May 02, 2006

The Wages of Eskinol.

File under: beauty, class, colonialism.

In a survey carried out in June 2004 by Synovate, 61 percent of respondents in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan said they felt they looked younger with a fair complexion. Half of Filipino women, 45 percent of Hong Kong women and 41 percent of Malaysian women said they were currently using a skin-whitening product.
Discuss. Posted by the wily filipino at May 2, 2006 08:22 PM

Hello, first of all, I'd like to say that I've become a steady reader of this blog after stumbling upon it via random googling.

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?

Posted by: Ed on May 4, 2006 09:45 PM

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.

Posted by: o.p. on May 5, 2006 12:00 PM

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:

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.

Posted by: Ed on May 7, 2006 11:33 AM

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?

Posted by: Ed on May 7, 2006 11:49 AM

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.

Posted by: Rebecca on May 8, 2006 09:13 AM

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.

Posted by: o.p. on May 8, 2006 12:29 PM

Ed, "global valuation of the Caucosoid phenotype"?

Is that how you speak when you're out with your mates?

Posted by: Thingfish on May 9, 2006 10:32 AM

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.

Posted by: iggy on May 9, 2006 08:07 PM


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:

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?


No, for the most part that is not how I talk to my friends. But I was trying to convey rather complex thought, and it called for the precision of an academic discourse, which I tried to supply.
My friends and I do have our academic discussions, which kind of forces us to use certain jargon inherent to what we're talking about. In this case 'Caucosoid phenotype' is a compound scientific term, and I chose to use it because it exactly identified what I was talking about.

I don't try to be pedantic; I try to be concise and to the point. But I do apologize if I come across as long-winded, trust that I make an earnest attempt to keep the text moving and interesting; time constraints permitting.

Posted by: Ed on May 10, 2006 06:58 PM

Manual labor = working outdoors, exposed to the sun and other elements = rough, dark skin. Cushy, white-collar job = indoors, nice office = fairer skin. Sans colonial experience, maybe this is the Thailand experience.

Discuss. ;-)

Posted by: Romeo on May 25, 2006 10:40 AM

If you were dying of skin cancer, would the color/complexion of your skin really matter?

We, humans, can be so shallow and vain, huh?
There are other important things in this world we
should be attending to.

Posted by: AnonyMoose on June 1, 2006 12:58 PM
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