[Family] The tyranny of tisay beauty

Nikka Santos
How do you teach your morena daughter to survive in a country where brown skin is a national insecurity?

BEAUTIFUL EYES, AREN'T THEY? The author's daughter, Patris, unaware of her skin color, glows with the serenity of a child. Photo from Nikka Santos

MANILA, Philippines – It’s okay if you’re not mestiza. Really. That is one of the most profound truths I wish to impart to my 6-year-old daughter. It may sound silly, but I’m serious.

She is growing up in a country where skin-whitening products are a billion-peso industry, as companies are cashing in on a national insecurity about our brown skin. It’s an insecurity we haven’t shaken off since Jose Rizal commented on it in Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Remember, Doña Victorina — his tragically laughable character — who would slap on gobs of powder to pass herself off as a Spanish mestiza?

Generations have already read Rizal’s scathing novels on the ills of our culture, but beauty and a certain status in society still come with being … white.

Today, flocks of women buy potions with mercury or hydroquinone and other chemicals, practically poisoning themselves in an effort to be — you guessed it — whiter.

Maybe you’ve seen this ad?

There is a young (teen-aged!) skater girl who is tomboyish — and brownish. Two of her friends decide she needs a makeover — both happen to be mestiza. The fair-skinned girls see their morena friend as someone in dire need of a new life. So they give her the standard change of clothes and make-up session.

Then last, but certainly not the least, as they look forlornly at her dark skin, they decide she needs (needs!) this lotion that promises whiter skin. In a few days, the lotion fulfills its promise and our young protagonist is brown no more. As she magically turns five shades lighter, she gets a boyfriend, rocks a new dress and giggles her way to a happy ending with her mestiza fairy god friends. 

Even men’s facial care products now boast having “glutathione for whiter skin.” There’s an ad out for that with a famous mestizo in it. 

I’m only citing two examples among many local ads that all essentially say:

If you’re brown, you have a problem. 

The message is particularly insidious to young girls. Oh, if only you were shades lighter, life will be better! Boys will like you! You’ll have confidence!  

My daughter won’t just hear this message from all sorts of media, she will also hear real, live comments echoing this damaged part of our culture.

Right in front of her and her brother, an elderly relative once admonished me, “Why are they so dark?” I explained that they’ve been taking swimming lessons. To which followed the advice, “Stop it! They are sooo dark!” 

Skin cancer wasn’t the issue here, mind you, as admonishing relative was assured sunscreen is judiciously applied to prevent melanoma. No, never mind that. She was just concerned about the color of their skin.

The father of my children also happens to have features that display his Spanish roots. The situation of him having children with a woman who shows more of the Malay in her mix has brought on some iffy comments as well. Upon seeing our daughter for the first time, someone had blurted, “Oh … she is … so … Filipina.”

Her implication being who knows what, but I did trace some disappointment in her voice.

What is so wrong with dark skin? Wasn’t The Girl from Ipanema tall and tan and young and lovely?

I thought beauty in diversity was already a cliché. Not around here.

Apparently, my being cool with the way I look is not the norm. 

Like that skater girl in the ad, my skin is brown and I have beautiful mestiza friends. One of my oldest and dearest friends looks like Anne Hathaway, and another looks like Natalie Portman. Not once have we looked sadly at my skin and decided that this color just cannot be. My friends are gorgeous, but I don’t feel the need to make myself look like them.

I’m not winning a beauty contest, but so what? I want my daughter to be comfortable with her self, too. She needs to realize that she is the sum of her parts — most especially her heart and mind, least of all her looks and skin color. 

We are actually dealing with twin issues here.

One is the obsession with being whiter as well as the obsession with looks. All this has an impact on the self-esteem of Filipino girls everywhere — whether morena, mestiza, chinita or any other racial mix.

I can’t control companies profiting from the Doña Victorina mindset. I’m not sure how to stop the flow of degrading and infuriating media messages. I can’t change shallow people who make silly comments about the supposedly sad and sorry state of being dark. 

What I can do is change the conversation. 

I’m starting by holding back on telling girls how pretty they are, including my own daughter. Comments about looks seem to have become the standard conversation-starter with young women. You’re so pretty! Ang payat mo! I’m guilty of this, but now I realize it has to stop.

That girl in front of me may be a real beauty, but I’m going to skip the discussion on how cute she is and move on to more relevant topics. I can talk to her about her art projects, the books she reads, music she listens to, how she’s doing in school or what sports she’s into.

I’ll ask for her opinions. Listen to her ideas. Move on to … what she is doing with her life that bears real meaning.

If we change the way we talk to girls around us, one day we may have more Filipinas comfortable with themselves however they look.

SUNSHINE AND CHILDHOOD. Children have the right to enjoy the sun. It's good for their bones and their experience of growing up. Photo from Nikka Santos

One day, throngs of women may stop poisoning themselves just to look like someone else.

One day, silly whitening lotion ads may just disappear for good.

Call me naive, but I’m giving this a try. – Rappler.com

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