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Archive for the ‘Body politics and representations’ Category

[This is an expanded version of a comment prompted by this insightful post from Prof. Sussuro.]

Caster Semenya won the women’s 800-meter race by 2.45 seconds over her nearest rival. I want to start with that fact, because that win is amazing. She is amazing. And this being lost in all these rumors and speculations about Semenya’s sex, gender tests, and possible disqualification.

By now, a number of Pinoys have noted similarities between Semenya and Nancy Navalta, a Pinay teenager whose gender came under scrutiny when she started setting track records in the Philippines in the early 1990s. For both Semenya and Navalta, it was their appearance—their well-muscled physiques and flat, powerful chests—that was used to question their femaleness. Both women departed radically from the standards of beauty and softness often associated with womanhood.

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justicewalks’s moving reflections on her coming medical procedure (h/t bint) had me contemplating my own body. Specifically, the four-inch scar that runs from by bellybutton down my abdomen. I thought that the scar had long healed.

When my personal care physician here in the US first saw the scar, she asked if I had a c-section. So I told her the story of when I had surgery at age 16 to have an ovarian cyst removed. Of how my physician mom was allowed to sit in on the operation as a courtesy, and how she requested the surgeon do a horizontal incision for faster healing.

And how the surgeon shook his head, said “Girls should not wear bikinis,” and sliced my belly with the scalpel.

To this day, my mom shrugs the incident off. The surgeon was old and old-fashioned, and isn’t it great that I didn’t have cancer anymore. Well, sure. And I didn’t wear bikinis either. I stopped thinking about it.

I was surprised when my personal care physician shook her head in disbelief. “Wow,” she said. “That doctor is an asshole.” Continue Reading

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In the early 1990s, seventeen-year-old Nancy Navalta burst into Philippine track and field, running the 100 meter dash at 11.44 seconds. It’s an even more amazing feat considering how green she was. Nancy had no training. She just ran on sandy beaches with a sack of rocks slung over her shoulders.

Newspapers lauded this daughter of a fisherman, this girl who went from being a stonepicker from Luna to star athlete. Her early wins made her eligible to join the national training program. Some commentators began to talk about the Atlanta Olympics.

Nancy never did get to Atlanta. The idea that a female newcomer can run so fast, coupled with features like her “flat chest,” “muscled physique,” and a “wispy mustache” raised suspicions that Nancy Navalta was male.

“Nobody noticed me when I was losing,” Nancy later said in a 2004 interview.* “But when I started winning, they began questioning my gender.”

She was forced to undergo medical tests. Then came the Philippine Sports Commission ruling that Nancy is “genetically male.” Continue Reading

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In the spirit of picking your battles, I really tried to ignore the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ threat to deny communion and to campaign against Filipino politicians supporting reproductive health bills. But I’m still ticked off about it, and Karnythia’s post on bodily autonomy and Renee’s musings on patriarchal control over women’s fertility have me thinking.

Growing up in the Philippines, I did not always notice how tenuous the concept of bodily autonomy was. And I’m not even talking about abortion, which is illegal over there. (There’s no divorce law either.)

When you’re a woman in the Philippines, social institutions around you continually collude to erode any autonomy you have over your body.

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“The Filipino people are the most pro-American people, maybe even more pro-American than the Americans themselves.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that was our President Gloria Arroyo, with a candid description of how she regards her country’s former colonizers. And she’s hardly alone in this attitude. Many Filipinos do promote this idea of a westernized Philippines, with proud statements like “We’re the only Catholic country in Asia.” Or that we assimilate easily into American culture. We speak American English and are thoroughly westernized.

What is the root of this exceptionalist thinking? Why the desire for approbation from colonizers? Why do we revel in being so distinct from our Asian neighbors?

In honor of Philippine Independence Day last June 12, I spent the week re-reading Paul A. Kramer’s The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines. Kramer shows how racial ideologies were used to justify US imperialism in its first colony. As a fringe benefit, these ideologies also served to construct a racial hierarchy among Filipinos.

While other works have looked at racial ideologies embedded in Spanish and US colonization, Kramer employs a more intersectional analysis by examining the Filipino elite’s complicity with the creation of a “national colonialism.” For the Filipino elite—the illustrados—the goal was not just nationhood. Rather, they argued that given their Western education and values, illustrados were fully capable of ruling over the rest of the Filipinos.

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This discussion on Racialicious reminds me of those horrible skin lightening product commercials I saw on television the last time I was in Manila. If you’re Filipina, you know the brand I’m talking about. Block & White. And if you’re not Filipina but Asian, you probably have equivalent products and brands.

I was no longer surprised that the skin whitening ads—largely aimed at women, btw—equate fairness with beauty, popularity. Nor was I surprised that milky white skin is equated with being healthy. The ads aren’t even subtle about their colorism. The Block & White deodorant stick ad, for example, repeats the phrase “So dry! So white!” like a mantra.

But I admit being taken aback by the following ads:

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