In a posh, carpeted room with glass walls, Claire Aznar confidently walked in her five-inch heels. Clad in a thigh-length blue and white dress, the girl smiled at guests who ogled at her bare skin. She was 16 years old then.
“Welcome! We assure you quality service and insurance,” she greeted the investors.
People with sparkling jewelry passed by. They stared at Claire’s shoulders. Her heels emphasized her long and naked legs. Flawless, smooth— people gave extra attention to her exposed skin. Older, white men, with sagging skin and golden accessories, dominated the VIP room where she was assigned. The chilling wind from the air conditioner drained the blood from her hands. Her fingers were pale, just like how her lips would be had it not been for her bright red lipstick.
“Ah, you’re one of the brand ambassadresses, aren’t you?” A man in a tailored suit who looked to be in his 40s walked up to her.
“Yes, sir,” Claire meekly replied. Everyone knew who the man was. It was the company’s vice president.
The man smiled, “Do you mind if I have your phone number?”
Red flags flashed in Claire’s mind. All business transactions had to go through her manager. She could not understand why the vice president would ask her for such personal information.
“I’m afraid my manager won’t allow me to give personal details, sir.”
“That’s alright. What’s your dream university?”
Claire’s hands trembled as the man got closer. She folded them behind her to stop the tremors.
“I’ve always wanted to go to La Salle in Manila, sir.”
The man grinned. “You can study there for free if you want. You can even have your own car, a condo, and pocket money of 400,000 pesos a month.”
Claire took a step back, “what do you mean, sir?”
“You can have all of that,” the vice president loomed over her, “if you become my girlfriend.”
A bead of sweat trickled down the girl’s forehead. The vice president loomed in front of her. Young, ignorant, and afraid, Claire declined the offer. The older man smiled, promised he would text her, and walked away. It was as if the temperature dropped a few degrees. The 16-year-old could not help but break out in cold sweat. The trembling moved to her knees, and she held onto the nearest post for balance.
Later that night, Claire told her manager about declining the vice president’s proposal. The manager’s eyebrows scrunched in disapproval as she told Claire how stupid she was for declining such a good offer. Claire remained silent. The next day, she was denied entry at the event. Someone had cut off her contract. She was no longer a brand ambassadress for the company.
A few days after the incident, Claire learned that what the vice president did was give an indecent proposal, an offer wherein a person pays another with luxuries in exchange for sexual favors. Indecent proposals, although another form of prostitution, are rampant in beauty pageants.
According to Claire, girls as young as 16 years old are targeted with indecent proposals. Although these contestants are underage, they are still lured with promises of wealth.
“I know plenty of girls who said yes. They have lots of money now, but they gave up their pride for it,” she said.
The roots of indecent proposals are deeply connected to the objectification of women. The Objectification Theory of Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) states that sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire.
In an article by the Hong Kong Baptist University, Executive Director of the Women and Gender Institute of Miriam College Aurora de Dios explained that beauty pageants often exploit women.
“You’re paraded around [in] your bathing suit and you are measured by your physical attributes. To me, that is kind of exploitative…because they are measured like a cow – for your beauty, for your hips, for your butt,” De Dios said.
Datu Bago 2015 awardee and women’s rights advocate Lyda Jara Canson further argued that girls who join pageantries are exploited and used for money.
“In the end, who benefits from the pageants? The organizers! There are other ways to empower women. They do not have to walk in bathing suits and heels, devoid of belly fat to prove that they are beautiful,” Canson explained.
In an online article by Robin Tran, a writer for Everyday Feminism, he explained that objectifying women is ingrained in culture and education. At school, boys are taught to “act like men” which means males are expected to make the first move.
“Girls who asked boys to other dances – or any other dates – were viewed as aggressive and/or desperate, so they were largely silenced from voicing their wants and needs,” his article stated.
Tran added that in instances when women speak out against objectification, some men build resentment because they feel like women are not operating in their roles correctly.
“This is largely why so many men take rejection so harshly. They feel like failures, because their role is to be proactive and pursue women, and when they’re told “no,” it’s a rejection of their manhood,” he explained.
Filipino Rape Culture
In the Philippine context, the objectification of women has transformed and has given excuses for predators to sexually assault females. This mindset is referred to as “rape culture”.
Rape culture breeds the harmful notion that male-incited sexual violence is inevitable because it is expected of men. A woman’s job, on the other hand, is to stay alert, vigilant, and avoid tempting the opposite gender.
In the Philippines, this mindset is widespread in social media. Online posts that report rape cases often receive comments such as “Dapat lang yan siya ma rape, ginusto niya yan,” [She should be raped, she wanted that] and “Ginusto niya yan dahil nakig inuman siya kasama ang mga lalake habang nakasuot ng maikling shorts,” [She wanted that because she went out to drink with guys wearing shorts.] A post that reached thousands of reactions was of a guy stating that a law should be passed persecuting women who “want to be raped.”
To combat this, the Philippine Commission on Women released a statement educating Filipinos on rape. The statement declared that women are raped because their bodies are viewed as sexual conquests and objects which can be owned and abused by men—a mindset that stems from unequal power relations between both sexes. Furthermore, rape can cause life-long emotional and physical effects on its victims. Even to non-victims, rape jokes are considered offensive.
Female netizens have also started fighting against rape culture by commenting against posts justifying rape.
On the ground level, local pageantries are now advocating for women’s rights. Starting her career in the modeling industry and slowly climbing the ranks in pageantry, Claire Aznar continues to become the voice of women in Mindanao. Her experience on indecent proposals at a young age has made her aware that harassment can happen anytime and anywhere. Representing Davao in Mutya ng Pilipinas 2017, Claire has spoken up about women empowerment and sexual harassment. For her, the biggest step for women is learning to say “no.” It may be difficult, but it makes the biggest difference.