What It Means to Be Pretty
Fig. 1, The author in her youth, on the sandy beaches of Boracay
We often find that our experiences as children inform many of our actions later in life—from nail-biting to pulling out the split ends of my hair. Over time, though, I learned that childhood did not only influence physical, outward habits, but also the way that I view the rest of the world. I often caught myself staring in the mirror as a young girl, scrutinizing every aspect of my distinctly Filipino appearance, wishing that the face that gazed back would look like the faces plastered on the billboards that line our highways in the Philippines. Being Filipino, to me, for so long meant wishing that I didn’t look like one. The praise of “pretty” in the Philippines has always been awarded to a specific type of girl, and throughout my life, attitudes in my country—attitudes that I myself have blindly succumbed to—have reminded me that that girl was not and will never be me.
I learned what it meant to be pretty when I was four in the white sandy beaches of Boracay. The sun was shining brightly above us, and the sea and the sky were competing on who could be more blue. It was a glorious sight for my preschool self. My family decided to take a vacation there for the summer, and I was ready to have the best time of my life. I had my round belly poking out of my blue speedo, pink crocs on my feet, and a pail and shovel in my hands as I stared wide-eyed at the shore. Taking in the smell of the salt air, I took a step out of the cabana, but a sharp tug on my arm quickly pulled me back. My mother, with a stern look, held me close as she smothered a greasy layer of sunblock all over my body and face. Laughs and screams echoed from down the beach; the other kids were already playing, but there I was, under the shade, waiting for the sunblock to dry.
I learned what it meant to be pretty the next day when the pinkish glow of a sunburn on my skin turned into a deep tan. My mother reminded me to come back to her for another layer of sunblock every hour or else “Iitim ka!” [You’ll get dark!], she would warn me. Somehow understanding that was a bad thing, I did as I was told. For the first few hours, after getting a good amount of sea water down my throat and a handful of sand in my swimsuit, my bare feet would traverse the gritty terrain towards my mother who already had a dollop of sunblock prepared on her hand. However, I was four and easily distracted. Burying my brother into the ground and giving him a mermaid’s tail was much more entertaining than an extra layer of SPF. Before I knew it, the sun was down, the sky was turning red, and my skin was changing color too.
I learned what it meant to be pretty when I looked at the mirror at four years old and felt my eyes swell with tears. Seeing the deep brown tan that the sun had left upon my skin, my mom burst into mocking laughter. “Ang itim mo na!” [You’ve gotten so dark!], she said, inspecting my face closely; she wasn’t the only one who noticed. In fact, I was the center of attention that entire night—a dark brown target for my family to poke fun at. Jokes like “Kamukha mo na si yaya” [You look like the maids] and “Di ka na gaganda” [You’re not pretty anymore] were thrown at me—at my skin—throughout that evening. They were just jokes, though. Harmless jokes. Jokes that made me think I was irredeemably ugly. Jokes that made me afraid to go under the sun. Jokes that led me to go back to school hiding my face behind a large handkerchief placed atop my head because I was too afraid to be made fun of again.
I was only four years old, and yet I already understood the remarkably close relationship between one’s skin color and beauty—in that only those with light skin deserve to be called “pretty.” This was a reality not only made apparent by my family but also made so blatantly obvious everywhere in my country. Anywhere you go, the concept of fairer skin being superior follows you around with big name brands exploiting these same cultural expectations. In the Philippines, skin-whitening advertisements bombard our televisions, magazines, and billboards while a vast assortment of skin-whitening products fill up the shelves of our drugstores. Fair skin is not just fair skin. Rather, it is a status symbol—a currency—that disenfranchises the natural color of many Filipinos: the color of kayumanggi (dark brown).
Dark brown Filipinos often serve as the before picture on beauty ads. Their skin is depicted as something that should be changed and something that, once gone, will improve their quality of life. This can be seen in the typical narrative that skin-whitening ads like to tell: a girl with dark skin struggles with life, the girl is introduced to product X, the girl whitens her skin with product X, and finally, the girl lives happily ever after. This seemingly ridiculous storyline is the narrative I grew up with, the narrative that was repeatedly embedded into my brain from the moment I was born. The appeal of fair skin was a message impossible to escape. Even now, in a time of increasing acceptance of different standards of beauty, this message continues to invade various aspects of my life, making it extremely difficult to convince myself of its absurdity, though I know it is absurd.
Fig. 2. GlutaMAX Ad