first person

Before I Embraced My Brownness, I Tried to Lighten My Skin

Photo: JEFF BERGEN/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Eskinol left behind a cool, astringent sensation on my skin. “Classic White Facial Deep Cleanser,” the label read, displaying a bright-eyed model with a rose-petal complexion accentuated by inky hair. As I rubbed the whitener onto my face with a cotton ball, I closed my eyes and imagined scouring away layers of brown skin, leaving behind a luminous pallor, like washing grime off china.

My mother is Filipina, and I inherited her dusky kayumanggi complexion. Growing up, I didn’t dwell much on my skin tone. If anything, it often drew praise from my friends, mostly white, who would have gladly traded their sunburns for my year-round tan. But dating a Filipino immersed me in a culture that idealized the opposite: a fair-skinned, half-white mestiza look.

I had grown up in a mostly white suburb with little exposure to Filipino culture beyond my mom’s cooking. But in college, I found a thriving community of Filipino-American students, including my former boyfriend. I was drawn to his goofy humor and laid-back personality, which smoothed out my own serious, anxious edges. At the same time, he seemed so “together.” A year before graduation, he already had a job lined up, and dreamt of settling down and starting a big family. He was born in the Philippines, spoke Tagalog, and avidly followed Filipino pop culture. On our first few dates, we listened to Tagalog songs on his iPhone and ate at local Filipino restaurants. I felt an immediate sense of belonging, but also a keen awareness of all the Filipino culture I had missed out on growing up, and a hunger to connect with it.

We spent much of our time together streaming variety shows and teleseryes, their seas of mestizos and mestizas forming the backdrop of our life. Transfixed by their milky skin and thin, aquiline noses, I hit the nearest Filipino supermarket and stocked up on skin whitener. I had a nagging sense that lightening my skin was somehow wrong, but I brushed it aside. After all, I couldn’t rewrite the beauty standards, so I might as well do what I could to meet them.

I began following a strict daily regimen. Every morning and night, I massaged Eskinol — a toner whose ingredients include potassium alum and citric acid, which can lessen skin pigmentation — into my face and neck, reveling in the slight sting I felt afterward (surely a sign of its potency, I thought). In the shower, I lathered myself with Likas Papaya Skin Whitening Soap, which contains the pigment-reducing enzyme papain, and worked Cream Silk Brilliant Black conditioner into my hair. The henna in it was supposed to darken my hair, which I reasoned would also help my skin look lighter.

My boyfriend never told me to whiten my skin, and in fact, I doubt he would have cared whether I did or not. My desire for fair skin stemmed mostly from my own adoption of Filipino beauty standards. Still, his occasional comments about how pretty certain artistas — celebrities — looked as their faces illuminated the screen during our teleserye binges only encouraged my efforts.

After about a month, I noticed that my skin had, in fact, lightened a few shades, so much so that my cheeks bore a subtle pink flush. “Now she looks like an artista,” my boyfriend told my mom during a visit to my parents’ house.  I felt a flutter of excitement. It was working.

Six months later, the summer after we met, we vacationed in the Philippines, where the idealization of mestiza features was ubiquitous and unabashed. Every day, I encountered a flood of ads hawking skin whitening toners, soaps, and pills. Some billboards displayed mestiza stars in glittering, celestial evening gowns. Others showed before and after photos of everyday women, their brown skin lightened to nearly porcelain, their hair dyed light brown or blonde. One TV commercial featured an actress traipsing through a large, airy home in a white tank top, accepting a bouquet of white flowers from a man wearing a white polo shirt.

I saw this messaging play out in real life, too: aunts who heavily powdered their faces, giving them an ashen, ghostly appearance; a cousin who didn’t want to visit Boracay, a gorgeous beach destination, because she “didn’t want to get dark.” I saw in them a reflection of my own efforts — and I realized they were ridiculous. One day, I threw my half-used bottle of Eskinol into the trash bin. I made it a point to spend the rest of the trip moving freely under the sun, relishing its warmth on my skin instead of retreating from it.

“You got so tan,” my boyfriend’s mom remarked when we returned home. “Do you like that?” I felt myself shrink. Am I not supposed to?

And it wasn’t just my boyfriend’s family. On another trip to the Philippines, I sat on a flight to Manila with my two younger sisters, who have inherited fairer skin, higher nose bridges, and other typically white features from the Spanish ancestors on my mom’s side. Relatives and other Filipinos we met often singled out my youngest sister, who looks the most mestiza. A few flat-out said she was the prettiest. “You should take her to the Philippines,” they told my parents. “She could be an artista.Artista, of course, pretty much meant mestiza.

As a flight attendant gave us cups of water, he asked, “Sisters?”

“Yes,” we responded, with polite smiles.

“You look so alike,” he said, “but who is the prettiest?” He paused, examining us, deliberating. I expected a dad joke punch line, something like, “All of you!”

Instead he pointed at my youngest sister and said, “You!” before moving on to the next row of passengers. We stared at each other with mouths agape, dumbstruck.

One day, seeking answers, I started Googling Filipino history. As I read, I felt a twinge in my gut. Did my own, intensely personal sense of dissatisfaction really stem from a system of oppression set in place centuries before I was even born?

During its more than 300-year reign, Spain established a racial caste system similar to those in its other colonies, which placed indigenous Filipinos at the bottom and full-blooded Spaniards at the top. Spanish descent offered labor and tax exemption, as well as other privileges. Since the system was based on patrilineal descent, a woman could secure her children’s future by marrying someone from a higher caste than her own. While her caste would stay the same, her children would be born into a higher caste and enjoy its attendant privileges.

Echoes of that caste system reverberate today. Beauty pageants and showbiz offer perhaps the swiftest escape from poverty in the Philippines, and being mestiza greatly boosts the odds of success. (The most recent Filipina Miss Universe and Miss World winners, Pia Wurtzbach and Megan Young, are both mestiza.)

Suddenly, I understood why relatives and other Filipinos — like judges in some weird, messed-up pageant among sisters — often rank me last. That understanding, in turn, unleashed rage and disgust at the whole system and how it incentivized self-hatred. After all, what more effective way to conquer a people than to make them hate themselves so much that they want to dilute their ancestry? That they want to literally scrub the Filipino-ness off their skin?

After I ditched my skin-whitening routine, it took only a few days for my complexion to deepen to its natural brown color. But it took longer for me to let go of my colonial mentality. Instead of immersing myself in mainstream Filipino culture, I needed exposure to beautiful images of women who looked like me, like Manuela Basilio, Danica Magpantay, Meki Saldana, and other kayumanggi supermodels with brown skin, broad noses, and full lips like my own. These stylish, artfully shot photos have helped me realize that my own features are worthy of the same respect and admiration.There’s a term for this process: decolonizing my mind. I learned it from Hella Pinay, a digital media platform that celebrates Filipinas throughout history.

My experience allowed me to see the ugliness of what the skin-whitening industry really is: companies profiting from and perpetuating self-hatred. It also shifted my broader understanding of beauty. Before, I believed my sisters were “objectively” prettier than me. Other Filipinos’ appraisals of our looks only confirmed this belief. But learning more about the colonial-era Philippines helped me realize that history and culture shape what we judge as beautiful; these preferences don’t just materialize from the ether. There’s no such thing as an “objective” standard of beauty, unless by “objective,” we mean “white.” In the end, only I hold the power to make myself feel beautiful. I can give that power to skin whiteners, or others’ opinions — or not.

A few months ago, I joined the Hella Pinay team as a writer. Decolonizing a mind-set that has taken years and requires constant hard work, but Hella Pinay has made it easier for me. I feel like I owe it to other Filipinas to help them decolonize their mind-sets too, so that when they look in the mirror, they finally see the power they had in them all along.

Before I Embraced My Brownness, I Tried to Lighten My Skin