Ugliness makes my 5-year-old niece cry.
While we were taking pictures on my laptop one day, Photobooth warped our faces into disjointed flesh across the screen. I thought we looked kind of cute, but she slid off my lap crying about how ugly we looked.
If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, what have her eyes been seeing? These are trying times for children and adults alike. If not captured by the Disney Channel or Urban Outfitter ads, we always seem to be looking for something pretty to look at. As long as it’s something else, like pink princesses painted on lunchboxes, beauty doesn’t need a background.
Seeing the beautiful faces of my family in Metro Manila last Christmas, I remembered how the rain can hiss on pavement. My little sister and I got caught in it walking back from the market when the sun was still shining. We walked home smelling the canals and pollution mix with the fresh rain.
Canals are supposed to trap rainwater. Lined along the northern banks of the Pasig River are stilts of slums where people live, and also the Malacañang Palace, which is the Philippines’ very own “White House.” Once perhaps a breathable body of water, the Pasig River has become a canal that still carries the ripples of rapid urbanization and economic development.
Slums are settlements that lack Metro Manila’s taxable seal. Unofficial neighborhoods are constructed on foundations of adobe roads, which are congested with homes made of cement bricks and thin wooden walls.
Driving on the road to the Palace, we stop in traffic next to tin roofs and walls of cement blocks. Barefooted children knock on the window with eyes bigger than their two hands. They sell leis of sampaguita flowers for your rearview mirror, their faces smudging car windows until a fist or finger knocks back, or rolls down the window to buy one lei.
Walls were built along the border of some “squatter areas” and highways during the First Lady’s beautification project in the 1970s, the first decade of the Marcos dictatorship. Adorned against lush bushes and majestic blocks of cement, the squatter areas fell in the shadows of two-story billboards. Advertisements ranging from whitening soap to canned dolphin-free tuna, vibrant colors and punchy words seemed to rejuvenate the gray smog and concrete walls.
It’s always been that way. The graphic designs on billboards are pretty and easy to look at. They reflect beauty transmitted from televised inspirations and degeneration, another dimension of reality that squatters think they only look at. Towering condominiums and resort-malls take over squatter areas, as if they weren’t even occupied in the first place.
The beauty of the metro’s progress echoes economic growth and foreign investment, somehow countering the perpetual displacement of squatters. The picture of poverty and progress is almost picturesque, though each side tips different scales of justice. Though poverty is a byproduct of progress, there’s only room on the postcard for the latter.
Berkeley’s “sit-lie” ordinance, if passed by voters in November, will bring the same fuzzy feeling of progress in the midst of normalized “such is life” helplessness. Put on the ballot by the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night, the ordinance aims to foster economic growth while steering the homeless and transients to Berkeley’s public services.
More rings will harken from the cash register instead of cups jingling with change. Angry and empty looks from stationary men and women will be replaced by moving glares of transients instead. Though the ordinance will clear the sidewalks of human islands, the others will still roam free.
Moving from the periphery of the ground and sidewalk, we will still have the ugliness of Berkeley’s counter-culture (particularly countering academic crewnecks and flattering jeans). With odors heavier than aftershave and looks more compelling than the police, outsiders will always be welcomed wherever progress is claimed.
Photographing freaks instead of fashion, an artist from the 1960s depicted ugliness in a different light. Though her subjects were not the picturesque feed of fashion blog posts, they were not grotesque either. Ranging from a crossdresser smoking a cigarette to a skinny blond boy gripping a fake grenade, her photographs remind me that aesthetics only play a supporting role in beauty.
Without depth, experience or a story, much like how fashion or Facebook pictures can be, beauty can be as bad as ugly. Billboards selling the abs of a model instead of the underwear, progress claiming economic growth instead of social stagnation, beauty should be more than just decoration. Maybe it could be a function.
Slowly running after my niece after the Photobooth scare, I carried her to the mirror hanging by the front door. She laughed at my silly faces, however reminiscent they were of the camera’s manipulated distortion. As she saw me through her own eyes instead of the screen’s reflection, my distorted faces weren’t ugly enough to make her cry.
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