These days, the “woke” and politically correct way to talk about beauty is all about inclusivity and embracing all races, body types and skin color. The reach of social media has allowed us to appreciate the spectrum of beauty in an unprecedented way. But our local skin-whitening product giants seem to have missed the memo. Or maybe they didn’t; they read it and, in the way of all capitalism, decided to co-opt this struggle for profit.
Colorism in the Philippines isn’t a topic often broached. It’s not quite, as Nancy Binay has commented, borderline racism; racism is prejudice based on race. Colorism, its close cousin, is discrimination against those with darker skin, who come up against prejudice even within their own communities, where lighter skin is more desirable. Most of us have been told to stay out of the sun for fear of tanning. We all have that friend who, we joke, disappears in the dark the moment they close their eyes. “Negro” doesn’t have the same context here as it does abroad — few feel affected by the deeply embedded antiblack racism of the West — but “negro” or “negra” is used as a pejorative all the same. We’re bombarded by advertisements for skin whitening. Most of our celebrities are fair-skinned, with dark-skinned ones more the exception than the rule.
This ideal of fairness predominates worldwide, and it shows. A 2017 report from Global Industry Analysis projects that global spending on whitening products will balloon to $31.2 billion by 2024, with the driving force a cultural perception “that correlates lighter skin tone with beauty and personal success.” The World Health Organization says that skin whitener use is at 40 percent in the Philippines. And Glutamax, SkinWhite, et al. are ready to take advantage.
EO-Executive Optical tells us, “Have your eyes checked,” lest we end up like the girl who chose an “ugly” dark-skinned guy over a fair-skinned boy. The Belo Medical Group released an ad saying that a young man, at 10 percent lighter, is “100 percent more sosyal.” Recently, SkinWhite released a confusing ad showing twins, one fair and one made up with brownface, with the tagline “Dark or white, you are beautiful.” SkinWhite later clarified that they meant that everyone can be attractive “whether they choose to be dark or white,” as though skin color is a choice.
As if that’s not befuddling enough, there’s also the “Unfair ’di ba?” campaign, which invited people to a site to share their experiences with colorism, with statements like “Maputi lang, maganda na?” and “Maputi lang, favorite na ni boss?” Then the reveal: it’s an ad by Glutamax which tells dark-skinned women, don’t get mad! Get whiter! It gets so many things wrong at once: striking at women where it hurts most; pitting women against other women; and reinforcing an unfair standard of beauty rather than dismantling it.
But the campaign also strikes at something deeper than beauty; for so many, colorism is not just about dating or beauty, but about work, opportunity and survival. Colorism, a gendered issue which appears to affect women more than men, is already known to affect career aspirations and job selection within groups of the same race. How gauche to take advantage of this fear of discrimination to sell more products.
In India and other countries, advertising standards have been placed to discourage the portrayal of dark-skinned individuals at a disadvantage. If our recent ads are any indication, no such protection is active locally. This cultural obsession leaves companies richer, and leaves women poorer, disappointed and at risk of serious health consequences from misguided use of unregulated products. Dark-skinned women can’t continue to be the “before” pictures in this narrative. For what it’s worth, we can’t let these, and other insensitively made ad campaigns, pass without comment. So far the networks responsible for “Nita Negrita” and for Maymay Entrata’s recent foray into blackface have played deaf to, or deliberately missed the point of, the very legitimate backlash against insensitive portrayals of dark skin. Maybe with enough backlash, the networks and corporations will actually listen.
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