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I find it funny how so many Filipinos – Filipino women in particular – are so obsessed with having fairer skin. It doesn’t help that both traditional and non-traditional media inundate us with images glorifying Snow White-like complexion: from ubiquitous advertisements on all sorts of whitening products, to the seemingly endless parade of melodramatic shows top-billed by mestizas.

Sadly, there are still television programs dedicated to portraying the morena woman as an ugly duckling, wherein actresses are uglified through unrealistic dark skin make-up, and misleadingly empowered through poorly thought plots seeking to transform the dark sheep to a white, spotless princess who wins the affections of her Prince Charming.

When it comes to television commercials, Pond’s is top of the mind when it comes to subtly offensive and colonial advertising. Its television commercials quietly enforce the idea that beauty comes only in one form – fair, white, glowing. More recently, glutathione treatments have emerged as supposedly effective measures to achieve fairer skin, and along with it, a slew of other implied benefits – self-confidence, happier romantic lives, and societal admiration. Their advertisements in print, their social media promotions, and their never ending endorsements and events advocate a monopoly on what skin complexion should be deemed “beautiful”.

Three hundred years under Spanish rule and a few decades under American occupation have certainly played a role in how Filipinos perceive beauty. Under the Spaniards, the mestizas and mestizos controlled power, and the brown skinned Filipino was derogatorily considered indio. With the Americans, we were westernized further, exposed to all things “white”. We even learned along the way to ridicule those who were not fair-skinned enough, as so many endeavoured to be whiter.

And ridicule persists up to this day. Just look at how we superficially criticize individuals based on their skin color alone – case in point, Vice President Jejomar Binay and his children, especially Nancy Binay who recently won a senatorial seat. While I am far from being a fan of the Vice President and his family (he is too hungry for power), terms like maligno or anak ng kadiliman do little to effect any meaningful change both in politics, and how we treat people based on physical appearance. And this is only a more public example of how one’s skin color is made fun of. Across the country, down to the street levels, ridiculing a person based on skin color is commonplace.

A not so subtle advertisement pointing out to the Filipino obsession with skin whitening

A not so subtle advertisement pointing out to the Filipino obsession with skin whitening

This persisting phenomenon is of interest to me mainly because I feel so many Filipinos fail to understand why they are not as fair-skinned as Europeans or Americans in the first place. One must remember that geography and climate plays a role in the evolution of species. The Philippines is a tropical country. Our archipelago is located quite near the equator. Unlike those who live further north or south of this intangible line, our country receives plenty of sunlight. Our race, anthropologically speaking, developed its color as a response to this climate. Studies have shown that an increased concentration of melanin – the natural pigment in our bodies which determine our skin tone – protects the skin cells from UV damage, and even reduces the risk of skin cancer. Thus, Filipinos are naturally dark skinned to protect against our climate. You need only to look at our local fisher folks and farmers who spend hours under the glaring sun to see how melanin works naturally.

I do wish more Filipinos embraced their natural skin color. It’s quite funny how while so many of us try all measures to be fair-skinned, our European and American counterparts travel thousands of miles to our scenic beachside destinations to relax, and yes, get a tan. Apart from knowing more about why we look the way we are, Filipinos also need to be more discerning when it comes to the media they consume. While advertisements, television shows, and social situations are difficult to evade, embracing what is true and natural with our physical appearance as a people will enable us to prevent remnants of our colonial legacy from seeping into our consciousness, and hopefully also prevent us from continuing the enforcement of retrogressive stereotypes. But so long as the prevailing attitude encourages people to demean their own (especially their own kind), we will never be free from the shackles of our past.

And that, my friends, is just plain ugly.

“…That in nature outward beauty is the proof of inner beauty.”

– Gerard Manley Hopkins