Growing up as a Filipino in Canada, I have a complicated history with skin whitening. Days at the beach spent with my loved ones would be followed by shamefaced glances at the mirror at proof that I was Brown.
I know I’m not the only one who’s had this unhealthy relationship with their skin.
Practiced across Asia and other parts of the world, skin whitening is a broad term that includes treatments and products meant to reduce the pigment in your skin. Also known as “skin lightening” or “skin bleaching”, methods can involve soaps, face masks, lotions, pills, injectables, and more.
Despite its popularity, according to Refinery29, there isn’t definitive research that guarantees any skin whitening process is “safe”. In fact, some organic compounds used in products, namely hydroquinone, “can cause rashes, redness, irritation, and even skin darkening.”
Even more dangerous are cheap whitening creams smuggled into the Philippine market. Refinery29’s investigation found that the contraband contained “up to 41,000 times the legal limit of mercury, which could cause health issues with just one application.”
So, even knowing the risks involved, why do so many Filipino women and men still whiten their skin? Filipino people have vast and unique features, which often includes a brown complexion (kayumanggi in Tagalog).
By now, many of us understand Filipino beauty standards were shaped by centuries of colonization by Spain, America, and Japan. Whiteness was attributed to colonial power and became a moral and beauty ideal.
Unlearning the desire for skin whitening means refusing to let colonialism dictate who we are. It means embracing our full selves.
That said, even now as an adult, I condemn skin lightening but find myself tempted to use an umbrella in the summer, not to avoid rain but tanning.
Recognizing the problem is always the first step.
As I grapple with unlearning this obsession myself, I’ve found the following strategies helpful and hope they can serve you, too.
1. To end our need for skin whitening, understand why Filipinos are obsessed with it in the first place.
Like me, you might find yourself sometimes asking, “Am I just being image-obsessed?”
The reality is, for many, skin bleaching isn’t a vain whim but an effort to remove barriers from social and economic opportunities, even at the cost of our health. In other words, by lightening your skin, you improve the chances that you land a better job or gain social connections. It’s a status symbol.
This isn’t a new story—in fact, it’s more than 500 years old. The reality of colorism for Filipinos is the inheritance of our colonial history. From the Spanish racial hierarchy in our society to the American depiction of Filipinos to the post-colonial drive toward “cosmopolitan whiteness”, all of these influence our beauty culture.
Always remember: our desire to be fairer and our shame around being Brown are not a result of personal failure. It comes from colorism, white supremacy, and colonialism.
Knowing this, we can learn how to better identify the colonial influence in our skincare.
Until recently, I wasn’t aware of the difference between products marketed to “brighten” versus “lighten”. The latter deals with reducing pigmentation, the actual melanin in your skin, while the former is about giving you a refreshed glow.
Learning this got me thinking specifically about the language of colorism in the skincare industry. For example, a “Cinderella drip” suggests that fairer skin has a rags-to-riches effect on your life. The fairytale connection is an added layer that frames skin lightening as a “moral, heroic” thing to do.
This messaging doesn’t align with my values. Thinking more critically about my skincare routine has made me more aware of the parts I want to drop, especially because I’m also unlearning colorism in other areas of my life.
2. To break up with skin whitening and embrace our Filipino beauty, stay conscious of ways our society prefers an ethnically ambiguous, white-passing face.
Ironically, while nonwhite people feel pressure to conform to Eurocentric facial features, in recent years, we’ve also seen praise for ethnic ambiguity and the commodification of BIPOC features.
Late in 2021, I came across photos of Ariana Grande sporting an “Asian look”. Instantly, I flashed back to when I found out Ariana Grande was Italian-American, not Latina. It was as jarring as seeing old photos of the Kardashian clan.
Both Grande and the Kardashians have also been criticized for “blackfishing” in the past. And now we see how the rising popularity of Korean culture (K-pop and K-dramas) has made way for another “lucrative” form of appropriation: Asian-fishing.
For people of color, our melanated skin is not something we can wipe off at the end of the day. Our identity is not an aesthetic we can shrug off. Nor would we want to.
Ethnic features like slanted eyes, nose shapes, and lips are not fads for us. Looking Asian is simply our reality. Yet the plastic surgery world shows us trends that suggest otherwise.
We see much the same on social media. The “Instagram Baddie” look is a mish-mash of Latin, Arab, Black, and Asian features. With a curvy body, the Instagram Baddie has almond-shaped eyes, cartoonishly tiny noses, and plump lips. But as enigmatic as her ethnicity is, the Instagram Baddie can’t be too dark.
In an article for Nylon Magazine, Sara Li puts it so succinctly: “Beauty, it seems, is only cognizant of nonwhite features when it fits a Eurocentric agenda, and tech has only rewarded the issue.”
Last summer, the “Glow Look” filter on TikTok was criticized for the way it only worked for white faces.
I remember trying the filter myself. I never posted anything with it. My face looked… wacky, like an off-brand Disney princess. But I felt even worse when I turned the filter off and was met with my round unfreckled Brown face.
“For people of color, when something that’s supposed to make us look ‘better’ can’t even work on our faces,” wrote Jennimai Nguyen, “it suggests that there’s something inherently wrong with our features.”
Amira Adawe, founder of The Beautywell Project, a nonprofit that fights against colorism and skin lightening, believes that while face filters “can be part of a cycle of colorism, they have become essential to the way some girls see themselves.”
This is my current struggle. Skin-lightening filters have been my shield, on and off, through the years. I know it will take more years to rewrite the skin whitening story.
So, I’m starting with baby steps. As I’ve started to embrace my Filipino features, I say no to more filters.
Here are some other baby steps I’ve taken and you might want to consider:
- Unfollow influencers who excessively retouch their photos with apps and filters if you find it feeds your insecurities.
- Check in with a trusted friend if you’re unsure about posting anything—I do this when I feel insecure about a filterless picture and they always hype me up!
- If you do end up using a filter, post to your IG story first since it’s only up for 24 hours.
- Turn off the like count on your posts. It’s your feed and your space to take up.
Soon, you’ll realize like I did: we don’t need to look white and use filters to Glow.
3. Think, then talk, about the media we consume and how it might reinforce skin whitening for Filipinos.
Even in the diaspora, I was affected by the overrepresentation and fetishization of mestiza and white skin in Filipino media.
In middle school, whenever a Filipino show came on TV, I took note of how dark-skinned characters were often walking punchlines: ever supportive, comedic, and flat. I’ve since had many conversations with my family about this, since some of us have skin darker, lighter, or somewhere in between.
Even just offering my observations has encouraged us to open up about our own experiences being “punchlines.” For example, like many Filipinos who grew up associating skin color with class, my own dad felt the need to prove himself in school. He was darker than his classmates and seen as “inferior.”
While I’m lighter than my dad, I could relate. Many of my Asian classmates were lighter than me, so I grew up with unsolicited comments about my skin color. It was normal for us to lift our hands in a circle at recess and sigh about how “dark” we were, moments after gushing about the latest K-drama we watched.
Back then, I would do anything to deny being Brown. “I’m caramel,” I would say. It was easier to stomach.
My childhood friends and I talked about this strange habit as we caught up a few weeks ago. We all agreed that it was detrimental to our self-esteem and laughed in horror at just how powerful of a chokehold white supremacy had on our school population. Note: we grew up in a community heavily populated by fellow immigrants.
It only shows how entrenched we were in TV shows, movies, and books that excluded or vilified us for being darker-skinned.
As much as I cringe at those experiences now, sharing and reflecting on them with my family and friends has been crucial. These conversations reveal how colonialism hurts us all and can drive change in how we see Brown characters and people, including ourselves.
4. Re-evaluating our language to think and talk about dark skin can help us combat the Filipino obsession with skin whitening.
Perhaps like me, when you look in the mirror before heading out, you can still hear a voice saying, “Don’t play in the sun for too long, you’ll get dark.”
It might not even be in your head. You might hear or read comments like this from loved ones and strangers alike. So how can we reject these statements when we’re “out in the wild”?
Before anything else, remember you’re never obliged to acknowledge what anybody else says about your body. There doesn’t need to be a longer discussion if you don’t want there to be one.
However, if you do want to talk it out, you can ask why they feel it’s important to warn you against being dark. As a starting point, we can say things like:
- “There is nothing wrong with being dark.”
- “I’ll take care to protect my skin but I’m celebrating my complexion either way.”
- “Thank you for your concern, but the shade of my skin is neither in your control nor your business.”
It’s important to make clear that getting dark or being tanned is not bad. When we counter the verbal colorism, ideally, it would encourage our community to rethink their perspective on Brown skin.
Ultimately, it starts with us.
If you have a skincare routine, you can approach each step with gratitude for keeping your body’s largest organ healthy. For example, “This facial cleanser keeps my skin clean; this moisturizer makes me feel refreshed; and, this sunscreen protects me from UVA/UVB rays.”
Learn the language for what you and your skin really need. I think of Ella Jay Basco’s song “Gold”: “When you learn to love your true reflection, then you’ll always be rich with a gold complexion.”
Gold is something precious that we cherish. So is my skin.
5. Embracing our Filipino skin & saying “no” to skin whitening means affirming our Brownness when we look in the mirror.
After a day at the beach, I can remind myself that my tan is beautiful because it’s a reminder that I was doing something for myself. Surrounded by people I love at a place I love, these moments are for me and nobody else.
I want my love for the sun, my heritage, and myself to outshine the fear of being “too dark.”
As we learn to embrace our beauty, we encourage and enable each other to do the same. Unlearning our obsession with skin whitening and talking about its inherent colorism uplifts our community. It brings us further from banned and dangerous skin whitening products.
So, take this as a reminder that you’re beautiful and extraordinary. You are capable of achievements that stretch far beyond your looks. And you’re not alone.
Surrounding ourselves with a community who will learn with us and celebrate who we are can only help us thrive in our full, Filipino selves.
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