My issue with self-help books is that they are mostly American. And anyone who lives off of the Philippines’ contradictions and silences, crises and sadnesses would know that not much of American self-help applies to the every Pinay.
The 11 stupid things women do by Veronica Pulumbarit, based on the book by Dr. Laura Schlessinger Ten Stupid Things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives among other sources, reeks of a universalizing and stereotyping of the woman that just fails to consider how differently women – and men – live in third world Philippines. Of course Dr. Schlessinger and every other self-help guru or magazine would have its own market in this impoverished nation, but that’s really the phenomenon of a first-world-pocket in the age of transnationalization, where social class differences are becoming more and more stark, and Pinays of a certain class can actually live believing in the ideologies of the first world.
But a majority of us live differently in a nation that’s more chaotic than we’d like to admit. And that whole list? Let me reconfigure it and tell the every Pinay how none of it is stupid, because much of it is totally different where we come from, maybe even totally right given where we stand and how we continue to be oppressed by stereotypes and archetypes that are everything and grounded in what’s here. In that sense those absolutes of self-help are also dangerous, because they make us imagine that being woman is the same across races and nations, and it universalizes womanhood in a way that keeps us exactly where we are, limiting the way we think, telling us to stick with the status quo. How does that even help the cause of liberating the Pinay from her contemporary shackles?
1. Having wrong ideas about courtship? Welcome to the Philippines, where good ol’ panliligaw is consistent – even when reconfigured – ritual, but which also allows kilig and magic to be had. It is kilig that carries us through the courtship, one that in these shores has its own set of rules and guidelines, its own steps towards the final decision to becoming an official couple. There is no “dating” so many men before deciding on one. In fact, where we come from the signals are clear: if we’re not interested in a guy, courtship doesn’t even happen. If I’m interested in you, then the ritual begins. There’s nothing desperate about it at all, and in fact it’s this time of kilig and ligaw that all the power is in the Pinay’s hands. And inappropriate men? Boo. Where we come from even a stretch of a courtship and seven years of a relationship can mean exactly that. Such is the nature of kilig that fizzles out. There’s no American self-help explanation for a word that doesn’t translate into English, yes?
2. Being excessively devoted to the wrong person. We are being told here that women stay with the wrong men because women have low self-esteem. Wrong. Where we come from, the Pinay enters a relationship and is in it for the long haul. We are taught to stay. Here the Pinay is still made to believe that she must marry her first love, here she is still told that going from one boyfriend to the next is bad form not to mention bad for her reputation, here she is still questioned for ending a relationship for no reason other than that “it didn’t feel right.” The Pinay stays not because she’s got low self-esteem, but because she’s got so much of it: she is taught that she can work on a relationship because she can work her man. And when she finally lets go of this man, it’s because the Pinay has gotten tired of devotion, and walking away then becomes her brightest most self-assured moment, too.
3. Being too passionate. Seriously? Seriously. Where we come from women lack precisely this passion because Pinays are also taught to rein it in, hold your horses, not for anything else other than a guilt trip, if not a promise about the fires of hell: the heavens don’t like loose women. It’s the same rationale that keeps us only as good as our virginities. It’s the same religious conservatism that has kept every other Pinay stupid about sex and her own body. I say go find some passion and light that little fire, practice safe sex and go for that one night. Sex in and by itself is always possibly enjoyable; sex without strings attached is infinitely liberating for the Pinay in the context of closet conservative pretentious liberated Philippines. You only know to rein yourself in, when you’re actually the one in control of you – heart / mind / body included.
4. Not realizing one’s worth. Dr. Laura says, “It is your job as a woman, as a person, to become as fully realized as you can by having dreams, forging a purpose, building an identity, having courage, and making commitments to things outside yourself.” Right. Try telling a working class underemployed call center agent that. Or the barista who’s saving up so she can leave the Philippines to become a blue collar worker elsewhere in the world. Or even just talking to a Pinay about “commitments outside of herself” when she’s got a family to fend for. Who’s got time for dreams in the third world, really? What we’re worth is really only equivalent to what we do – that’s not even about being Pinay as it is just about the limits of social class, plain and simple.
5. Not taking care of oneself. Not only is it not cheap to be healthy where we come from, it’s also a question of who’s got the time to think / cook / be healthy? Don’t talk to me about not eating canned goods and cheap fastfood meals, when that’s all a majority of us can afford, literally and figuratively.
6. Not being courageous. Eh? Dr. Laura says that women have a hard time “expressing healthy and righteous anger.” She obviously hasn’t seen our stereotype of the crazy woman kontrabida. Or just the bungangera palengkera. And every Pinay has it in her, every Pinay after all has got her taray to back her up. Taray is the response to the notion that we have yet to learn to speak our minds. In fact when the Pinay doesn’t speak her mind, she is being practical: after all, if you’re going to lose your job by being assertive, your first question has to be will it be worth it? And if not, then we’ve got our pamewang and taas-kilay to reveal our taray. And yes, there are no direct translations for all those words, again because the Pinay is not even imagined by those self-help books.
7. Being jealous and insecure. But what of just being selosa as a matter of intuition? What of pakiramdam ng babae – the woman’s intuition – as the premise of an inexplicable insecurity? Truth to tell the Pinay would gain much by listening precisely to the impulses that are about jealousy and insecurity, not just because sometimes these are revealed to be based on things that turn out to be valid, but also because it balances out our katarayan. My advice? know to draw the line between intuition and paranoia, and you’ve got a handle on jealousy and insecurity, too.
8. Being careless and immodest. Which Pinay is unaware of “the danger of being sexually harassed when they dress immodestly”? Though the better question is, why would sexual harassment be blamed on the woman for wearing what she wants? This is exactly why we have not evolved in the direction of women’s liberation in this country. Because here we are being told that “When a woman dresses to fit into an evil and worldly society by choosing clothes that pleases the tastes of both men and women, she sins. When she dresses to entice or receive the admiring glances of the opposite sex, she defrauds and sins” (Pollard). And I can’t help but ask: in what century are we in exactly? And do we know that this is exactly the excuse men invoke when they harass and abuse women? That “She asked for it”? Que horror.
I’d tell the Pinay: wear what you want mindful of where you are going, who you will be with, and what you will be doing. Be responsible for your body, as you insist on your right to wear what you want, knowing full well that people’s reactions to how you look is a measure of who they are, not who you are.
9. Not being committed to a relationship. You’re telling the Pinay that? I’d tell you to see Number 2. In fact the Pinay is so made for commitment that I’d rather warn her about its by-product: the Pinay who’s got her wedding all mapped out after the good first date. Because much might be said about committing to a man, but even more might be said about knowing when to draw that line, between staying and leaving, between what’s in front of you and forever. The future is what keeps us working on something in the present yes, but the present is also a measure of whether we want to get to that future at all. There’s no point really in planning who the members of your entourage will be when all you’ve got in front of you is a man who’s only willing to spend today.
10. Being dishonest and unfaithful. Loyalty? Check! Devotion? Double check! We are told: “Whenever you are away from each other check in regularly to let them know you’re okay.” Again, you’re talking to the Pinay? We are the champions of clingy and togetherness, and if we were to decide we would be everywhere with our men. In fact the lesson for the Pinay should be about how to keep a life as an individual, separate from the man, without being paranoid about dishonesty and unfaithfulness. Also, there’s the even more important lesson: much might be said about honesty, but there are some questions that need not be asked, answers that we’d rather not hear. The Pinay is obsessed with knowing everything about her man, and sometimes we fuel precisely the dishonesty because we also demand a set of answers they cannot give. In truth: there’s value in letting some things go, especially those things that aren’t about you at all.
11. Not being caring and compassionate. For the Pinay this is precisely the kind of stereotype that keeps them in roles that are oppressive, that renders them immobile to some extent, that makes them think less than they actually are. Being caring and compassionate is our default, this is the way we are brought up, the only way we know to deal with the world. And this is what keeps us in the box labeled submissive / ideal / wife / mother. This is what makes it seem right that we should go beyond ourselves, and sometimes forget ourselves altogether. I say let’s learn to balance caring and compassion with the katarayan that’s in our lineage as women; let’s balance that with caring and compassion for ourselves first. Much might be said about selfishness when you’re a Pinay who’s brought up with an unflinching unthinking selflessness.
Looking at this list, it is clear to me that all those things that were deemed stupid, all those things that we were being told not to be, not to do, all those things don’t apply to the Pinay in this context. When you live and breathe this culture that contradicts itself with regards how to love and treat and trust its women, American self-help of any kind cannot help us any. To impose those rules on the Pinay might be the most tragic thing to happen to our struggle, not just for identity, but for our right to our own bodies.
Of course this anti-self-help-list, in its mere existence is a set of absolutes, too. But I’d like to think that these are only as absolute as they remain open to debate and discussion, as these remain to be practiced where we come from. I’d like to think that because we have yet to even imagine ourselves liberated and free, that we’re still working on lists such as this, versus seeing it as a set of rules. More than anything I’d like to imagine that this is a more truthful, because more particular, assessment of the things the Pinay should learn to do.
Those stupid things women do? We’re already bigger and brighter than all of that.