What Does It Mean To “Look” Filipino? Thoughts On Filipina Beauty

What Does It Mean To “Look” Filipino? Thoughts On Filipina Beauty

In discussing Filipina beauty and empowerment, the following article touches on internalized racism. The writer also briefly mentions skin lightening and hate crimes. If any of these topics are upsetting to you, be gentle with yourself. (Here are other stories of ours.)

“You don’t look Filipino.” Statements like this have followed me throughout the years like shadows. “You look Korean.”

These have come from strangers, friends, or even family. After a pause, they might concede with, “No, your nose is too flat. You’re definitely Filipino.”

But no matter which form these observations took, I was always left feeling like I didn’t belong.

Telling someone they don’t look Filipino isn’t the compliment you might think it is.

It can leave someone feeling Othered. Othering is a process in which conscious (or subconscious) assumptions are made about a certain group, typically viewing them as in opposition or a threat to the dominant group.

With that in mind, for those with less representation, like diasporic or mixed race Filipinos, it can feel delegitimizing of our identity.

Telling someone they don’t look Filipino isn’t the compliment you might think it is.
(Photo by Ike Louie Natividad)

My family lives in Canada and when I visited the Philippines, strangers would ask if I was Korean. It heightened my anxiety about not being fluent in Tagalog or Cebuano and for my ignorance in the simplest of things.

My whole life, I thought “C.R.” was a Filipino word so when I went back after being away for sixteen years, imagine my surprise at seeing the words “COMFORT ROOM” on a door. 

For many in the diaspora (including myself), there’s often something that makes us feel like we’re less of a “real” Filipino. Whether it’s a language barrier, lack of cultural knowledge, or being unable to visit the homeland, it can feel like there’s an ever-growing list of requirements that seems nearly impossible to fulfill.

As a Filipino, being compared to another race or ethnicity isn’t new, and it brings up complex feelings. 

When focus is placed on how someone might “look like” another ethnicity (for example, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean), the beauty of an entire culture may be overlooked and devalued. 

In high school, a classmate of mine sat next to me in a computer lab and would flirt while watching K-dramas when our teacher wasn’t looking. When I told him I was Filipino, he actually voiced his disappointment.

“I thought you were Korean,” he said. Then he hardly spoke to me after. 

As a Filipino, being compared to another race or ethnicity isn’t new, and it brings up complex feelings. (Photo of the writer, me, Mikaela)

This left me feeling confused and inadequate. Was I less pretty or attractive for simply being Filipino?

Years later, when people say that I look like another ethnicity, I still feel like I’m not Filipino enough or that being Filipino is something to be ashamed of. As if it isn’t as cool or hip. 

Asian cultures do not exist to be only “cool” or “hip”.

Clearly, generalization can do a lot of damage. Reducing a wide group of people to aesthetic values is not healthy. (See: Koreaboo culture.)

When we perpetuate this narrative that all people of an ethnicity must be docile or smart or cool or attractive, even if seemingly positive, it has historically resulted in the trauma of hate crimes and internalized racism. To be seen as one nameless, faceless part of a whole means being dehumanized and treated as interchangeable.

In our own community and media, the idealization and oversaturation of one specific set of features (i.e. Eurocentric, close to “white-passing”) has only bolstered the skin lightening industry. Upholding mestiza/o features as the ideal ignores and, in some ways, erases the diversity of our own Filipino communities.

Asian cultures do not exist only to be “cool” or “hip”.  (Photo by James Reyes)

One day, my grandmothers were watching a teleserye airing on TV and my Lola said, “I wish I wasn’t so dark” while comparing herself to an actress of Spanish descent. I stopped in my tracks and said, “Lola, you’re beautiful.”

That conversation has stuck with me for years, if only for the sinking feeling in my core that she might not have believed me in that moment, and how sobering it is to think that most days, I have to fight to believe that for myself.

Regardless of how we do look, being Filipino is beautiful.

The Philippines is made up of thousands of islands and our people have millions of faces, each unique and wonderful in their own right. Given our long history of trade, migration, colonization, and religious missions, I can see why we would be mistaken as another ethnicity.

We have had relationships with our Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, and Indonesian neighbors—as well as the Spanish, Americans, and more—for centuries, resulting in diversity across our features, languages, and culture. 

If only we’d be seen as that: an archipelago of intricate and unique peoples. Thankfully, movements like #MagandangMorenx encourage us to take up as much Brown space as we can.

When we commit to embracing the truth that our features hold power and joy, we dismantle the harm—not only in ourselves but even across beauty trends.

So, what does it mean to look Filipino? For me, it means my eyes resemble my Chinese ancestors’. It means my nose echoes my Lola’s. My complexion is a blend of my parents’.

There is some Manila in my blood. Some Nagcarlan. Some Samar. 

Looking Filipino means owning our Brown bodies. It means acknowledging our beauty by letting the sun spill on our skin. It can mean so many different things and those possibilities are in our unflinching reflections.

Cover photo by CJ Mauricio (Litratista CJ)

Are you learning to love the reflection in your mirror too?

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Mikaela Lucido

Mikaela Lucido

Mikaela Lucido was born in Manila, Philippines and lives in Mississauga. She studied Creative Writing & Publishing at Sheridan College. Her work has been featured in Savant-Garde Literary Magazine, post ghost press, Gothic Tales of Haunted Futures, and Augur Magazine. She is a first reader for Savant-Garde Literary Magazine. Find her on Twitter (@LucidoMikaela) where she is often live-tweeting about Taylor Swift, superheroes, or mental health.


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