A “Short” People with Big Dreams: The Genealogy of Height in the Philippines

Dean C Worcester and a Negrito in Mariveles, Bataan (1901) [https://webapps.lsa.umich.edu/umma/exhibits/Worcester%202012/biography.html]
It’s commonsensical for us Filipinos to have a high regard for height. Job applications put up height requirements, beauty pageants look into height as a criterion of judgement, and kids are encouraged to drink height supplements to make them grow taller. In his article in the latest issue of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco traces the genealogy of Filipino height discourse to the American colonial period.

Lasco’s approach focuses on the body as the “site of colonizing power.” Unlike the Spanish colonial period when descriptions of height were rather broad—limited to de estatura regular (of average height), which Lasco regards as “unremarkable”—the significance of height became “heightened” during the American colonial (bodily) encounter.

Lasco found that “height…was often the first among [somatic] dimensions to be described in American and other colonial texts and one that had particular resonances in the various aspects of colonial rule.” It was then that height became the key factor that distinguished health, growth, exclusion and inclusion, military and state power, job security, prestige, and masculine attractiveness.

There were two ways in which Filipinos were depicted by American colonials as “little brown brothers.” The first would be through discourse, and the second through photographs.

American journalists who began to make trips to Manila in the late nineteenth century described Filipinos as of “very low of stature,” which made the Americans feel “like giants.” Journalist Murat Halstead empirically characterized Filipino soldiers as “men . . . of small stature, from 5 feet to 5 feet 6 inches in height, and weigh from 110 to 130 pounds.” He then continues imposingly that “men from Colorado and California seemed like a race of giants.”

In 1904, anthropologist Daniel Folkmar published an album that purportedly cataloged all “Philippine types” (referring to ethnolinguistic groups) by measuring inmates at the Bilibid Prison in 1903. Folkmar measured “height or standing, span of arms, width of shoulders, the length and breadth of the head, the height and breadth of the nose, chest, weight, and the cephalic and nasal indices.”

Anthropologists at that time reached the consensus that “Ethnologically, the typical Filipino is described as of small stature, slender frame, brownish-yellow colour, symmetrical skull, prominent cheek-bones, nasal bridge low, mouth large, with full lips but not thick, chin short, and round hair, smooth, straight, and thick.” The generalized description was indicative of American scientific racism, which was largely informed by “numerical thinking.” What emerged in the American description was the image of an inferior race compared with the colonizer, who constituted the default standard.

Americans made use of their own bodies as the reference point against which Filipino height was compared. Lasco maintains that relationality, as exemplified by the “giant” trope, is a “key logic in colonial encounters.” Thus, although the difference between the average height of Filipinos (five feet three to five feet four) and of Americans (five feet seven) in 1900 were not poles apart, the variation was exaggerated.

The appellation “little brown brothers,” attributed to William Howard Taft, had an “infantilizing effect” that plotted “the Filipino in another axis of evolutionary/racial hierarchy” and “further justified and shaped the ideology of American colonialism.” For Lasco, the insistence on the use of “little” and “brown” as modifiers of difference showed that what the Americans perceived as a “brotherhood” shared with Filipinos was “faced with reluctance, if not outright disavowal.”

Furthermore, Lasco argues that the photographs of indigenous Filipinos that circulated in various periodicals and scientific journals limited “the diversity of bodies in the Philippines, reinforcing the idea of Filipinos as ‘little.’” Photographs “enabled the transformation of a subject into what was perceived by Europeans as an object . . . to be categorized.”

Dean C Worcester, the most prolific of photographers in the early American period, “gave disproportionate attention to the shorter indigenous peoples, much more than the urban, educated—and relatively taller—Christian Filipinos.” Worcester also used the relationality technique by juxtaposing himself with indigenous subjects in the photographs, which graphically illustrated “the physical characteristics of Filipinos and how different they were from the Americans.”

The 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri, further “dramatized the physical differences between Americans and Filipinos and objectified the latter.” Upon the advice of Worcester, “shorter and ‘primitive’ Negritos, Ifugao, and Badjao” were selected “to represent the Philippines.” In addition to being objectified, Filipinos were also “exoticized” through the Americans’ use of terms like “tribesmen.”

Akin to the nineteenth century ilustrados who protested the display of indigenous persons in the Madrid Exposition of 1887, Filipino nationalists such as Vicente Nepomuceno were of the idea that the “Moros, Negritos, and Igorrotes” did not “represent the people of the Philippines.”

In the early twentieth century, modernist and eugenicist ideas underpinned health initiatives in many governments, especially in Great Britain and the United States. Public health was “betted by the emergence of techniques of quantification and statistics.” In this context height became a measure of normativity alongside weight, legitimating the “idea that there was such a thing as a ‘normal’ body.” Lasco points out that more than just being naturalized, Filipino height was “problematized as a medical pathology.”

The Growth of Filipino Children (1909) was a book by educator John Bobbit that exemplified American notions of Filipino height: “to make a comparison of Philippine children with those of Europe or America in size and efficiency.” However, Bobbit’s sample for his study discarded Chinese and Spanish mestizos among the Filipino population in the attempt to determine the typical height of those belonging to the “pure Malay race.” Anatomist Edward Ruth also observed as a “well-known fact” “that the Filipino is shorter in stature . . . but the explanation for this has not yet been fully determined.” For Lasco, it showed the assumption that Filipinos were a priori short.

As part of their civilizing mission, the American colonial government turned their attention to public health. Public school teachers were required to compile the health indices of Filipino students, who were “weighed once a month” and whose “height [was] measured twice a year.”

Physical education (PE) was integrated in schools based on the ideas of “muscular Christianity,” physical development that led to mental development, anatomy as the indicator of one’s character. “Height mattered both in physical education and in sports teams,” says Lasco. It became the organizing principle (falling in line according to height) and was also the basis of selection in team games (such as basketball).

At the same time, PE “privileged certain bodies,” in particular taller, “healthier” students. Height “materialized as an advantage for students who could avail themselves of the travel opportunities financed by the state in the form of interscholastic competitions, not to mention the recognition they gained from their schools.” Students who failed PE were not promoted to the next grade level, and for Lasco it was a “way to exclude children from the school system.” Americans thought of PE as “improving” the “stock of the race” by producing bigger and taller youths.

Society at large adopted the stratification scheme according to height engendered in the public schools. Initially, there were no height requirements for Filipinos who wanted to enter military service. Unlike in the Unites States, the Americans in the Philippine colony had to work with the available manpower. Standing at an average of 5 feet 4 inches, Filipinos were “below minimum standard.”

But in “response to fears of Japanese expansionism in the Asia Pacific, the Philippine Constabulary Academy was upgraded to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).” The academy then “barred applicants with ‘any deformity which is repulsive’ or any who suffered from ‘extreme ugliness’ . . . ‘lack of symmetrical development’ [and] ‘unsightly deformities.’” As Lasco conjectures, what colonial authorities regarded as a good physique by virtue of the height requirement was “relatively tall by Philippine standards at the time.”

It was a long-standing belief that height signified strength, something that military men and uniformed personnel in the civil services were to exemplify. Hence, salaries increased and decreased with reference to height; “a higher height meant better opportunities.”

By maintaining shortness as part of Filipino identity, Americans “established inequality between colonizer and colonized on the basis of bodily difference.” Interestingly, Filipino writers of both Tagalog and English short stories in the twentieth century also gave premium to height, suggesting that they had imbibed the American standard. Until now, among Filipinos, height remains a barometer for stratification, suggesting the continuing legacy of US colonizing power.

Read the full article of Gideon Lasco in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints volume 66, number 3.




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