My mom told me that the first thing my aunt asked when I was born was, “Maputi ba siya? (Is she white?)” My mother said, “Yes,” and this was celebrated as great news. Of course, I’m not white. I’m a Filipino with brown skin, but I’ve been largely considered to be on the fairer side of the spectrum. Somehow, I’ve never fully celebrated my “great fortune of being white,” and nowadays I’ve been thinking about why Filipinos continue to glorify whiteness.
Beauty as Colonial Construct
Filipinos are mostly brown skinned, but there are a variety of shades from mocha light brown, to sunbathed dark brown, to almost black but not enough to look like African ebony. There are even some Filipinos who look almost like fair-skinned foreigners because they have fair-skinned ancestors. Our colonial masters, the Americans, the Spaniards, and the Japanese, are nations where the fairer ones were once, or, in certain respects, still remain, dominant, powerful, and privileged.
As far as I know, when these nations conquered our country, they did not send dark skinned individuals to govern the Philippines. Thus, our colonial history has been marked with interactions with fair-skinned colonial masters. These colonial masters did what colonial masters usually do—they judged our culture and our people as inferior to their own. Our brown skin was one of those things that they looked down upon, and our entire nation developed an inferiority complex.
No Apartheid, No Worries
I always thought the Philippines was better off because at least we never had an apartheid. We never disallowed dark-skinned people from working in certain places except maybe in the entertainment industry. Artistas have to be beautiful, which means they have to be white. There are a few lucky ones who overcome this pigmented obstacle, but that’s the thing about it, they are but a few. Dark ones usually take up roles like the contrabida who makes the bida’s life miserable, or they’re the comedian who is always made fun of for being ugly.
Some turn progressively white as they get more famous like a Michael Jackson without the excuse of vitiligo. Case in point: Regine Velasquez.
Some have a hard time being recognized for their talent just because they are dark. Case in point: Charice. Many said she wasn’t pretty enough to be a singer, which meant she wasn’t white enough to be a singer. In one interview, her mother says, Wala kasi kaming pera para sa pampaganda, pampaputi (We didn’t have money to make her beautiful and white). Ganda (beauty) and puti (whiteness) were lumped in one sentence. I’m not saying her mother is evil and racist, but her words reflect what our society currently believes in—that white is beautiful; black is ugly.
My mom says that the same pressure to be white can be seen in other industries as well. A saleslady needs to be presentable, which means she has to be white, so she has to put on lots of makeup or invest her meager salary on whitening creams.
Where the White Things Are
In other countries, things are a little different. My cousin who lives in the U.S. says everyone envies her brown skin because she doesn’t have to go sunbathing or go to expensive tanning salons just to have that sun-kissed glow. Then again, there are still racists in America, but thanks to the civil rights movement, these people are called out for their beliefs, and there is much discussion about this issue.
In the Philippines, we haven’t developed enough sensitivity to racial issues. Without shame or an inch of guilt, commercials blast off messages and images telling people that if they use this whitening cream, they will get more lovers, or they will finally be beautiful. Like my aunt, most Filipinos do not have any malicious intent when they obsess about whiteness. Many don’t even have the consciousness or awareness about racial sensitivity. Giving into the pressure of being white or making fun of people who are dark is seen as normal.
I remember one commercial for a skin-whitening product. A fair-skinned woman gave birth to a dark baby, and her fair-skinned husband was surprised. Then, the camera zooms in on the woman. She has a playful smile on her face. The voice over says, “What’s her secret?” and goes on to talking about the whitening cream. When I told my cousin from abroad about this, he said it was pretty racist. Of course, just because a foreigner says it is racist, doesn’t mean it is. What are the standards for something to be considered racist anyway? I only know how to judge things by instinct, but I know that’s not enough.
Woman Be White
My mother said that commercial made her remember a short story where a white woman gave birth to a black baby. Furious, the white husband accused his wife of cheating, but she denied it. Unconvinced, he divorced her. Years later, the man discovered that it was he who had an African American ancestor. My mom says issues of racism also intersect with issues of sexism as shown in the short story. She says that accusations of infidelity have greater consequences when they are made against women. She says that it is easier to accuse women of promiscuity, and the unproven accusations often are believed in with much vehemence.
I also noticed that Filipino men are not under the same pressure to become white. Commercials don’t really make them feel like they need to have a rosy white glow or to have a secret beauty transformation. I guess it’s also because men are not under the same pressure to be beautiful. There’s the pressure to go to the gym and get muscles or to use Master sikreto ng mga gwapo, but if we compare that to the pressure to invest in make-up, whitening creams, dresses or skirt and blouse or pants and blouse or tank top and jeans and the like, belts, jewelry, high heeled-shoes, bags, eyebrow plucking, leg waxing, hair-rebonding, weekly manicures and pedicures—it is obvious that the pressure to be beautiful is heavier on women.
Some may say that it’s the women who actually like doing this, so no one’s really pressuring women to be beautiful. I disagree. Although it is true that some women are genuinely interested in these things, others don’t want to go through all that hassle, but they hear it from their friends, their own mothers, their aunts that they’ll never have a boyfriend if they don’t do this.
Savage Beauty Pressures
I actually like clothes and accessories. I enjoy dressing up and choosing which earrings go with this or that dress, but I hate plucking my eyebrows. I’m ok with doing it every once in a while, but I don’t want to waste minutes of my everyday life obsessing about my eyebrows. I used to pluck my eyebrows because it was one of those things I “had to do” to get a boyfriend. Now I’ve stopped. I’m like, no. If my eyebrows are not beautiful enough, I don’t really care. I’m not so fond of makeup either because it feels sticky. Sometimes I get interested in makeup, but most of the time, I’m like, nah, never mind.
I’m not saying that girls who pluck their eyebrows or wear makeup are somehow sexist or something. If those women truly enjoy what they’re doing, then they should continue doing it. What I’m saying is that if there are rules and standards that you have to follow or comply to just because you’re a woman, I’m telling you right now, you can say no. If you think it’s a waste of time and money, then you don’t have to do it. Stop, just stop, and don’t feel guilty about it. I think it’s also equally important that women have the power to say no. Women should be given the freedom to explore and own their beauty, and society should not pressure women to conform to one kind of beauty.
Questions and Reflections
What’s your take on these issues? Do you also disagree with the beauty standards that many subscribe to? Are there other pressures in our society that you disagree with? How important is creating a world that is founded on freedom and not the pressure to conform? How can we make things better? Where do we go from here? What else do we need to learn?
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Check out my other blog categories.
Note: For some entries in this blog, a few names and details have been deliberately and willingly changed by the author. This is a personal decision made by the author for specific reasons known to her and is not an endorsement for censorship.