Calgary·Filipino Bureau

Why some Filipinos lighten their skin, some don't, and few want to talk about it

Karina Zapata, a Calgary-based Filipina journalist, explores concepts of beauty, personal choice, cultural stigma, the movement to celebrate dark skin and the acceptance of those who make different choices

It’s a complex and personal issue, but it may not be as divisive as it seems

Brittney Barcena, Eldee Reyes, Hanes Marasigan-Anotado and others in the Filipino community discuss beauty, wellness and skin colour. (Karina Zapata)

For many of us in the Filipino community, skin isn't just skin — it can represent complex social and historical issues. How we relate to those issues can lead us to make choices about our skin. Choices not everyone agrees on.

Madeahl Yamyamin was in the sixth grade in the Philippines when she started to believe that she would be more beautiful if her skin was lighter. She was about to join her first beauty pageant and, as a self-described naturally competitive person, she believed having fair skin would help her win.

So, Yamyamin did what many Filipinos do. She mixed together lemon, lime and salt and scrubbed it all over her body, hoping that she would see a different version of herself in the mirror. Yamyamin won two beauty pageant titles — Mrs. Pilipinas Canada 2016 and Mrs. Woman Universe Canada 2019. 

Today, at 37, Yamyamin is a preschool teacher and model in Calgary. Although her environment has changed, her desire for fair skin has not. Every week, she gets a skin-lightening treatment. 

"I feel satisfied, and I feel very confident," she said. "It really is different if you're from Filipino culture and you have lighter skin. It's way nicer."

Yamyamin is proud of her fair skin and the lengths she goes to to achieve it. She's unapologetic as she describes her experience.

"I do my thing. You do your thing. Even if they judge me, I don't care."

The use of skin-lightening products is common in Filipino culture, where for many, fair skin equals beauty. From homemade scrubs such as the one Yamyamin first used, to soaps, creams, pills and injectables, many Filipinos have a story about these products.

Madeahl Yamyamin embraces her skin and the lengths she goes to achieve it. (Submitted by Madeahl Yamyamin)

Whether in Calgary or the Philippines, the desire for fair skin and the various methods to achieve it are prevalent in the Filipino community. But this desire and the discussion around it goes deeper than complexion — it's about perceptions of beauty and class. Many say the desire is rooted in colonialism, and now, some Filipinos are fighting these cultural norms by advocating for the acceptance of darker skin tones within their community. 

But, those who lighten their skin say they have the right to decide what to do with their bodies, and the skin-lightening industry is going nowhere.

It's a sensitive topic, and the various attitudes and choices need to be discussed with respect.

Filipino perceptions of beauty

Skin lightening isn't just a part of Filipino culture; it is not uncommon in many countries like Korea, Malaysia, Nigeria and India.

But as a Filipina, I wanted to explore the practice within my own community.

Of the many Filipino-Calgarians I spoke to about the use of skin-lightening products in the Filipino community, the majority said they think the reason skin lightening is so prevalent is because, in Filipino culture there's often a belief that you're only beautiful if you have fair skin.

Hanes Marasigan-Anotado says having fair skin truly does make her feel prettier. The Calgary-based fashion stylist has been receiving the same skin-lightening treatment as Yamyamin for four years, and before that, she took capsules.

Marasigan-Anotado says she only started using these products because her friends did.

"It's just so well-accepted in the Filipino community that you don't think of it that much," she said.

But there are those in fashion who make different choices.

An assortment of skin lightening products available at many supermarkets and over-the-counter pharmacies. (Karina Zapata)

According to Eldee Reyes, a fashion stylist and model in Calgary, the lightening of skin as a mark of beauty can make success more difficult to obtain for darker skinned Filipinas. 

When she began auditioning as a model back in the Philippines, she knew that she wasn't their definition of beautiful. 

People of full Filipino descent typically have tan skin, dark hair and flatter noses. People of mixed ethnic origin generally have lighter skin and hair, as well as narrow noses — features desired by many Filipinos today.

"They want somebody very tall with a very, very nice nose and very fair skin," said Reyes.

"With all the people that were chosen in the end, it's kind of pre-settled already. And they're always mixed."

This is especially true for Filipino celebrities, who are known to endorse skin-lightening products.

Millicent Garma-Cotoner, president and founder of Miliano Medical Aesthetic Group, Alberta's first Filipino-focused cosmetic medical clinic, says celebrities and beauty pageant queens need to present themselves in ways that are seen as the standard of beauty in Filipino culture.

"What is the standard of beauty for Filipinos? Unfortunately, one of the top ones that would come to mind is light skin," said Garma-Cotoner.

Millicent Garma-Cotoner is the president and founder of Miliano Medical Aesthetic Group, Alberta’s first Filipino-focused cosmetic medical clinic. (Karina Zapata)

"I've seen so many brown-skinned women who are beautiful and, you know, there's nothing wrong with that. However, people should also have the option to choose whether they want to improve their skin complexion, because we have the ability to tan ourselves, and we could do that."

Ultimately, she says, how people want to present themselves is their choice.

Pressured into whitening

Yet life for some dark-skinned Filipinos can be difficult -  from being bullied and to being made to feel inferior. Because of this, they can feel pressured into whitening their skin. 

Kayla Iovan, a Calgary-born television and theatre performer in the Philippines, was pressured to adopt a lighter skin image to build her career. (Submitted by Kayla Iovan)

Calgary-born Kayla Iovan, whose stage name is Kayla Rivera, is a television and theatre performer found on popular Philippine shows such as Eat Bulaga. As her career was starting to take off, her then-management asked her to lighten her skin.

"They told me, 'If your hair was a little bit lighter, if your skin was also lighter, if you lost a certain amount of weight, if you learn Tagalog more fluently, then we'll give you a break in a teleserye (television drama),'" said Iovan.

Iovan didn't take the advice, and as I spoke to her for this article on Zoom from her home in Quezon City in the Philippines, she was tanned and had long dark brown hair.

"What you see on TV, what you see in magazines — that's really what sells at the end of the day. It is show business. There's a formula of having lighter brown hair and fair skin. When they know that formula sells, that's kind of what they would prefer for you to also be packaged into."

Iovan chose to embrace her natural colouring, but it wasn't always this easy for her. When she still lived in Calgary, she was bullied for having dark skin. 

She was not the only one.

Across many cultures, beauty standards are typically aimed at women. But this desire for fair skin in Filipino culture also affects men.

Ray Cruz, an IT administrator in Calgary, was bullied for having dark skin in the sixth grade when he still lived in the Philippines. To avoid being called offensive names, he began using a popular cream to lighten his skin.

"Just imagine the embarrassment that I [had]. Like a guy, a kid, going into a store buying a beauty product. We have to basically swallow that pride,'" said Cruz.

Still, he says the embarrassment he faced each month was better than the bullying.

"Having dark skin, you actually have that every day. And you go to school like seven hours, eight hours a day. Your classmates would just stare at you, tease you, make fun of you. So I would rather choose to just go to the store and buy one product for five minutes."

While many, like Cruz, choose to use skin-lightening products, others try to avoid tanning by wearing long-sleeved clothing, even in hot weather. Many Filipinos also carry umbrellas with them, not to protect them from the rain, but from the sun.

Brittney Barcena, a local esthetician and blogger, grew up in Calgary and didn't experience bullying for her tan skin, until she became friends with more Filipinos in high school.

"I would get comments like, 'Why are you so dark? How are you so dark?'" said Barcena. 

She says she would even be referred to as "the dark one," instead of by name. She says these comments heavily affected her self-esteem.

"Why am I seen as less than because of the colour of my skin, which is something I can't control?"

Colonization and colourism

Many say this mindset, still ingrained in the culture today, is rooted in the Philippines' extensive history of colonization by Spain, the U.S. and Japan. They also say this is at least partly responsible for "colourism," or discrimination against individuals with darker skin within an ethnic community. 

The popular podcast This Filipino American Life explored this issue in depth, writing in a blog post:

"Colourism predates European colonialism and has been prevalent in many complex societies all over the world where field and domestic labour under the sun is not valued highly. The practice of binukot among the Panay Bukidnon, for example, where young women were shielded from the sun in order to attract higher suitors, predates Spanish arrival in the Philippines. Nonetheless, three centuries of colonialism has solidified and exacerbated colourism in Philippine society. Colourism is a sad reality and it affects many people, including Filipino Americans."

Calgary fashion stylist Reyes relates a commonplace idea in the Filipino community, where darker-skinned people are historically associated with less prestigious, manual labour jobs.

"Being Filipino, in our culture, I felt like having fair skin — maputi (white) — is a measurement or a standard of your social status. Because they feel like if you are darker-skinned, you are of the lower class because you are working outside. That's how it is in the Philippines. If you work in the office, you're on the richer side of society."

When it comes to this, Brittney Barcena said, "It's been a message that's been passed down for so long. As sad as it is to see, I think it's just been ingrained in a lot of people's mindsets. It's generations of backward thinking."
 
Cesar Suva, director of research and program developments at the Immigrant Education Society in Calgary, says it wasn't until the Philippines was colonized for over 300 years that brownness began being associated with labour-oriented, less prestigious work. And the way Philippine society views light and dark today, demonstrated through Cruz's and Barcena's experiences, was configured by the American period of colonization.

"The uncooperative Filipinos were described as uneducated. The cooperative Filipinos were described as educated, disciplined, well-dressed urban Filipinos — usually lighter and more intelligent," said Suva. 

"And the irreconcilables were often portrayed in newspapers and in cartoons as dark, in grass skirts, without discipline, without education. 'They're violent, they're dumb,'" Suva said.

"So they kind of conceived the group of savages that prevented the Philippines from advancing and improving. It's created this sort of persistent bogeyman in Philippine society that persists to this day."

Suva says pre-colonial Filipinos likely did not desire fair skin like modern Filipinos do. They highly valued decorating and ornamenting the skin, which often included traditional tribal tattoos that covered much of the body.

"You could even say that ... the more tattoos you have, the darker your body is. But then it also kind of symbolizes a higher status in society. So it might've even been the opposite in pre-colonial times."

Reclaiming dark skin

Some members of the Filipino community are working to reclaim and celebrate darker skin tones. 

After years of negative comments about her skin, Calgary esthetician Barcena is embracing her skin tone through a movement called Magandang Morenx, which translates as "beautiful brown skin." Created by Asia Jackson, a Black Filipina actress, the movement empowers those who were bullied for their skin like she was.

"That was kind of a pivotal moment in my life. In my life, I don't know of anyone else who felt the way that I felt," said Barcena about the movement when I spoke to her.

"It was nice to see [and] just hear other people's stories and know that you're not alone."

In 2018, Barcena wrote a blog post about her journey with the Magandang Morenx movement to challenge people's views of beauty and encourage them to embrace people for who they are.

"The whole movement and the whole questioning of all of this — it's not to say that white skin is less beautiful, but it's to raise awareness that everyone's skin colour is beautiful, regardless of how light or dark you are."

Marasigan-Anotado, who receives skin-lightening treatments, says she supports these movements. But she says it's also important to recognize everyone has the right to decide what to do with their bodies.

"You were born with black hair, but if you dye it blonde, that's your personal preference. It doesn't mean you hate your culture. It doesn't mean you hate your black hair. It's just, you feel much prettier," said Marasigan-Anotado. 

Garma-Cotoner from Miliano Medical Aesthetic Group agrees.

"It's widely accepted now that if you want to stay as morena (brown-skinned) and you feel confident in your own skin, be a good role model for that. And if you want to advocate for that, go for it," Garma-Cotoner said.

Madeahl Yamyamin undergoes one specialized treatment to help lighten her skin. (Submitted by Madeahl Yamyamin)

"We could get darker, and that is a personal choice. So either way, that's the beauty of how our world is now, is that it's definitely widely accepted. That beauty is no longer just for specific certain groups of people."

While Ray Cruz no longer uses these products, he says judging people for lightening their skin can be just as harmful to their mental health as judging people for having dark skin.

"Judging doesn't really give you a big picture of what that person is experiencing," said Cruz. 

"Maybe tanning or whitening the skin makes her feel good. If it doesn't hurt other people and that makes you happy, that makes you feel beautiful inside and out, then go for it."

Whatever the personal decisions at stake, in speaking with people in the Filipino community for this story, I was surprised by the lack of judgement — by the openness people showed to those who make different choices.

Vulnerability and acceptance

In my research for this story, it was difficult to find people who were willing to speak about their usage of skin-lightening products — even if they no longer used them. But, because lightening the skin is so normalized in Filipino culture, it quickly became evident that the hesitancy stems from fear that those outside the Filipino community won't understand the complexities of this topic.

As someone who, long ago, used papaya soap — a popular skin-lightening product — due to insecurity about my tan skin as a child, I understand where they're coming from. This is a difficult and vulnerable conversation to share with people who may not understand through experience.

Because of this, I thought people would be defensive about their varying opinions on skin lightening. But, after weeks of research and interviews, I was surprised to find how accepting people are of the other side.

It was evident how heavily these stories intertwined into one greater story about the effects of colonization, beauty standards, discrimination and acceptance.

Rather than seeing a stark divide between Filipinos who use these products and those who don't, I instead saw the Filipino community come together to navigate the intricacies of their culture and futures as Filipino-Canadians.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karina is a 2021 Joan Donaldson Scholar, currently working with the CBC North - Yellowknife newsroom. You can find her at karina.zapata@cbc.ca

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