Clean and Mean: Scrubbing Isn’t For Sissies

(first published in Blubook Magazine, 2003)

Aside from hunger, thirst, and lust, one other basic human desire is the need to feel clean, smell good, and look presentable. This aspiration might be slightly more pronounced within the Filipino race. We may litter, pollute, and befoul our fair land indiscriminately, but when it comes to personal hygiene, you can’t fault us Pinoys. We’re just cleaner and we smell better than everyone else, and nobody can tell us any different. This almost obsessive-compulsive fixation with bodily sanitation is more typically attributed to the female component of our population. All the better for them to win beauty contests, and seduce less hygienically-endowed foreigners. But the Filipino male was never really a sloppy creature to begin with. And as the divisions between gender roles start to blur, and personal care corporations begin embarking on a thorough rethink of their product lines, Juan dela Cruz is faced with the opportunity to be true to his roots and embrace his inner hygienochondriac. Spotless, sweatless, and shower-fresh, that’s the ideal.

Filipinos have always been a vain lot, gender notwithstanding, but the dividing line between run-of-the-mill Pinoy vanity and the new enlightened narcissism lies across the shower curtain. Whether one’s wash-weapons of choice, a.k.a “pang-hilod”, are pumice stones (rubbed smooth by the waters of the Cagayan River), loofah pads (grown organically among the fields of Cavite) or bath lilies (manufactured in the factories of China), we Filipinos are not afraid to rub our skins raw in the name of a smoother, fairer libag-free complexion. Micro-abrasions be damned! As a people, we have a long tradition of obsessively sloughing off dead skin cells. One of our ancient legends, that of Lam-ang, deals with how the otherwise macho warrior, unable to withstand the knowledge that his pores were clogged and dirty, scrubbed himself clean in a stream, thus in a stroke of mythical biogenesis, populating our waters with a rich supply of aquatic fauna. When you look at it from an anthropological perspective, exfoliation is but a natural extension of the grand old Filipino tradition of eXtreme! Cleansing, clearly demonstrated by our penchant for laundering clothes by pounding them with heavy wooden paddles in the middle of white-water rapids, or voluntarily signing up for intensive monthly medical facials. There’s really nothing sissified about it. If you’re gonna get all cleaned up anyway, why not wash on the wild side? What could be more macho than scouring your hide with a rock?

But there are still hold-outs in the push to extend the range of beauty products for men. Marketers tend to butch up the process by using manly, terse words in naming their goods. Strong action-packed verbs like “scrub” and “sandblast”, or hard-edged ingredient names like “shell grits” and “tree bark” are preferred. Some also try get away with it by deceptively promoting their products as shaving aids. Because only manly men are supposed to have enough facial hair to make shaving a big deal, so the more shaving products you need, the manlier you are.
And so men’s grooming is going mainstream. And what does this mean for the old guard preeners and primpers? They have to ride the bleeding-edge and embrace even more unorthodox modes of vanity in order to stay ahead of the increasingly more dapper herd. They must go alternative, hardcore, left-field, or risk being labelled as “regular guys”. So what sets apart a dedicated dandy from a mere dabbler in the finer points of manhood? A “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” cast member from a temporary testosterone suppressor? Real metrosexuals exfoliate. But soon even that might not be enough. There’s only so much research and inspiration one can gather from within one’s own shower. If you’re a die-hard exfoliator and not content with what the supermarket skin product aisle and your own two hands have to offer, then it’s only natural to take things to the next level. Get cleansed by a professional.

I decided to go straight to the source, the temple of bodily indulgence, pamper central – a spa. Incognito, I hied off to the Nurture Spa for a “body treatment”. The spa promotes itself as “an oasis of peace and tranquility tucked away amidst the coffee orchards of Tagaytay, designed to be a refuge from the stress and tension of urban life”. I chose to submit myself to the Exfoliating Scrub Massage, which was billed as “a pampering treatment combination of a luxurious exfoliating treatment designed to rid the body of dead and dry skin cells to even our skin color and aromatherapy massage in one”. This was after going through a “relaxing 30 minute Turkish steam bath”. Those with a phobia of being manhandled by strangers might read the words “full body exfoliating massage” and envision being kneaded into ribbons by a sadist-for-hire wearing sandpaper-coated gloves. I interpreted it as “research for the remaining 1,000 words you need to finish your article”. This may all sound a little intimidating, and even scary to the uninitiated. But for the past few weeks or so I had become intimate with the intense processes one must undergo in the pursuit of smooth, spotless skin. And I was ready.

So I change into the requisite spa attire, a petite pan-asian batik kimono and shorts ensemble, and into the Turkish bath I go. The Turks came up with this hybrid of a garrote and an isolation pod probably to intimidate invading Christians and other heathens. To add to the torture chamber vibe, I’m supposed to strip to my batik shorts, which are barely decent to start with. My attendant asks me to take of the kimono with my back to her while halfway inside the bath and hand it off to her for safekeeping. This feat of dexterity executed, I’m then left to steam like so much dimsum. You’re supposed to cook in the thing for 15 or so minutes. To flush out impurities they say. And to tenderize the flesh I think. It’s all so very Iron Chef. I steam and sweat, pant and breathe in the (not very aromatic) fumes. The attendant comes in to check on me in the middle of the steaming to ask if the temperature isn’t too high. To be honest, it slightly is, but of course I don’t tell her that. I also don’t tell her that I’ve been cheating by venting off the too-hot steam from time to time. Just when I was starting to feel courageously martyr-like, it was over. So with the tenderizing done, we were now off to apply the marinade.

Restricted to a draped room, lying on a massage bed, nothing much on, staring down into a faux-natural flower arrangement floating in a wooden bowl, no escape from the new-agey neo-classical muzak pervading the soundscape, this is not a process you’d recommend to the average young male with a standard case of Attention Deficit Disorder. Suffering from a mild form of the condition myself, I couldn’t help but squirm a bit from all the enforced relaxation. It all seemed like a way subtler, more insidious version of the classic Frankie Goes To Hollywood song (which you really ought to know, if you’ve been reading this far).

Cover of "Candyman 2 - Farewell to the Fl...

Cover of Candyman 2 - Farewell to the Flesh

There are a few other squeamish moments you have to get over first before going all Candyman 2 and saying Farewell to the Flesh. This includes the realization that you’re wearing a silly-looking batik-shorts-and-kimono combo that’s way too small for you. Unlike say, other Asians like the Japanese or Koreans, we Pinoy guys are generally not as comfortable in our birthday suits when in public. Thus the apprehension that comes with having to take off your clothes in front of complete strangers, and of the opposite gender to boot. And finally there’s the moment when you become conscious that a strange lady is scrubbing your butt. And just when you start getting used to it, she then starts inching up your groin. Just making sure you get thoroughly cleansed, of course. Having some other person washing your body for you feels unnervingly regressive. It’s like being given sponge baths by your mom as a kid all over again. Mom’s rates for her services were never this high though. In fairness to the spa personnel, they conducted themselves very professionally while seeing and touching things that would make the typical convent-bred colegiala blush. Based on what I could still discern by the fading light of day, the scrubbing compound was made up of these tiny dark brown specks which could have been ground walnut shells, kiwifruit seeds, or bits of asphalt as far as I knew. The actual scrubbing process was commendably thorough and soothing. One experiences a sensation I imagine as being not too far removed from getting licked all over by the warm, moist, and raspy tongues of two Siberian tigers. And because of the open-air nature of the spa, there was nothing to stop the chilly Tagaytay breeze from wafting all over your recently-rubbed-raw skin. It’s a strangely enjoyable chilly thrill, that is, if you get off from getting all goose-bumpy. So depending on your masochistic tendencies, there is some degree of discomfort involved, but it’s mostly overwhelmed by all the other pleasurable sensations. The process over, I felt like a whole slew of adjectives beginning with the letter S – smooth, supple, soft, sarap!

So until they can train a team of Siberian tigers well enough to be able to give full body tongue lickings without being tempted to take a bite off my kimono-clad butt, I think a spa treatment will do just fine for me to get my kicks. Some guy friends have asked why I would want to do all this silly stuff to myself. The simple answer is because it feels good and it’s actually good for you. It’s like taking in your recommended weekly dose of fiber, but externally. You’re ridding yourself of cellular debris, taking care of your holistic well-being, improving circulation, balancing your energies, and all that other pseudoscientific jazz. You know it won’t hurt, and it feels better than expected. And there’s nothing silly about the price. Let the big boys buy their toys, real men book their treatments.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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