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:

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:

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?


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.



On Beauty.

There’s a long blog conversation on beauty going on in cyberspace, and I’d thought I’d jump in with what little I know (precisely because it has little to do with gender and “ethnic”/national notions of beauty, but more on the pageants themselves).

Too long to quote here are two brilliant high-wire ethnographic accounts of gay beauty pageants and balls in Fenella Cannell‘s Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Martin Manalansan‘s Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2003). (The latter also has an exhaustive discussion of “byuti.”)

I’ll just cite a couple of passages, pulled somewhat out of context (since they’re talking about two different places), from a couple of recent books:

The first, from Mark Johnson‘s Beauty and Power: Transgendering and Cultural Transformation in the Southern Philippines (Berg, 1997).

…the forms and idioms of beauty that are circulated… are informed by a Western image of glamour and beauty… …gay beauty contests have a familiar resonance about them, from the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna, to the ‘ethnic/national’ costumes which faithfully reproduce familiar stereotypes (53).

…beauty contests are filled with instances of stylistic and verbal discourse which are clearly embedded in colonial ministrations. Beauty is about education and the mastery of the English language. Beauty is about good citizenship and a professional orientation (54).

And from Rick Bonus‘s Locating Filipino Americans: Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Space (Temple University Press, 2000).

Filipino Americans find in these pageants social spaces that reflect their tenuous positions as Filipinos who, in their eyes, are not fully American (by virtue of their first-generation immigrant status) and not fully Filipino anymore either (owing to their departure and distance from the homeland). The orientation to the bayan, both in the context of activities in the United States and in reference to the homeland, is one anchor they hold onto to mitigate these tensions (122).

And I’ll end, out of chronological order, with a recounting of Philippine News‘ “Quest for Magandang Filipina – USA” beauty contest in 1979. This was, somewhat sadly, a replacement for an Outstanding Youth Contest which was cancelled for lack of response. “In place of it,” they wrote, “we are announcing the start of a new contest which according to our survey is the kind of contest you want us to run.”

Open to any permanent resident of “Filipino or Filipino-American descent (irrespective of blood ratio)” — an interesting throwback to the days when “Filipino American” exclusively referred to people of mixed racial heritage — the Quest for Magandang Filipina – USA was launched. Regional finals in eleven different cities culminated, after much front-page hype, in the crowning of Yvonne Flores from Suisun City, California after her “stirring vocal rendition of George Benson’s ‘The Greatest Love of All.'”

[I suspect some of you might be amused by the pageant’s details. Sponsored by the Fil-Am Veterans and Federal Retired Association of Fairfield, California, Flores defeated, among others, first runner-up Lisa Manibog (who could have only been related to Monty, probably the first Filipino American mayor ever) from Monterey Park (who performed a “very symbolic American-Indian ritualistic dance”), Theresa Abueg (who “played ‘The Entertainer’ on her flute”), Jacqueline Guerrero (who danced “a jazz-ballet interpretation of Gary Wright’s ‘Dream Weaver'”) and Rose Tibayan (for “a Malayan dance interpretation on disco roller skates”). [From Aljovin, Andrea. “Yvonne Picked as Magandang Filipina in Dazzling Grand Finals.” Philippine News December 1-7 1979: 1, 12.]

I just had to write that again: “Malayan dance interpretation on disco roller skates.”]

(What Philippine News de-emphasized, however, was that contestants had to buy 35 subscriptions each to enter the pageant, which earned the nice sum of $56,000 for the newspaper altogether.)

Sudden digression into historical context: 1979 was a crucial period in Philippine News‘s history — a time, for instance, when one of their regular columnists, Steve Psinakis, would coyly allude to participation in the Light-A-Fire Movement. It was also a time when — seven long years after the declaration of Martial Law, but still four years away from Ninoy Aquino bleeding to death on that airport tarmac — the anti-Marcos opposition in the United States was riven (perhaps they always were) by ideological conflicts. This was also a period when the Movement for a Free Philippines-affiliated Philippine News was consistently red-baiting the Katipunan ng Demokratikong Pilipino, headquartered on the other side of the San Francisco Bay Bridge; the sniping between PN and Ang Katipunan reached its height this year.

Rather predictably, AK went straight to the politics of the contest, describing it as “a strange blend of fashion show, talent contest, an anti-KDP lecture, and slideshow all rolled into one.” In an unsigned editorial, the KDP pointed out how such pageants promote sexism, calling the swimsuit contest “downright disgusting:”

The pageant’s sponsor, Philippine News… [claims] that the contest was meant to promote Philippine heritage and unity. Anyone… however would surely agree that there was neither a performance nor presentation… which vaguely resembled Philippine culture or heritage.

No, the Magandang Filipina pageant was not an innocent competition, a meeting of the community’s “best and beautiful.” Rather it was a masked business venture which [sic] exploited the contestants and sections of the community.

…Like grand terno balls, cocktail parties and other expensive forms of social activities, the beauty contest diverts our attention from more pressing concerns. …if we expended the same amount of money, energy and time on a fund raiser for some community cause or for the political refugee problem… we could justifiably claim that our efforts were progressive, positive and productive. A beauty contest can hardly claim the same. [From “Beauty Contests: An Exercise in Irrelevance.” Ang Katipunan, December 1-15, 1979: 3.]

Paradoxically, the Philippine News would probably also agree with the above statement; back in those days, the newspaper constantly trod a fine line between the two images of heroism (as part of the self-proclaimed oppositional vanguard against the Marcos regime) and profligacy (look no further if you wanted pages and pages of pictures of couples in their tacky finery). (I argue anyhow that the newspaper was beset by contradictory impulses: to consistently demonstrate immigrant success, and to strive for political awareness by highlighting the community’s marginality.)

But back to the pageants then and now — rather than taking one side or the other, I would propose a more nuanced middle ground: one that recognized the problematic gender politics inherent in such spectacles (that reproduced colonial aesthetics and ways of seeing) but simultaneously understanding the temporary cohesive social function (and a “necessary” evocation of an arguably reified Filipino tradition) that the pageants afforded an alienated Filipino American community.

Last digression: beauty pageants in Manila are a different story, however. Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran’s Miss Universe victories in 1969 and 1973 lent an odd veneer of legitimacy to Imelda Marcos’ increasingly glittery and warped aesthetic project; only two years after Martial Law, Manila would host the 1974 contest in the newly-constructed (supposedly in 77 days!) Folk Arts Theater, with the crown going to Amparo Munoz, hailing from the Philippines’ old colonial master, Spain.

Okay, I really will end this rambling post with an anecdote about Imelda (shades of white picket fences around squatter areas!), serving to remind us that her “truth and beauty” campaign wasn’t merely conducted on an individual level, but aimed as well at the urban landscape of “the City of Man:”

Workers, up day and night in an effort to finish the interior and grounds of the Philippine International Convention Center, were forced to cut corners in order to finish the job [in time for the IMF/World Bank conference in 1976]. One patch of brownish grass was even sprayed with green pain to freshen it up. But the entire conference was nearly ruined because of one stubborn bulldozer. It had become hopelessly stuck the night before the grand opening in the thick mud surrounding the PICC. …workers frantically tried to remove it only to see it sink more deeply into the muck. When Imelda arrived on the scene, she was predictably outraged. But… she, with a little help from the toiling workers, remedied the problem in time. Full-grown coconut palms were rushed to the site and planted in concentric rows around the offending bulldozer. The visitors never knew that the instant coconut grove was not part of the original landscape plan…. [From Victoria Luna, “Another Extravaganza In The Making,” Ang Katipunan, May 16-31, 1979, p. 5.]