Why Are We So Obsessed With White Skin?

Categories : Beauty Insider, Skincare

“Huwag kang lumabas at mataas ang araw, iitim ka.” (Don’t play outside because it’s too hot — your skin will get darker.)

That’s a familiar line many of us have incessantly heard from our mothers and aunts while growing up. It comes from the same line of reasoning where we were taught to avoid the sun at all costs (umbrellas were a popular means), to hoard sunblock before every beach trip, and to adopt the habit of slathering on whitening lotions and creams daily to lighten the melanin in our skin tones.

Even what we see on TV, across billboards and online enforce this beauty standard — for the longest time, mestizo and mestiza celebrities, usually of mixed-race heritage, have dominated our screens and advertisements, as they become the face of several beauty brands and represent a limited perspective of beauty that we have always subscribed to: fair-skinned is beautiful.

It’s this kind of message, one that has long indoctrinated generations of Filipinos, that leads to sowing insecurity and bullying among children with brown skin tones. “I was teased as negra, baluga, or even monkey, growing up”, Ana, 27, an industrial designer, shares. “Meanwhile, my fairer-skinned classmates were the popular ones, they were the class muse or even voted as class president.”

Ana’s story is a common and universal experience among Filipino youths who find themselves at the receiving end of jokes and insults because of their skin color, while their lighter-toned peers, endowed with a prized and somewhat rare paler complexion among a Malay population, received favors and special treatment. Others will offer the description “black beauty” as an attempt at a compliment, but that, too, offers its own contradiction: you’re beautiful for a darker-toned person; you’re beautiful but you’re dark-skinned.

Meanwhile, companies that offer their own whitening line of hardly need to oversell their products — all they need to do is appeal to the cultural insecurity of having darker skin. Nearly half of the country’s population use skin-lightening products in different forms, whether it’s as soap, lotion, cream, or even pills. Others have even resorted to more extreme (and costlier) procedures, such as laser treatments, IV drips, and in-clinic peels. This is all in spite of the fact that the Philippine Dermatological Society has cautioned against using glutathione drips regularly, and that the Food Drug and Administration (FDA) has released a statement saying that it has not approved any injectable products for skin lightening. 

Although glutathione has risen in popularity in the Philippines and around the world as a whitening trend, the truth is, no glutathione product in the world has been approved for skin whitening. Even the FDA-approved glutathione pills have only been accepted as nutritional supplements.

Given all those, why is that Filipinos would subject themselves through certain measures just to achieve lighter skin color? The conversation surrounding white skin fascination isn’t simply skin-deep — it’s a long-standing and deep-seated cultural belief that traces back to 400 years ago.

Our Long and Complicated History with Skin Color

White or fairer skin isn’t just an aesthetic preference; it’s a cultural belief that has long been ingrained in our ancestors since the Spaniards arrived on our shores four centuries ago. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere documents this glorification through the character Doña Victorina, a wealthy Filipina woman who feigns Spanish heritage by piling white powder on her face. Even Maria Clara, the main love interest in the novel, was renowned for her mestiza beauty, which belied her illegitimate parentage by a Spanish friar.

When Spain colonized the country, Filpinos were relegated to lower social classes and were taken in as slaves, while the Spaniards lorded over the country’s lands and resources. Soon, skin color became incidental to one’s status. The Spaniards, with their Caucasian features and wealth, belonged to the highest social order; insulares, or Philippine-born Castilians were just right below them. Mestizos, or rich Filipinos who had Spanish blood, came in next, as well as ilustrados, the wealthy, educated echelon of Filipinos. Meanwhile, poor, brown-skinned natives, taken in as farm laborers and servants were the indios, were dumped at the bottom of the social strata. 

Skin color also became parallel to wealth; aside from genetics, Spaniards and wealthier Filipinos had paler complexions because they were rich enough to stay indoors and not partake in any activity, while darker-toned indios toiled under the hot sun.

Even as Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the mentality of white skin superiority did not change. The introduction of American culture, from food to fashion and Hollywood films, reinforced this colonial mentality. Soon, the nation was inundated with images of stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, and Audrey Hepburn. Our own local stars followed suit, with mixed-race actors dominating the silver screen. Anything that resembled the colonizer, physical features included, was superior, and therefore, better.

It’s not just us, however. Colorism exists throughout Asia, with different countries and cultures placing a heavy premium on fairer skin as a status symbol. India, which was under British rule for 200 years, also suffers from this mindset: over 233 tons of whitening and bleaching products are consumed there each year, with lighter skin equated to higher status, privilege, beauty, and intelligence. Even in ancient China, pale skin was once linked to nobility and wealth, and is still a heavily desired quality in contemporary culture. Geisha in Japan have a well-recorded history of wearing white powder as part of their makeup. A saying in East Asia that goes, “One white covers up three ugliness”, has been passed down through generations, further perpetuating the “white is better” mentality.

The Dangers and Risks of Unregulated Skin-Whitening

This culture of skin whitening doesn’t only cast morenas to the side — it’s also a multimillion-peso industry that could literally be toxic if left unregulated. Companies capitalize on Filipinos’ obsession with white skin as a trait associated with social status and attractiveness — particularly with one advertisement backfiring on social media this year with its problematic messaging.

Still, even with less controversial brands, many of these products on the market carry ingredients that could cause adverse effects on its users. Although reputable labels and popular brands are typically harmless, offering products approved by the FDA, there are whitening creams on the affordable end that contain corticosteroid, a substance used to treat scars and blemishes. When used without prescription or other than its intended purpose, it could cause steroid acne and swelling, among other symptoms. Black-market and counterfeit items that smuggle their way into the country also contain harmful substances such as mercury, which can inhibit melanin production — but when it’s loaded above trace amounts, it can cause kidney damage, skin discoloration, rashes, peripheral neuropathy, and even anxiety and depression.

In spite of all these, many have sworn by whitening products, and continue to patronize them to this day. Fairer skin could be a matter of personal choice and preference, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting to lighten your skin tone, as long as you’re making an informed decision, and it is done in a safe and harmless manner. Just remember that while fair skin is beautiful, so is sun-kissed, morena skin — one isn’t better than the other.