By Nickky Faustine de Guzman
Before the Women’s March participants turned to the streets on Jan. 21 to protest against Donald Trump, there was a local rally that transpired 10 days before it. And it involved beauty—but a whole lot more.
The Filipino women turned to social media to protest against the proposed vanity tax, or the additional 10 to 30 percent tax on cosmetic products (including shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste!!!) and beauty services. Although the outcry happened virtually, both protests that happened here and abroad were parallel in a way. They touched issues on misogyny, empowerment, and equality.
Proposed by Ako Bicol Partylist Representative Rodel Batocabe, vanity tax aimed to offset the plan to decrease our income tax, which is at 32 percent and is one of the highest among ASEAN members. Simply put: the lower the tax income, the higher the take-home pay for the working class Filipinos. Reports said the proposal aimed to help the sin tax, or the tax collected from alcohol and tobacco. And as in the sin tax, the vanity tax planned to curb the consumption of beauty products and services, that, well, would make you look good and feel good (and hygienic, too). It gained support from the House of Representatives, including Rodito Albano III of Isabela, who said that beauty, which he said is a “luxury,” should come with a hefty price tag.
(Netizens and private companies reacted to the Vanity Tax proposal through Tweets and memes (images from Kpalette, Diary ng Babae, and @Ycapanopio))
The proposal earned the ire of the public, mostly of the women (who only wanted a Kylie lip kit at the cheapest price possible), because of the keyword “vanity.” But then again, anyone should be vain about their body. Can you imagine putting additional tax on your deodorant?
I first learned about the issue when my friend, Kim Samia (may special mention ka, girl!), told me about this on Facebook. She was ranting about the insanity of the proposal, which we all know by now was overturned and retracted by our very noble lawmakers, thanks to the public protest. For someone who puts body lotion every day after bath, who cannot go out without her perfume, who likes lipsticks, and was recently introduced to Korean’s extensive skin care regimen (thanks to Donna de Chavez for the Korean mask recommendation!), I was one of the people who was also baffled at the news and I did not get the point of the proposal.
The issue quickly escalated online, including on Twitter when the hashtag #DontTaxMyBeauty went trending. It was both picked up by the mainstream and alternative news sites: GMA, ABS-CBN, Coconuts Manila, Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Rappler, CNN, Spot.ph, Cosmopolitan, Malaya, Manila Standard, eCompareMo, Philippine News Now, Interaksyon, Sun Star Davao, Candy, Manila Times, Abante , What’s Up Asia, Preview, Mindanao Times, and some personal blogs. But the ordinary citizens, the keyboard warriors, who have always something to say amplified the viral topic, enough to make it nationwide, with Cebu and Davao papers reporting about it.
The topic was the talk of the town for at least three days, and gave birth to many underlying issues including women empowerment and patriarchy, and how our tax system is convoluted and ineffective.
Here are some of what the netizens said:
Everybody has always something to say, but in this case, the netizens agree to slam the Vanity Tax proposal. The Tweets are varied and open discussions on related topics like our inefficient tax system. (Tweets are screen grabbed)
How does a news item get into the consciousness of many, enough to turn make it into national news, even global? Did the vanity tax news create further ripples or repercussions?
The journalists, as the fourth estate, have the power to set the agenda on what the public must consume and talk about. And if a news item is covered prominently, people will deem it as more important. The vanity tax story seems superficial at glance, but it has a lot of layers in it.
The story went viral on Twitter on Jan. 10, and then the next day, different media organizations talked about the intrinsic issues of the proposal, including its misogynistic outlook. An opposition, Marikina second district Representative Miro Quimbo was quoted on Rappler saying that he thought vanity tax was “discriminatory” and sexist.
“I think [beauty products and services are] far too small a segment to be looking at. Secondly, I don’t think it’s a luxury item at this time because it has become a necessity. Minimum wage workers today who work in Shoemart or Robinsons or go elsewhere do buy cosmetics. They’re not as expensive, but they do wear it,” he said.
He added: “And I think it’s going to be a segmentized or discriminatory tax because the only people who will be affected will only be one side. I know some men wear makeup but that’s completely almost irrelevant. I think it can be struck down as also sex-linked.”
While the initial news announcement about the vanity tax proposal may have died a natural death after a day or two (because that’s just how some news stories work), it gave birth to other topics that pushed the issue outside and further into the consciousness of people. The topic has many layers journalists can report about: its implications on beauty businesses, our machismo view of what is “beautiful,” and the inefficient tax system in the Philippines, for instance.
Four days after the viral news broke the Internet, Cosmopolitan magazine published a story on how much the beauty industry workers stand to lose should the vanity tax pushed through. A beautician, according to the story, takes home a meager pay of at least P6,000 a month, and would be reduced if people would stop visiting salons or giving tips because of the additional 30 percent tax.
There are ways of looking at a story. The journalists, who have their ways on words and angles, can play at a single story and lengthen its share of the spotlight in order to explain an issue better and to push it into the awareness of many.
Inquirer Lifestyle, for example, came out with an easy read: a Vox pop story. Some of the people asked were big business owners and what they thought about the supposed proposal. Obviously, they were against it for reasons that—surprise, surprise—it would affect their sales.
But why are our very noble lawmakers after our lipstick and lotion?
Contrary to Mr. Quimbo’s prior claim that our “beauty products and services are far too small a segment to be looking at,” the beauty industry in the Philippines is a serious business—a big business that costs USD 3.4 billion or P139.8 billion, according to PhilBeauty, an annual trade show organization.
In 2015, the beauty and hygiene products significantly outgrew food, beverage, and household products in the Philippines. The BusinessWorld report said the top 10 care products in the country are wipes, colognes, liquid soap, diapers, hand and body lotions, deodorants, facial care products, talcum powder, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
Commercialization fueled the growing trend. Rodel Taton, the Consumers Union of the Philippines, said in his BusinessWorld interview: “The growth is probably not a sign of petty obsession, but simply, commercialization (which has) heightened in such a way that many consumers tend to buy something that they believe will boost their confidence.”
Most of the news stories I linked above reported succeeding updates about the vanity tax as it progressed, including publishing the opposing views from the House of Representatives. But most of the online websites capitalized on the reaction of the people because they were click baits (“WTF: Vanity Tax includes your favorite shampoo and deodorant”) and the more click and share a story gets, the more page views and money it generates. Remember, the media industry, just as any industry, is still fueled by money and capitalism.
The vanity tax became news worthy and gained much traction because of its immediate effect to the people, especially to the beauty junkies and those who work in the vanity industry.
But while the media have the power to empower a nation overwhelmed with fake news and tired from a 8-5 daily routine, they failed to do so. They choose the trivial. The media, at least in this issue, did not push the envelope to raise the awareness of the people about the repercussions of our tax reform. As a suggestion, there should have been at least informative articles or infographics about our tax system and how bad it is. Or a resurrection of the previous investigative pieces on people who evaded tax and what happened to them today (Hi, Manny Pacquiao!).
The supposedly proposed Vanity Tax plans to add 30percent to our cosmetics and hygiene products to offset the plan of increasing our income taxes. Did you know that the Philippines has one of the most number of tax exemptions in the world? (Image from #BetterBuwis Facebook page)
I think the issue stopped becoming the talk of the town when it went too “serious” and when people continued to go on with their lives after the proposal was slammed and dismissed (Yay the netizens won!).
The media did not capitalize on the vanity tax popularity to highlight the bigger pictures: Where do our taxes go? Will the Philippines move forward from its patriarchal thinking?
Mr. Batocabe’s suggestion was a proposal made to be an alternative to the increased taxes on fuel to offset the reduction in our income taxes. The Department of Finance proposed increase taxes on fuel and automobiles, which means an increase in oil and petroleum products. It was reported in the news, but it did not gain grip, because, hey, aren’t we all used to the stories about increasing our gas and transportation? It is an everyday news we get from whatever media resource we subscribe to. What’s new? I think people have been, time and again, saturated with these news. And when something novel and immediate came out, like the vanity tax, it naturally gained more attraction and traction.
People have an 8 to 5 schedule and are too busy to make both ends meet than talk about the longstanding problem on our tax. We’ve always been asking about our taxes and where the hell they go. I think people are saturated about these kinds of news.
While (some)news stories die every day, it is important to note about the birth of online civic movements.
The power of civic movement: #DontTaxMyBeauty
People turned to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to slam their disapproval of the proposed tax, which they eventually won over. Here, enters our discussions on how globalization and the concept of “global village” diminish time and space. Here, also enters the idea that people are not only consumers but producers of media. People opposing the proposal made their own blog posts, memes, and short videos. Our social connectivity encourages us to voice our opinions, albeit the differences. I noticed that most of the Tweets and other posts related to the proposal did not publicly shame anyone, but instead, people stayed within the boundaries of the issue; it opened avenues for smart and prolific discussions on things that really matter.
Thanks to Twitter and other social media networking sites, the proposal was dismissed. (Images from Pink Sugar Cosmetics, @arrigaga, @maggiecort).
While the trending hashtag on Twitter was not as global as the Women’s March, still, it proved the power of what 140 characters could do.
Ako Bicol Rep. Batocabe said in his interview a few days after the #DontTaxMyBeauty broke out the world wide web:
“Eh kung ayaw ng taong-bayan, dahil nga nakikita ko nga po ‘yung mga comment ng netizens… Sinasabi nila, ‘Bakit tina-tax mo ‘yung ano… #DontTaxMyBeauty.’ Sabi ko naman, kung talagang ayaw, eh ‘di wag na nating ituloy,” he said in an interview with channel PTV4’s Good Morning Pilipinas.
He stressed that he did not want to get in the way of people’s “happiness.” In his defense, he said that Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno reassured him that the government has “enough [budget] for services.” Hey, if we had enough budget in the first place to offset the income tax, then what was the fuss all about?! Why did Mr. Batocabe proposed a bill that would make him appear imbecile? Hmmm…
Anyway, he said on Rappler: “Hindi natin susuportahan tutal nagsabi naman po si [Budget] Secretary [Benjamin] Diokno, nung tinanong po siya, na may sapat pong pondo ang gobyerno. Hindi naman kailangan ang petrol [tax]. Kung ‘di naman kailangan ang petrol, ‘di naman namin ito ipu-push. Kaya ‘wag po kayong mag-alala. Hindi po natin aalisin ang inyong kaligayahan na maging maganda.” He also said the vanity tax would deprive “some people of their basic happiness.”
Really? I don’t know what to make of his last sentence. To equate cosmetics with “basic happiness” and him possibly taking away “basic happiness” only made the very noble lawmaker above the women who cried protest over his proposal. Our “happiness,” it seemed, was in his hands.
Beauty, and the pursuit of it, has always been deemed as a “luxury” and a sin by society, which, ironically, imposes women to look presentable and beautiful. When a woman looks pale without makeup she is called unkept and unattractive. But if she wears too much of it, she is called a slut. This is why it is so easy for our lawmakers—of which majority are men—to put vanity tax alongside sin tax. When has beauty become a luxury and a sin when it is used to empower self-esteem and correct physical impairments?
Beauty is a transnational, a universal affair. And vanity tax is not superficial.