During my most recent visit to my native country, the Philippines, I distinctly remember the plethora of skin-whitening products that brimmed the supermarket shelves. From facial moisturizers to deodorant, the typical Filipino beauty product consists of ingredients like kojic acid, a chemical known for its skin-whitening effects.
In the Philippines, a fair complexion is synonymous to beauty. Famous singers and actresses are often deemed “mestizas,” a mixed-race Filipino with fair skin and European-like features. Take Pia Wurtzbach, for example, a Filipina of German descent who was crowned Miss Universe 2015. Her beauty represented the people of my native country, yet she looked nothing like the brown-skinned, flat nosed Filipina that comprised the majority of the population.
From an outsider’s standpoint, this might come off as surprising. Some might even deem this as somewhat racist. Yet, the obsession over fair skin has been a long held norm amongst Filipinos and it has more so become a symptom of a dark history as opposed to outright racism.
Historically, Filipinos lived under three centuries of European influence, namely during the Spanish Rule. From our language to our food, there are traces of Spanish influence in our culture.
Unfortunately, Spanish colonization has deeply ingrained the notion of hierarchy based on skin color. Brown skin was associated with hard labor and poverty, while those genetically lucky enough to have lighter skin or Caucasian features dominated the aristocracy. In the end, the brown Filipino was treated as a second class citizens within their own country.
While our strive for fair skin presently seeks to achieve aesthetic beauty, we have to remember that this standard resulted from centuries of conformity. As members of a formerly oppressed nation, we shouldn’t be perpetuating this toxic idea. By furthering this idea that our native brown skin is unworthy, we oppress ourselves.
Filipinos are not the only Asian countries that adopt this mentality. In countries like China and Korea, people will also go to lengths to acquire lighter skin, often opting towards surgery or skin bleaching. Some will argue that skin bleaching is the same as botox or an aesthetic surgical procedure. In my perspective, changing your skin color is completely different story. It is a sign of detaching from one’s roots for the sake of appeasing people other than your own.
As a young child, I was taught by older relatives to avoid the sun and to apply sunscreen religiously. The irony of it all was that I lived in a tropical country where the sun was always shining. Even through college I would get yelled at for tanning or staying out under the sun for too long.
As ridiculous it all seems, we have to take a step back and realize that that the U.S. is also home to beauty standards that are equally as harmful. Here in the U.S., we burn ourselves under the sun and lay in tanning beds to achieve this “exotic” bronzed complexion.
Having a taste of two different cultures simultaneously has taught me that many of us are never truly satisfied with our appearances. Filipinos desire fairer skin while Americans strive for bronzed skin. There is this thing about beauty standards that drive humans to do odd things. Whether it be bleaching one’s skin or exposing our skin to harmful radiation, it is all rooted from a distorted perception.
Most of us don’t need a lesson on racism or prejudice. And while I am lucky enough to live in a time and place that embraces diversity of color, I know that there are still parts of the world that are stuck in this obsession with becoming a Caucasian carbon copy.
Whiteness does not ultimately define beauty.
As a Filipino American, I hope to see my native culture more accurately represented in movies, beauty pageants, and magazine labels. We need to take more pride in the brown-skinned Filipino just as much as we take pride in the mestizas who have Filipino running through their veins.