Besides providing temporary refuge from Baltimore’s humidity, what made my trip to southern California two years ago so memorable were moments when I witnessed my body soften. My shoulders released from tension’s grip as I saw my Filipina self reflected in the community around me.
As a then twenty-two year old, it was the first time that I had been around so many Filipinos outside of the mainland. I saw magic where others might have seen regular people carrying out the mundane. In parking lots and grocery store lines, I grew in awe of our shared Filipino heritage and how our roots spanned the world.
Me and Ama in Hagonoy, Bulacan, my dad’s birthplace.
What fascinated me most was how their beauty radiated simply from existing. They didn't have to try to be beautiful; they just were.
Now when I reflect on the significance of those moments of tenderness, I imagine how the teenage version of myself might have responded in the same situation. Truthfully, her response would have been one of embarrassment rather than empowerment.
Growing up in predominantly white spaces, she erased her otherness in a human attempt to belong. She embraced what others considered acceptable and discarded the rest. Often, this process meant minimizing the very parts that represented her Filipino identity.
My Early Understanding Of Filipina Beauty
My desire for belonging manifested primarily through my younger self's beauty rituals.
I was fourteen years old when I started masking my face with mismatched foundations. My dad, who I resemble most between my parents, often asked me why I wore makeup around our home if I didn't have plans.
At that age, I didn't have the awareness to explain that I felt pressure to alter my appearance to be accepted. Never mind the ability to articulate that our family didn't match what mainstream media considered beautiful.
My parents in the Philippines
At the core of my physical insecurities was my nose. I once hated that it was small, flat, and bulbous. That it widened when I teemed with joy. I believed that waking up one day with a slender nose was the ticket to societal admiration.
This distaste towards my face—the features that mark my Filipino identity—didn't start with me.
My mom used to tell me that if I tugged the skin between my eyes long enough, I could get the pointed nose of my dreams. She said our family members told her the same when she was young. I would tug at my nose bridge as religiously as my parents attended church.
However, to my disappointment, my appearance didn’t change.
What Makeup Taught Me About Filipino History and Why It Matters
What has changed over time is my understanding of how these beauty ideals came to be. I used to blame my mom for my insecurities. I now know that my mom was not the source of these ideas but rather an unknowing agent—like others in our family—who passed down harmful beliefs which have persisted across time and space.
These ideals communicate that we aren't good enough as we are. They demonstrate the pervasiveness of what E. J. R. David, the author of “Brown Skin, White Minds,” calls “colonial mentalities:” forms of internalized oppression among native and diasporic Filipinos alike.
Other markers include discrimination against less westernized Filipinos, and the downplaying of historical and modern-day oppression under Spanish colonialism and U.S. imperialism. Colonial mentalities have become so normalized in the Filipino collective psyche that they color what we consider as culture.
That said, you don't have to live on the mainland to feel the effects of these deeply entrenched beliefs.
For me, they held on even as my family and I moved further away from the Philippines. In October 2014, we relocated again from Birmingham, England, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Although these cities are culturally worlds apart, the same Eurocentric beauty standards followed.
I would still grapple with understanding my Filipino identity with little reference on how to celebrate it.
At seventeen years old, I continued to move on autopilot. I erased my Filipino features in the hopes of becoming more acceptable to myself and others. But as we moved further away from the motherland and closer towards the illusion of the American Dream, my desire for belonging shifted:
I longed to more intimately know the land that nurtured me during my earliest years.
Why does it matter to understand how colonial mentalities show up in our lives? In 2013, approximately 10.2 million people of Filipino descent lived or worked abroad. In 2016, more than 1.9 million Filipinos lived in the United States alone. As Filipino immigration trends continue toward westernized nations, exposure to Eurocentric beauty standards will inevitably heighten. I imagine that many Filipinos coming of age overseas will also struggle with similar inner tensions that I did as a teenager.
More Than Makeup: Looking Inwards to Appreciate Our Inherent Beauty As Filipinas
Putting down roots in Baltimore, Maryland, four years ago helped me realize how meaningful my Filipino heritage is. I met more fellow first-generation immigrants through my college classes. Conversations with them helped me realize that my Filipino roots and global upbringing were never burdens, but instead gifts which greatly enhanced my worldview.
This shifted perspective changed how I expressed myself to the world. To start, I became more intentional about slowing down and reflecting on my lived experiences. I gradually realized that because I directed so much energy on gaining outer validation, I barely knew what it felt like to be loved and held by myself.
As far as outer expression and colonial beauty standards are concerned, the work of wellness platforms like that of fellow Filipina, Alyssa Mancao, have been vital to my journey. The following post especially resonated with me and influenced how I relate to beauty:
Over time, my beauty rituals have shortened. I now enhance the very features I used to shrink. I often daydream about the history that is behind them.
For example, when I highlight my button nose, I imagine how it has adapted to the Philippines' tropical climate over time. I also look at my high cheekbones, a notable physical feature among my dad's side of the family. I then wonder who else in my ancestry may have utilized makeup to accentuate theirs.
I've found that incorporating my imagination into my beauty routine helps me become more self-empowered. At the same time, this practice nurtures my sense of connectedness back home. Other practices, including making space for more rest and rewriting ideals around Filipino womanhood, can also help us sink deeper into embracing our existence.
Interested in using your makeup practices as a tool for cultivating deeper self-understanding and connectedness to our ancestors? Consider the following questions to get started:
- Growing up, who and what informed your ideas around beauty? Did these sources encourage erasure or empowerment of your Filipino heritage?
- What are some common beauty practices among your family? If known, what were their reasons?
- Can you recall what drove you to deepen your relationship with your Filipino heritage? If it hasn’t happened yet, what might be stopping you?
- Shift your focus from your external appearance to your immigrant experience. What are you most proud of in being a Filipino immigrant? How does greater acknowledgment of these milestones make you feel about yourself?
- Reflect on some of your daily makeup practices today. Can you make connections between these practices and how you relate to your Filipino identity? How can you use your imagination to nurture the relationship between the two?
No matter where we're planted, comfort can begin right where we are. We all deserve to see wonder in ourselves, and looking inwards is the most powerful place to start. After all, this self-inquiry will only help us shine brighter—like our parents worked so hard for us to—as we continue to pave new paths across the world.
This essay is dedicated to my paternal granddad, who our family affectionately calls “Ama” (pictured above). Besides sharing physical similarities with him and my dad, Ama’s passion for reading remains strong within me. This intergenerational love for education helps me feel connected to home. Ama would’ve turned ninety years old this May.
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Irene Bantigue (pronounced "ban-tee-gey") is a Baguio City native with roots stretching across the Philippines, United Kingdom, and United States. Irene graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2019 with a B.A. in Sociology and currently writes for Impact Hub Baltimore. She also shares her thoughts via irenebntg. Her essays primarily explore how she navigates the world as a first-generation immigrant, and what it means to be untethered to her various homes.
Hi, Ate Irene. I stumbled across your article at school, during AP Government. It has been such a long time since I first met you when we went to Boracay when I was around 8 or 9. I didn’t realize that you wrote articles because when I spoke to you last, you told me about being a politician in the near future. I didn’t know what that was. I relate to everything you said, and I hope things go how you dream them to because you deserve it.
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