One long, sticky afternoon, I bathed in milk. I’d overheard my neighbors in the Philippines talking about how celebrities in my country would soak in it to maintain their fair skin. I ran to the kitchen and took scoops of dry milk out of the Nido can (real milk was too expensive), and I mixed the substance in a basin with water. I took my trusty water dipper and bathed in this clumpy mixture, believing that it would magically turn my kayumanggi (brown) skin white. Obviously it didn’t work, but it made my skin feel milky and white and for a few minutes, I felt beautiful.
My childhood went something like this: I grew up watching fair-skinned Filipino celebrities on television while kayumanggi celebrities received less airtime. When I played outside, neighbors would yell at me to go back indoors because I was going to get darker.
I learned to wear sunscreen and stay out of the sun as much as possible, not because of skin cancer concerns but because I was afraid of being dark. I’d wear turtlenecks, jackets, leggings, etc. to cover my skin from the sun.
And I made sure to buy only those beauty products that had SPF and whitening agents, including glutathione. Glutathione, or gluta for short, is a molecule made of amino acids believed to offer antioxidant effects as well as lighten skin. Because I couldn’t find whitening products at my local Sephora, I would go to Asian grocery stores that carried these items. I’d read labels meticulously, looking for the ingredient glutathione. By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d become obsessed with whitening products.
I was not alone in giving my plight to white. Houston-based fashion micro-influencer Melanie Mondigo told HuffPost, “Growing up in the Philippines, a country notoriously known for worshiping the ‘whites,’ I lived and breathed skin-whitening products. Literally all the products that touched my skin had to have whitening components. I’ve even tried taking glutathione (pills) and did skin peeling.”
Because of beauty fallacies ingrained since childhood, trying to lighten your skin seemed normal to people like Mondigo and me. At 14 years old, I was tired of being the brown, acne-ridden girl. I wanted to be beautiful and skin lightening made me feel empowered.
It was the relationship between colonialism and anti-Brown sentiment that created this social classification in the Philippines. When the Spanish colonized the islands in the 16th century, they brought skin color hierarchy. Dark skin was correlated with farmers and laborers who toiled outside. The light-skinned upper-class didn’t have to work under the sun. Today, skin color hierarchy continues to negatively affect the Filipino community.
“Power and privilege in the Philippines has a particular look. We see it on television and other media, politics, etc. There is an overrepresentation of lighter-skinned people in these arenas, and it perpetuates the idea that those who are not light are not worthy or do not belong in those spaces,” said Joanne L. Rondilla, assistant professor of sociology and Asian American studies at San Jose State University.
The overrepresentation of lighter-skinned people might be symbolized by Miss Universe 2018, Catriona Gray, a light-skinned Filipino-Australian woman whose triumph as Miss Philippines was cited as an example of bias toward Western culture. Meanwhile, kayumanggi celebrities deliberately lighten their skin in a bid for greater success. Consider chart-topping singer Sarah Geronimo, who lightened her underarms and endorses products from the skin-whitening company Belo Medical Group. This fetishization of pale, smooth skin makes for a cocktail of kayumanggi destruction and toxic fair-skinned superiority.
The belief that skin color is tied to socioeconomic superiority affects Filipinos in a multitude of ways.
There are all the products that I and others have bought. “People end up spending their hard-earned money on skin-whitening products like soaps, creams or tablets. Some might spend their money on a skin-whitening clinic, or to pay for IV drips to whiten their skin,” said E.J.R. David, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and director of the Alaska Native Community Placement in Psychology program.
And the way Filipinos may shun their own beautiful country. “People may avoid the sun so they don’t get too dark, or if they have children, they might advise their children to avoid the sun,” said David. “We see how sad it is for parents to send the message to their children ― the next generation ― that their natural brown skin is not good enough.”
But it gets even worse. “People might discriminate against others who are darker-skinned, and not be friends with them, not date them, not work with them, or not associate with them at all,” David continued. “Not only that, my research also shows that this affects Filipino mental health, as I found that people who have this mentality tend to have lower self-esteem and experience more depression symptoms.”
The relentless pursuit of whiteness that leads to that kind of depression reinforces the oppression of Brown Filipinos.
“People underestimate how much colonialism and the resulting white envy and internalized racism has affected our perception of what is beautiful,” said Bianca Santos, a Filipina from Mindanao who is currently a graduate student at Santa Clara University in California.
“So much of our preferences for Eurocentric features operate at an unconscious level passed down from generations of trauma from discrimination and being told we were inferior to our colonizers,” said Jasmine Aiza Obiacoro, a Filipinx American from the San Francisco area who has worked with Anakbayan East Bay, the local chapter of a mass democratic movement of Filipino students.
At least in the U.S., Obiacoro added, “more Fil-Ams are practicing self-awareness [of] colonized ideals. People here are more forgiving toward the idea of getting darker and embracing natural melanin. In the Philippines, I think there is still heightened pressure to maintain or pursue light skin.”
“Power and privilege in the Philippines has a particular look. … There is an overrepresentation of lighter-skinned people in these arenas, and it perpetuates the idea that those who are not light are not worthy or do not belong in those spaces.”
– Joanne L. Rondilla, assistant professor of sociology and Asian American studies at San Jose State University
In fact, the pressure toward whiteness infiltrates not only social aspects of life but the workplace in the Philippines. Most jobs there have a “physical appearance” test in which hiring personnel score a prospective employee on their dress, height, hair color and fairness of skin (have you noticed that many Filipina flight attendants are light-skinned?). Some prospective employees even lighten their skin to “stand out” in the job market.
For some Filipinos, the bias didn’t stop with skin color. Fil-Am fashion influencer jnelv faced her share of anti-Brown sentiment growing up. She told HuffPost, “Aside from thinking I didn’t have fair enough skin growing up, I was teased for having a flat nose. My aunts and grandma would literally squeeze my nose and hold it for 30 seconds to make it pointy! I grew out of that toxic mindset and gained a lot of confidence after high school, enough to just not listen and care about the typical Filipina beauty norms anymore.”
Not everybody has personally struggled with these toxic norms. Portland, Oregon-based Filipina lifestyle blogger March Agraviador, for instance, said, “I’ve never used or even thought about using whitening products.”
But I was not as fortunate as Agraviador. I found it difficult to not think about using whitening products growing up. It was not until I experienced SOMA Pilipinas, the Filipino cultural district in San Francisco; attended the University of Southern California; and read “The History of White People” by historian Nell Irvin Painter and “America Is In The Heart” by novelist Carlos Bulosan that my perspective on beauty ideals began to change.
Eventually, I realized that my skin color was the legacy of a village worth of farmers, fisherwomen, mothers, daughters and leaders. I accepted that my golden skin had been kissed by the sun long before Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines. I allowed myself to be doused in the Brownness of my ancestors. I awakened gently from centuries’ worth of nightmares. I learned to bathe my coffee-colored skin in milky waters and not flinch when I saw melanin. Through this feat, I erased within me hundreds of years of lies and embraced hundreds of years of truth, and that truth is this: I am Brown, I matter, and I am beautiful.