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50 shades of white

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50 shades of white

/ 12:06 AM July 16, 2015

Why do many Filipinos want to have fair skin? This is one of the important questions that we should raise in our time. The numerous skin-whitening products in supermarkets and pharmacies—and all those billboards that glorify the “flawless beauty” of fair-skinned celebrities—speak of the magnitude of this desire. Memorably, several years ago one billboard featured “before and after” pictures of actress Jinky Oda, touting her transformation through oral glutathione “from ebony to ivory.” White has become the color of beauty, not just of women but also of men like Xian Lim and John Lloyd Cruz.

The desire for white skin is far from universal. Whitening products are nonexistent in many cosmetics shops in the West. Instead, there are tanning lotions that promise to yield the desired “bronze” color that evokes vacations in paradise. On the other hand, in many Asian countries, white skin has been prized since ancient times. In India, for instance, as scholar John Franklin points out, the words for fair-skinned and beautiful are synonymous, while in China, there is a saying that “one ‘whiteness’ covers up three ‘uglinesses.’”

Arguably, however, the desire for lighter skin has intensified in our time. It is forecast that the global skin-lightening industry will reach $20 billion in 2018. On top of lotions and tablets, many Filipinos are actually having themselves “treated” with intravenous glutathione, spending an hour attached to an IV line—and forking out up to a few thousand pesos—per session.

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To understand why many Filipinos pursue skin-whitening, we must look at the things that people associate with white skin. For instance, since ancient times, white skin has been linked to wealth and power. In many agricultural societies, most of the people had to work in the fields—exposed to the sun—and thus they tended to be darker than the elites who could afford to spend more time in their houses. Thus, fairness came to be a sign of one’s high socioeconomic status. Today this is reflected by the advertisements themselves. For instance, one soap advertisement claims that to be white is to have “kutis mayaman”—i.e., the “skin of the rich.”

White skin is also associated with racial identities. White Americans, Europeans and East Asians are considered to have fair skin—and perhaps not coincidentally—highly regarded, both culturally and aesthetically. “Maging kutis Koreano!” (Have the skin of Koreans!) reads one Instagram post for a glutathione product. However, it must be pointed out that people don’t necessarily try to lighten their skin to have the same skin color as foreigners. Colonial mentality alone doesn’t explain the phenomenon of skin-whitening.

Of course, whiteness is associated with beauty. To be fair, morenas continue to have their place in our pantheon of beauty—Angel Locsin, Lovi Poe and Bianca Gonzalez, to name a few—but even they are lighter than the average Filipino. Indeed, the predominance of (relatively) fair-skinned celebrities today makes one wonder if skin complexion is part of the criteria to be a star.

The preference for whiteness can also be seen in everyday choices people make. In this age of Photoshop, how much lighter than their actual complexions do people appear in their Facebook profile pictures? When I went to a photo studio recently, the 2×2 pictures that came out showed me a few shades whiter.

My list is far from exhaustive, but it is important to add that these concepts—wealth, race, beauty—often overlap. Being mestizo can lead to stardom, which can lead to wealth. And to begin with, by virtue of our political and economic history, many of our wealthy families happen to be mestizo and chinito.

Individuals themselves offer various motivations for skin-whitening. Some would say that a whiter skin gives them more confidence. Whitening, just like many beauty practices, is not just about looking good, but also feeling good. Moreover, perhaps the quest for whiteness among Filipinos—just like pursuit of a tan by Westerners—is simply an attempt to stand out, to distinguish one’s self from the others.

But beyond individual preferences, we also need to consider the broader implications of this desire for whitening in our society. For one, it is very important to ensure the safety of the products themselves. Hydroquinone, for instance, has been banned in other countries for potential health risks, but continues to be found in whitening creams in the Philippines. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration issued a strong warning against those who use intravenous glutathione for skin-whitening, naming skin damage, kidney and thyroid dysfunction, and even death as possible side effects.

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Moreover, we need to have a meaningful conversation about skin color and how, in the process of glorifying white skin—and of equating whiteness with beauty—the converse also happens: that of putting down those with dark skin, or even those who happen to be kayumanggi. Have we participated in this regime by accepting such a standard as our own?

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Since time immemorial, humans have shown willingness to suffer in the name of beauty—“tiis ganda,” as they say. Modern examples include the wearing of extremely high heels and starving one’s self in order to have a slim waist. Add to that the burning sensation after the application of an exfoliating skin-whitener, and the pain of inserting the needle through which the IV glutathione must flow.

All in the name of beauty. All for the pursuit of 50 shades of white.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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