Skin deep: Peeling off the Philippines’ colorism problem

Amid the sudsy sachets of shampoo and tubes of toothpaste in a typical Filipino bathroom lies an infamous product—skin whiteners. Ranging from soaps to serums to creams, these products claim to give fairer skin in a matter of days or weeks. As such, they have earned a permanent place in every Filipino woman’s beauty routine. However, this does come with a hefty price—a mindset that sees dark skin as undesirable. 

“Colorism is a form of social hierarchy among people of the same race,” Behavioral Sciences Department Chair Dr. Janet Arnado explains, “This hierarchy is based on the different skin tones within the same race.” Advertisements promoting skin whitening products plastered on billboards, the small screen, or on social media are today’s prime suspects for promoting colorism. For instance, back in April of 2019, skin whitening company Glutamax was under hot water for their #YourFairAdvantage campaign which suggested that morena or dark-skinned Filipinas are disadvantaged compared to light-skinned Filipinas.  

In a country where naturally dark-skinned people are conditioned to believe that being light-skinned is more attractive and advantageous, we are erasing much more than just beauty when we passively allow this harmful culture to happen. Exploring the many layers of colorism in the Philippines would help us recognize how our physical appearances sometimes dictate our interactions with one another.

Fairest of them all

“For quite some time during my early high school years, I was convinced that my morena skin made me look dirty or dull,” Kiana Garcia (IV, BS-PSY) shares. This prompted her to apply whitening reagents in response to this disparaging stigma because, she explains,“Making myself whiter would also mean more people—or boys in that matter—would find me more attractive.”

Prejudice against one’s skin, as Arnado suggests, is most harmful when the discrimination starts at childhood. “This is an unconscious attitude that we learned at home, then reinforced at school, and we see it in mass media,” she describes. Garcia shares her own sentiments, saying, “Simple jokes from peers or even from older family members were really insulting, and it made not only me but fellow young girls in the family to grow up believing that having dark skin is something to be ashamed of.” 

This becomes more alarming as mass media plays a huge role in shaping our perceptions and is often where most of the damage is done. By featuring conventionally attractive, fair-skinned celebrities in advertisements, people are led to believe that “we will become like her, because this very beautiful woman is using this product. That is how mass media shapes our lives,” remarks Arnado.

Pride, prejudice, and privilege

Beyond the surface of the skin, the concept of cultural whitening is built on an integrated system that reinforces that “white is beautiful, and black is ugly.” Arnado writes in her article, Cultural whitening, mobility and differentiation: lived experiences of Filipina wives to white men, “Mimicry is both active and passive, conscious and unconscious. Whitening is a process of becoming, in which the outcome is ‘whitened’ but never white.” 

Defining beauty—either by science or by the beholder—has revolved around tradition and years of colonization. Being colonized by Western countries for hundreds of years has taught many that light skin is rewarded with higher value over dark skin. Because of this, Arnado adds, “people who have darker skin tones aspire to develop lighter skin in order to have the privileges exercised by those who are empowered during the period of colonial expansion.”

By equating skin color to one’s economic status, Filipinos deemed people with lighter skin more favorable and civil—a mantra that continues to haunt Filipinos today.  “If you are white then, you are more likely to be accepted in your social group,” Arnado emphasizes. Whitening thus becomes a consequence of survival—providing artificial confidence and fueling the illusion of wealth.

Into the dermis

The desire to have fairer and lighter skin means to desire the privilege it entails. As Arnardo observes, “Those who have lighter skin tone, occupy important positions in the Philippines not only in economic institutions but also in political institutions.” This creates an exclusivity that promotes prejudice against those who have darker skin, further marginalizing those who do not belong in that privileged space. At an institutional level, the whitening of the skin can be considered the whitening of our identities and who we are.

“Colorism reinforces the marginalized status of the indigenous peoples in this country,” Arnardo additionally posits. Indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to the disadvantages of colorism as the practice tends to polarize the contrasting hierarchies of poor and dark-skinned people against the ideal of rich fair-skinned people.

Although there are the likes of Rita Gaviola, popularly known as the “Badjao Girl”, and Jeyrick Sigmaton, the “Carrot Man”, who rose to fame when candid photos of them surfaced on social media, the opportunities they were given to represent their peoples still came from privileged sponsors who removed them from their culture and dressed them up to fit today’s standards. Arnardo sees them as an example of how we integrate dark-skinned people to the status quo using their ethnicity as a mere label to spice up the same brand of “beauty” offered in the mainstream, only in a different color. But the caveat here is that instead of radicalizing the standard of beauty, people miss the chance to showcase their cultural heritage and genuinely diversify the representation that is offered in the mainstream media. 

Love the skin you’re in

As the standards for beauty are dynamically reinvented, Arnado and Garcia agree that despite being exposed to an environment that keeps on urging to change yourself in some way, loving your most authentic self can be the start of a revolutionary act that denies the pressures of conforming. “People are meant to look different from each other and be beautiful in their own respective ways,” Garcia ruminates on how she grew to wear her morena skin with pride. 

Though the melanin in our skin does not ultimately define us, talking about the rich culture of our dermis is only the tip of the iceberg toward empowering people to unlearn and dismantle the foreign gaze on our own reflection. Filipinos embody a diverse array of beauty, each with its own uniqueness and complexity. To limit ourselves to a narrow definition would mean to submit to a narrative that treats us as inferior. “Hindi sana tayo nagco-conform lang,” Arnardo concludes. To her, radicalizing beauty means letting the dominant culture see you as you are.

(We shouldn’t just conform.)

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