Monday, July 06, 2009

Making a clean breast of things

This is my column today.

I don’t think anyone out there knew exactly what was—or should have been—the appropriate reaction to last week’s flap over the state of the President’s mammary glands. What seemed clear, however, was that the way the bright boys in Malacañang handled the issue only made the situation worse. Let’s not anymore factor into the equation the efforts at spin control done by Lorelei Fajardo; I don’t think anyone ever listens to what she has to say, mainly because she is seldom coherent anyway.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde’s discomfort, when asked if it was true that the President was suffering from some medical complications related to an alleged previous breast augmentation procedure, was understandable. One of the sad things about the way things are in our culture is that we’ve all been conditioned to regard certain parts of our anatomy with malice. Thus, any public discussion about a woman’s breasts is supposed to be taboo. And when that woman happens to be the highest official of the country, the situation becomes even more delicate.

For crying out loud, who really wants to talk about the state of the President’s breasts? One has to be a total sicko to make such a big fuss out of them.

The only reason why there is a discussion about the issue is because Malacañang mishandled the issue right from the start. Remonde’s discomfort, sheepishness, and subsequent admission and attempt to put things in proper context made things worse. He could have handled the situation in a much better way; perhaps even in ways that could have been more empowering to women in general.

As if prevaricating on the issue was not enough, Remonde’s display of righteous indignation (or indignant righteousness) managed to cast aspersions on sexy actresses, cosmetic surgery, and women who have undergone breasts implantation. Moreover, he raised further the stigma attached to cosmetic surgery.

Let’s do a quick rewind of what the man said. When asked if the President had a medical procedure to repair a leaking breast implant done in the 1980s, Remonde bristled by saying that the question was “absurd.” “Nonsensical” he exclaimed. “The President was not your regular sexy actress fixated with such cosmetic surgery,” he stressed with undisguised righteous indignation.

“As I said, res ipsa loquitur (the matter speaks for itself). Just look if the President had a breast implant. That’s a private matter. It’s obvious if women have had breast implants. The sexy actresses with (unbelievable) boobs, they’re the ones who underwent breast implants. We can’t say the same thing of the President,” Remonde was quoted in various news reports. One wished he stopped there. “Perhaps, you can look at her if she’s the type who’s likely to have a breast implant,” he felt compelled to add, this time sheepishly.

In the process, Remonde made known certain prejudices. To him, breasts implants are for certain “types” of women and the indignant manner that accompanied his commentary left very little doubt about what he thought of these types of women.

Remonde’s remarks are unfortunate. First, they bordered on the chauvinist. Second, because—inadvertently, perhaps —they reflected prejudices. And third, because a more forthright admission should have settled the matter to rest— quickly and in a more delicate way.

As of Saturday, he was still preaching from his seemingly high social perch and doing so awkwardly. In so many words, he was saying that the discussion about the President’s breast implants—which he said was required medical procedure two decades ago—was disrespectful to women in general, and of the President in general. He conveniently left out the fact that his mishandling of the situation was what fueled the whole controversy to begin with.

When we come to think about it, this kind of tiptoeing around the issue of a woman’s breasts is disempowering and takes us all back to the middle ages. I have said this before in a previous column but I will say it again here. A woman’s breasts are an objective reality—there is nothing inherently sexual, malicious, or dirty about them. Breast surgery is not necessarily a moral issue. In fact, if we truly consider what nature intended them to be, we should have profound respect for a woman’s breasts, as they are the source of life and nurturance.

Remonde was sheepish because it turns out the President did have a breast implant done in the 1980s. So Remonde’s prejudice has boomeranged on him.

I am sure that there are lots of people out there whose worlds have now been turned upside by the admission that a Catholic girl from a de Buena familia, why—the daughter of a former President who is President now herself, someone who supposedly should have known better, underwent such a medical procedure.

Quite frankly, I don’t think the fact that she had a breast implant should be an issue at all—it’s her body, for crying out loud. One had to be a rabid detractor to find fault in that. Remonde is correct, for a change. Whether she did it out of a medical condition or out of vanity was not the issue.

I will not presume to know the motivation behind the President’s breast implants. A close female friend of mine did submit to the same procedure just a couple of months ago and she said it was necessary to correct a disfiguration caused by four childbirths. She told me that in the clinic that she went to (yup, hers was done by a famous cosmetic surgeon who is advertising all kinds of cosmetic surgery procedures) she met quite a number of women who have undergone the procedure. Apparently it’s not really an uncommon procedure today.

But I can understand the fact that the President wanted to keep her breast implants a secret. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to cosmetic surgery in this country.

The real issue here was the cloak-and-dagger operation to conceal and later on obfuscate the issue. The fact is that the President was supposed to have checked into the Asian Medical Hospital for quarantine purposes. The act of submission to quarantine was a matter of public interest—she was supposedly doing it to raise public awareness on the H1N1 pandemic and to be a role model for responsible public behavior. So when it became known that she didn’t check into the hospital for quarantine purposes, the whole thing became suspect. The whole thing boiled down to truthfulness.

It is sad that all these served to fortify public perception that the President and her people are not being forthright about the real state of things in this country.

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