I was officially released from my “husband-imposed quarantine” (sorry, hon) last Friday, when A, Alex and I took in the third-to-the-last show of Cinderella at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). By then, while I still couldn’t wear abrasive clothing (like jeans) which would scratch at my healing abdomen, I was well enough to put on a soft, slinky dress (imagine me in a dress!) that A had bought for me and stay out till late at night.
As soon as the lights went out and Lea Salonga’s voice filled the hall, I wept like a hormone-addled PMS sufferer. I couldn’t help it. Something about her voice evokes that same reaction every single time. Indeed, Ms. Salonga’s voice has definitely grown more refined and more elegant with time, mirroring her emotion and thoughts with subtle changes in inflection, tone, and body. And as old (at 41) as I am and as jaded as I am now of real life, I still wept when she finally found her Prince.
A held my hand tightly in his. I think he was a little afraid I would pass out from the excitement. I saw him glance at me a few times in the dark, as he wiped a tear or two from my cheeks.
A got good seats for us, just four rows from the stage. We were so close we could see the microphone stuck on the actors’ foreheads, heehee. And much like the four-year-old child I was when I first saw Disney’s Cinderella (technically, Disney’s Cinderella is much, much, much older, having been created in 1950), I had my mouth open for most of show, in turns guffawing in laughter, holding my breath in excitement, and weeping with happiness. Moreover, I was enthralled by the details- the lavish costumes, the wonderful colors, the elaborate sets, and the lightning-quick changes (Ms. Salonga changed from servant girl to fabulous-princess-of-the-ball in less than a minute). The production values were excellent in every way.
I loved Cinderella, loved it so much that I begged A to watch another show with me, even just a matinee. I knew, however, that with Alex’s exams coming this week, our weekend would have to be spent at home. I was sad to go but A always does the sweetest things to cheer me up. He gave me a souvenir program, a CD of the international tour cast recording, and a charm bracelet (with slipper, pumpkin, and Cinderella charms) to bring home. On the car on the way home, Alex was already singing lines from the song. When he asked me which song I loved the best, I said it was this:
Prince: Do I love you because you’re beautiful,
or are you beautiful because I love you?
Am I making believe I see in you
a girl too lovely to be really true?
Do I want you because you’re wonderful,
or are you wonderful because I want you?
Are you the sweet invention of a lover’s dream
or are you really as beautiful as you seem?
Cinderella: Am I making believe I see in you
a man too perfect to be really true?
Do I want you because you’re wonderful,
or are you wonderful because I want you?
Both: Are you the sweet invention of a lover’s dream
or are you really as wonderful as you seem?
While Cinderella and the Prince sang this song, I was reminded of myself and how I saw myself through my eyes. Sometimes, fairy tales do come true. At least, it did for me.
I looked for this article which I wrote years ago and I read this to Alex when we got home that night. He was asking too many questions, wanting to understand why that specific song resonated loudly in my life. I think he understands now.
The Beauty of Loving
Early on in life, I knew I was no ravishing beauty. At an age when many little girls dreamt of becoming Miss Universe, I knew as early as then that it was useless and foolish to pine for this impossible dream. I didn’t chance upon this conclusion by myself. One of my earliest memories was that of my paternal grandmother pinching my flat nose and saying, “Eto, pango, hindi talaga maganda.” (This one has a flat nose, not beautiful at all.”) I was only three years old.
My younger sister Joanne (the one who grew up to call herself Joee), well, she was the beauty of the family, everyone agreed. She was lithe and petite, whereas I was chubby and chunky. Her complexion was golden and creamy, whereas I was pasty and white like a ball of dough. She had deep-set eyes fringed with long eyelashes, while mine were hairless Chinese slits I inherited from our father. She had pouty lips that I tried to imitate, only to end up looking like a fish without gills. She even had dimples — on both cheeks! Hands down, my Incredible Hulkette was no match for her graceful beauty.
Foolishly, I took all those against her while we were growing up, as if she had any choice on the matter at all. I deeply resented her luck. Thankfully, she didn’t quite catch on that I didn’t want to be around her most of the time. I’d devise ways to get back at her, though she always put one over me, no matter how deviously I tried. Looking back, I was a rather lame evil sister. I’d play with her Barbie toys and leave them lying around (so she’d get scolded by my mom), and as soon as I turned my back on her, she’d be running around the house innocently gumming and chewing on my Ballerina Barbie doll’s leg. By the time I rescued Barbie, my sister had already dripped drool all over the doll’s hair and painted face. She even decapitated it accidentally.
I was the big sister she desperately wanted to close be with. She hounded me like a sweet little puppy and tried to insinuate herself into my life. I kept her at bay and distanced myself from her. At family reunions, I’d sit as far away from her as possible so that our critical and tactless relatives wouldn’t have to compare her to me.
A funny thing happened when I reached adolescence. I sprouted a foot and a half overnight. I grew breasts and curvy hips. My face developed a semblance of cheekbones as puberty distributed the fat in all the right places. All of a sudden, I was no longer fat and plain of face. Sure, I was still no beauty, but I didn’t think I looked all that bad. My sister, on the other hand, remained a child for some years after I had grown. Because she was always small for her age, even in adolescence, she remained smaller than most. I got to wear hip, teenage clothes while my mom forced her to wear baby dresses with Peter Pan collars and Dumbo patches, much to my sister’s chagrin. I almost pitied her then.
When she finally caught up with me (I think she started to grow and develop around her junior year in high school), I lost steam again. Ah, that was it, I gave up. I felt that I had no chance of ever competing with her in the arena of physical attributes so I buried myself in books. I stayed up late at nights to do more work for extra credit. I made myself adhere to a rigid schedule of study and it paid off. When I got a science scholarship in high school and later on got in the state university, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, people were no longer wont to notice my funny-looking face or my large figure, only my brains.
There was a commercial advertisement many years back that struck me on a personal level, not because of the message but because of the character they employed to get the message across. In the past, I often identified myself with that girl in the commercial. Rosa Axion Bida had pimples on her face, a few blackened teeth, a large flat nose, and an ungainly, awkward build. In short, she was pimply, fat and ugly — a cruel stereotype of household help. Many days, I felt as ugly as she was depicted.
I carried that image in my heart for many, many years. I even dreamt of her, and in my dreams, I was Rosa Axion Bida. Her image was seared in my brain.
I didn’t realize it then, but when I finally acknowledged that I could achieve something on my own by sheer hard work, I stopped becoming preoccupied with physical beauty. I learned to laugh more. I learned to laugh at myself. I laughed from my belly and from somewhere deeper down, a layer I hadn’t known existed. I ran and played and enjoyed myself. I became comfortable in my own skin. And somewhere down the road, I forged a real friendship with my sister, never mind that she is and will always be the ravishing beauty of the family.
Still, I didn’t chuck all the cosmetic trappings; rather, I learned to use it for my own pleasure. I dressed to please myself and I made myself up not for anyone else but for my own satisfaction.
The people in my life attested to this change. They never flattered me and called me beautiful; that would be hogwash, of course, but many complimented my grace and my spirit. Some loved my feistiness and my grit, others my determination and my persistence. They loved my laughter, which they said was natural and devoid of artifice. They admired my words, which they said could evoke strong feelings in them. I was happy. I was being me.
I met my husband when we were both thirteen. When we were eighteen, he said I was the most beautiful human being he had ever known. I punched him hard in the arm and guffawed. Me — beautiful? He must be joking! He took it all in stride and punched me back lightly in the arm, all the while grinning and exposing his pearly whites like crazy. He learned never to call me beautiful again.
Then late one night, a few nights after I had just given birth to our first son, I awakened to the light rustling of sheets as my husband sought to swaddle Alex in flurry of blankets. I heard him crooning softly to our newborn baby. “You’re the luckiest baby in the word,” he said softly. “I love you, do you know that? And you are as beautiful as your mom.” My heart leapt for joy. Fast-forward to today. My son is ten, and beginning to appreciate the different faces and figures of people. “Human beings are like art, Mama,” he says knowingly. “Some are abstract art, but their colors make you happy. Some are beautiful paintings, but they leave you cold inside.”
“What about me, then?” I asked in jest. I wanted to see what he would say. I remembered suddenly, with a twinge of pain, how in kindergarten, he wrote about his mother being the kindest woman he had ever known. He added that his best friend wrote that his mom was pretty and had a nice figure. Why didn’t he write the same of me? “But, Mama, that would be a lie.” I had to smile despite myself.
“You, Mama?” I heard him breathe deeply. “You are the most beautiful painting in the whole world because you make my heart sing. I love you.”
I should learn a thing or two from the people who love me. Maybe I am beautiful. In their eyes, anyway. And if so, it is their love that makes me that way. So today, in the midst of eyebags and stretch marks, cellulite and thunder thighs, I no longer see myself as Rosa Axion Bida. I am beautiful, this I’ve learned from those who love me.
I am beautiful because I accept. I am beautiful because I forgive. And I am beautiful because I love.