June 09, 2006

That Discussion on Skin Whiteners.

In an attempt to jumpstart a discussion I started but never got to participate in, I'm reposting the responses to a former post. I am not entirely sure that pursuing the origins of ideas regarding the aesthetic valuation of skin color in the Philippines would lead to a definitive answer; as in the present, the "explanation" would surely have to be a combination of both class and the globalized spread of Western ideals of beauty. But I am also intrigued by Iggy's answer, also below, that raises a particularly Asian aesthetic. (The long line of beauty queens profiled in Doris Nuyda's The Beauty Book, so sadly out of print, begins mostly with moneyed Spanish mestizas -- more an indication, really, of the high regard in which beauty pageants were originally placed -- and it is not until you get to the late '60s or so that skin color becomes darker.)

Here are the earlier responses:

Ed writes:

I'm Filipino and I'm aware of this practice, as many women on my family subscribe to it. I personally think it's silly.

But I guess the first question to tackle would be whether the "light skin" ideal is an imitation of the Western/Caucasoid image, or is it a separate status indicator?

Light skin used to be a coveted social emblem back around during American colonial times too, as evidenced by how Ben Franklin powdered himself silly. Apparently it symbolized wealth, for the same reasons as mentioned in that linked IHT article - rich people didn't have to work in the sun.

But now there's a reversal of that ideal; the current craze among the West is to get that killer tan. So it's said that a tanned skin represents a "well-traveled" person, who can afford to sail the Bahamas barebacked.

There's an entry in wikipedia:

And so to reiterate the question, is Asian people's valuation of light skin a reflection of their desire to imitate the Westerner's phenotype, or is it simply as the article puts it, that it is a status/wealth symbol?

O.P. writes, in response to the initial entry:

This is disturbing. Yet we do know that light skin colour is also associated with high status in Thailand, which does not have a colonial past, and therefore no colonial mentality to blame for this phenomenon.

My own experience as a Filipina has been the opposite of the Eskinol thing. I'm relatively dark compared to some of my cousins, who appear to have inherited more of the Germanic genes of a shared ancestor (our maternal grandfather). They had light brown hair, almost blond to a Pinoy's eyes, and of course lighter skin than most Filipinos. My poor cousins tried in vain to tan so they could "look normal," but despite tons of Coppertone tanning oil, even baby oil, they would only burn and turn reddish and I hope they don't have to deal with melanoma one day. One female cousin started dying her hair black once she started college in Cebu.

On the whole, despite some teasing from classmates about how "dark" I was (from being at the beach all summer), I grew up thinking that brown was beautiful, and thinking that my cousins who looked the most "native" were the most beautiful. Still do. So, I guess it's in the eye of the beholder.

And Ed responds at length to O.P.:

Hmmm, yea, that's a real good point. As confirmed by wikipedia, Thailand was never colonized, and so suggests that the social effect isn't so strongly correlated with colonization: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thailand#History

The Thailand case works against the effect of -direct- colonization, as Thailand is a subscriber of the 'whitening practice', but was never colonized under a European country (although that doesn't exclude interaction through trade).

But the original question's dichotomy is still in play. That is, selection for 'whiteness' stems from either:
1. global valuation of the Caucosoid phenotype, or
2.that 'skin hue' is a mere indicator of wealth.

Although, the Thailand argument excludes rule of colonization as a root cause for the 'international valuation' effect (#1). But I would also posit that adopting the values of another culture doesn't have to follow from colonization.

If #1 is the case, is that a product of history? Pardon a second dichotomy, but is it because of:
1a. a wipespread dissemination of Western values of beauty or is it that
1b. the European phenotype is the universal ideal for beauty?

I know not a lot of people would be willing to accept #1b, but it is still a viable explanation. I myself have reservations to this.

And in order to accept #1a, proof of concept demands that there be some reasons for introducing yet another factor in the effect. So I would propose that history has a hand in it, colonization and industrialization being its vehicle. Again, I don't think value adoption had to follow from direct rule (as in the case of Thailand), and so even Thai people can value the Causian image from mere association with adjacent colonized countries, for example.

As for industrialization, MTV bears to mind. Therefore western values disperse even more efficiently, as developing countries are consumed by vogue western fashions and images through the tv.


That's interesting, o.p., what you relate about the opposite valuation of the Malay beauty. I didn't have that experience when I was living in the PI 14 years ago, nor is it collectively true here in the US among Filipino-Americans.

After all, many Filipina-Americans (Filipino-Americans even) dye their hair blonde, as well as buy those whitening soaps/creams (not the males, to my observation). And as I recall, in the Philippines there were a lot of derrogatory terms reserved for denigrating the Malay image: Pango, Ita, Itim, Pandak, etc. True, there is variation among the Malay/Filipino phenotype (due to normal distribution and genetic intermixing with other countries), but these rough 'characteristics' are nonetheless unique to the regional genepool of Southeast Asia, and therefore define it.

I wanted to add as a reply to o.p.'s post,

I believe it's true that beauty is in the eye of the individual. But I also believe that beauty is also defined by cultural standards, a collective beholder, if you will.

And so when 4 out of every 10 people in a culture actively take part in a fashion (ie skin whitening), it says to me that there is a definite group of people that agree to a certain criteria of beauty. And when that criteria is contrary to what the ancestral phenotype is, it becomes somewhat of a curiosity as to why?

And Rebecca responds to the initial entry:

Does this "beauty" standard really not affect Filipino men?

My husband started a job two years ago where he is out in the sun every day, turning his pale brown complexion very, very dark. His mother's first reaction was to make fun of him for it (and she still does). I'm not fluent but what I did understand was pejorative at best. She even pulled his shirt up to see what color he was born.

He has since refused to wear shorts or short sleeved shirts to work for fear of telling tan lines. And he's been honest about it being almost purely out of vanity.

And here's O.P. again:

Relating the story of my personal experience regarding valuing the more "normal" Filipino skin hue, I tried to convey the view from the "other" side of that divide.

I agree that lighter skin IS a status symbol back home, and I did not do well against that standard, mainly because my mom envied our ability to tan and therefore encouraged us to be in the sun and slathered lots of tanning oil so we could be nice and brown like our dad (who is very dark). As a teenager I tried to even out my acne-prone skin using a whitener and was lectured to within an inch of my life for it.

However, those that have MUCH lighter skin (i.e., looking more like white people than like light-skinned Filipinos) don't necessarily fare better and have insecurities of their own, as they are also judged (or judge themselves) against the native standard.

One of my school friends -- whose parents were Canadian and pure Spanish, and therefore she was really a white girl born and raised in Manila -- was teased mercilessly by my other classmates as an "Amerikanang Hilaw." If white makes right in terms of beauty standards, one would think she could have been the most popular sought-after girl in the whole school. But she was put down for being unattractive and "too" white, and became the poster-girl for low self-esteem.

As for me, I grew up thinking I was too dark, because my mom liked to see us with deep tans, maybe so we would look more like my father (who is very dark). I felt fine around my relatives, because they didn't seem to care, but around other Filipinos it was a different story. I had been called negra a few times even.

It wasn't until I arrived in the US that I heard anyone compliment me on my nice colour. And it wasn't until later, spending lots of time indoors in winter climates and libraries and at a desk, that I lost my tan and found out I am actually rather light-skinned. It was weird at first -- even some of my relatives who hadn't seen me in years thought I had gotten some kind of cosmetic procedure, because I had always been very dark as a child.

As for looking at it from an academic perspective... I remember reading an article about fairness of skin and what that means for attractiveness in Japan -- don't remember what journal it was in. But the gist of it was that there is a particular kind of lightness of skin that is considered attractive -- the mere fact of "whiteness" is not it, because Western women are not considered attractive.

From what I recall of accounts of the first Spanish voyages to the Philippines, they noted how the higher-status Visayan women were lighter skinned than the rest, shielding their faces from the sun or something. I've also seen first-hand in some Lumad communities how the women who shield their faces from the sun and achieve a nice, even glowing complexion (as opposed to sun-ravaged), which not surprisingly is a mark of beauty.

So, it's not just a simple dichotomy or the belated application of Western standards. Globalization is not necessary to blame.

Iggy joins the discussion from a different angle:

In my personal experience, I guess what Asians strive for is the kind of fairness that is more "Asian" and familiar rather than "Caucasian" - think the skin color of Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese. I remember back in high school where there was a French guy and a Jewish girl who went to my school and were mercilessly teased for being too pale. It's funny, because the people doing the teasing were the same ones who praised a Chinoy girl for her milky, even skin. I guess "real" Caucasian fairness - complete with the blonde eyelashes and pinkish undereye circles - is almost too 'alien' for an Asian to aspire to. I don't know, just adding my two cents.
And Ed responds to everyone:

Yes, I do believe that Filipino men are affected by the beauty standard. I mentioned that hair bleaching (blonde) is a popular practice here in the States among Filipino-American boys, at least here where I lived thorughout high school. But the linked article's focus (on wily's blog) was on female consumption of skin lightening products, and so my response was also focused on that demographic accordingly.

O.P. & Iggy,

Yes! I found an article called 'Cultivating Japanese whiteness' by Mikiko Ashikari (University of Cambridge) published in the Journal of Material Cutlure asserting that 'Japanese whiteness' is actually idealized from Japanese whiteness - which is of a different hue from 'Caucasian whiteness'. I think this is close to what you're talking about, Iggy. She says that the Japanese white skin is actually a means by which the Japanese now identify and racialize themselves; contrary to idealizing the Western image. If anyone is having a hard time finding it and wants a copy, feel free to email me, and I'll email you one.

But this still leaves the question, for what reason do Filipinos (Thais, Malaysians, etc.) use whitening products? It cant be that they identify with it (like the Japanese), because the simple fact is that 'whiteness' is not part of their genetic heritage.

O.P., I acknowledge your case when you say that the opposite phenomenon occurs, as in your anecdote with your Western school friends. That wikipedia article mentions the ganguro of Japan, which serves as a parallel example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_attractiveness#Skin_color

But again, a sizable Southeast Asian majority use skin whiteners to imitate an image that isn't granted to them by genetics. You said that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', so the interesting question that comes up is: why does the Filipino behold 'whiteness' as beautiful, when the majority of our ethnic composition is Malay, a dark-skinned people?

For the Japanese it is a way for them to express their Japanese ethnicity. But for us, isn't it being anti-Filipino?

Posted by the wily filipino at June 9, 2006 10:29 PM

Here's a column by a Pinay in the current issue of Newsweek:

Emil's Big Chance Leaves Me Uneasy

If I use my son's fair-skinned good looks to pay for his education, am I being savvy or just selling out?

By Tricia Capistrano

June 19, 2006 issue - Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie may have the most popular baby in the world right now, but I do not envy them. I had my taste of celebrity when I took my infant son on a trip to the Philippines two years ago. I walked away from him for a moment at a baby- goods store in Manila and when I returned, he was surrounded by four women in their 20s who were ogling him. "He is so cute!" they said. "So fair-skinned!" Whether we were in the mall or at church, people would gather around to look at his face.

My son is mestizo, of mixed race. My husband is Caucasian with ancestors from Sweden and Slovakia. I am a brown-skinned woman from the Philippines, where many people I know have a fascination with the lighter skinned—probably because our islands were invaded so many times by whites who tried to convince us that they were better and more beautiful than us. We were under Spain's rule for nearly 400 years, the United States' for almost 50. As a result, skin-whitening products fly off the pharmacy shelves.

"Any plans to move back here?" my relatives ask when I visit.

"I'll send Emil when he is a teenager so he can become a matinee idol and fund our retirement," I joke. Most of the country's famous actors are of mixed race, and the teen actors who are on their way up don't have to be talented, just fair-skinned and preferably of Spanish, American or Chinese descent.

I started to reconsider my response several months ago after my husband and I read that by the time our son goes to college in 16 years, his education will cost about $500,000. When we visited my parents last January, I asked my friends in the advertising industry if I could bring my son by their offices to take some test shots. I wondered if he could land a commercial for diapers, cereal or maybe ice cream.

By the time I got the number of an agent, I had started to second-guess my idea. I realized that I was going to be part of the system that can sometimes make us dark-skinned people believe that we are inferior. I do not want Filipino children who look like me to feel bad about themselves. When I was a kid, my grandmother would get upset whenever I told her that I'd be spending the afternoon swimming in my cousin's pool, because it meant that my skin would get darker than it already was. My mom, whose nose I acquired, has one of the widest among her brothers and sisters. She taught me to pinch the bridge daily so that the arch would be higher, like my cousins. Most of her girlfriends got blond highlights and nose jobs as soon as they received their first paychecks, almost as a rite of passage.

As a teenager, I tried to hang out with the mestizas, because I wanted to be popular like them. It was only when I was 22 years old and moved to New York, where people of different colors, beliefs and sexual orientations are embraced, that I learned to appreciate my brown skin, wide nose, straight, black hair and five-foot stature. Because of the self-confidence I saw in the people I met, I found everyone—in the subway, on the street, in restaurants—beautiful.

When some of my friends in Manila express disappointment that their children are not as light-skinned as Emil, I tell them it doesn't matter. And for a long time, I've been content with my decision to scrap my plans for Emil to be on the airwaves. I felt I was doing my share for my brown brothers and sisters.

Then, on one of the first warm days this spring, Emil and I went to the playground with our half-Irish, half-Polish neighbor, Julia, and her son. While we were watching the kids play, I joked that I was going to send Emil to the Philippines to be on TV. "Oh, that would be great!" she said earnestly. She told me that as a little girl she had been in a series of Kodak commercials in the 1970s, ads I remember seeing during episodes of "Three's Company." Julia's parents were working class, so it was the only way they could afford to pay for her college education.

Once again, I'm tempted to call that agent. After all, I am sure other fair-skinned children are being chosen to appear in Philippine commercials even as I write this. I know my boycott is just an anecdote in the world's bigger drama. The real stage is in my decolonized mind. If my son ever lands a part on TV because of his color, do I want to be the one who has cast him?

URL: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/13248490/site/newsweek/page/2/

Capistrano lives in New York City.

Posted by: ajp on June 12, 2006 10:40 AM

A few months ago my sister gave birth to a baby boy. The poor kid is already being teased for having inherited my sisterís flat Filipino nose. The kid is also part Ashkenazi Jew, so you know both sides of his family will be setting aside money for college AND a nose job.

Here's a poem titled HITLER WON, and itís dedicated to my nephew:

I just want to be proud
of the person I am.
Proud of my culture.
Proud of my people.
I want to be comfortable
In my own skin.

But it's a useless endeavor
When one tries to be
Proud of those people
Who are slaves to a culture
That worships false gods
And a standard of beauty
That denigrates them.

It's a useless endeavor
When one tries to be
proud of those people
Who venerate Hitler
By pinching their noses
To make them look smaller
Committing self-genocide
Through the self-mutilation
Of bleaching their skin...

Posted by: SOULSNAX on June 19, 2006 02:52 PM

ay, basta, gagamit pa rin ako ng eskinol!

Posted by: onejap on June 19, 2006 09:18 PM

You know, tanned skin only became fashionable in Britain once the Grand Tour started catching on in the 16th and 17th centuries, where the moneyed classes would explore Europe, especially Italy and part of the Mediterrannean, and inevitably they would return darker to their dreary and rainy country. So being tanned became a symbol of wealth -- who else could afford to travel for two to four years? -- just like light skin in an earlier period. The whole tanning thing was further added upon after the French discovered that the south of France wasn't all full of backwards peasants, or rather, that the peasants were now charming and quaint instead of primitive and backwards.

Posted by: Sarapen on June 21, 2006 11:19 AM
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