemed to say.
Why wouldn’t anyone believe me? For her, there was no doubt about it, no other plausible reason to explain my sudden affair with self-expression. For her, all of it was a show.The amount of bravery I had to teach myself to have, the self-love I was painstakingly remembering day-by-day, my body and my choices, all of it – casually torn from my own hands only to be slapped with a label of someone else’s name. Just like that.
There was an answer she wanted, accepted as it was expected – that universally acknowledged truth that rationalizes women’s choices with a need to please.
Because apparently every normal, self-respecting teenage girl must be in want of a boyfriend. It’s something in a state of perpetual normalization and glamorization. We tell girls they must doll themselves up, because God forbid anyone sees them without any make-up. A bare, unmade female face – I shudder to even think about it. What would the boys think? We tell girls they have something to lose. We tell girls they are in need of saving. That they are only half of who they are until they find this hero, this strange entity to complete and rescue them from their miserable loneliness – The One, the faceless, profound being that lives out its ghostly existence in every love song, every shampoo commercial.
You must find him, the oracle says. The first commandment. You must find him, even if you don’t find yourself. Girls have been branded this prophecy even before they were taught to speak.
No wonder women like to view each other as competition. We size each other up as we cross paths in hallways, screenshot each other’s Instagram photos and send them to our friends in jest. We shun unconventionally beautiful girls for the way they wear their confidence, in a strange sort of way we cannot understand, because it stems from a place we do not know. And that’s the sad thing, really. We don’t know. Nobody taught us it was okay to celebrate ourselves. Nobody really sat us down and said, “It’s okay to love yourself, just as you are.Your body is intrinsically beautiful and pure and it is okay to be proud of it. You do not need a medal or a million likes or a boy to validate that.”
One last picture: My father liked to tell me I was beautiful, constantly. I would smile, kiss him on the cheek. “You’re beautiful,” he told me again, one day. I smiled cheekily and replied: “I know.”
“Don’t say that,” he reprimanded, because it was “inappropriate”. He meant it as a joke, obviously, but it stung because I knew where it was coming from.
Don’t say that. Don’t claim it for yourself. Your beauty is only valid when it is acknowledged by someone else.
I love my father, I really do. But I think this is just a testament to how we raise our daughters. It’s time to teach girls that they are their own before they decide to be part of anyone else. It’s time to teach girls that they have always been whole, after all this time.
- Andrea Lopez
cover photo source