By Ana Maria Villanueva-Lykes
This was a whitening product’s commercial tagline a few years back. The ad shows a girl’s face magically being peeled, layer after layer until she turns deathly white. The TV ad ends with the statement: “Your whitest skin ever.”
“Why?” I yelled back at the TV, forgetting for a moment that it was called an idiot box for a reason. But I couldn’t help it. The commercial made my brown skin bristle. I wonder why ads like these would presume that I would like a pasty pallor. It baffles me and at the same time insults me. Why don’t we ever get commercials on bronzers that enhance the morena glow?
A similar TV campaign caught the attention of the media in India, calling the ad – where a man replaces his former love with someone who had lighter skin – racist. The broadcast journalists were outraged, saying “she’s unbelievably beautiful, but if you want to get the guy, you have to get whiter.”
I was just as incensed, but as if to appease me, the clip was suddenly followed by a commercial showing a fair-skinned model surrounded by her bronze-skinned friends. She is questioned as to why she’s so pale. Has she been using whitening lotion?
The secret? “Hindi siya nakasama sa beach”.
Few commercials like this actually challenge the idea of what consumerism wants to capitalize on. White is not necessarily beautiful. Boldly, the commercial states that being white can equate to inactivity, being strapped for cash, and maybe even poor health.
So while the sun worshipers in the commercial are showing off their tans, the pasty-skinned lead is left cooped up in her office. The commercial suggests that she is missing out on the blessings of the sun and a much needed R&R. Although she was pale, she didn’t look ghastly, but the advertisement implies that if she did have a choice, she’d rather be out getting her tan on.
Many women are lovely with their China-doll complexion. Kris Aquino looks like a pretty kabuki doll in her porcelain skin. Gwen Stefani is the quintessential modern Snow White with her pouty red lips set against flawless ivory skin.
Then there are people who no matter what they do, just can’t get a tan. My husband is Caucasian and tanning for him is a futile and frustrating exercise. After baking under the sun for hours, he’d end up with angry red splotches on his cheeks that burn and itch. Like him, some people are naturally fair skinned and they’re beautiful that way.
In the same way, morenas are beautiful in their own skin, but many choose to go lighter, believing that beauty is in the light. For instance, my morena friend, Summer: if not for her sunny personality, her name would have been an irony because she shies away from the sun for fear of skin darkening. Teasing her, I told her that bronze skin is very cosmopolitan and fashionable. Promptly, she answered, “Pangit na nga ako, magpapaitim pa?” Correct me if I’m wrong but, is she saying that being dark makes one even ugly or uglier? Many kayumanggis like her cover themselves in globs of sun block, not because they want to be protected from photoaging or skin cancer, but because they abhor getting darker.
I once took a friend to the pool a day before her wedding. People pointed accusing fingers at me on the day of the wedding. “She dragged the bride to go swimming before the wedding! Lahat ng nagpapakasal, nagpapaputi.” The horror! The horror! Never mind that she looked radiant in her tan and white dress.
Ad after ad promises whiter skin. Dermatologists and spas offer dermabrasion or exfoliating treatments. Drugstore shelves are stocked with whitening potions. Like the devil, they come in every shape and form from exfoliants, lotions, soaps, and yes, even pills. All in the name of erasing the brown pigment that Mother Nature has worked so hard on as protection from ultraviolet rays that can cause sun spots, skin cancer, and wrinkles. Darker skinned people have the privilege of better coverage from sun exposure, because they have more melanin, that skin pigment that morenas are abundantly endowed with. Yet countless choose to peel that protective layer off for a fairer complexion.
It’s almost amusing and ridiculous at the same time, this whole business of trying to get whiter when on the other side of the planet, people spend hundreds of dollars to get darker, to look like they spent the weekend at the Riviera. A tan for many equates to a radiant bank account that affords one the luxuries of extravagant vacations, tanning salons, and high-end bronzers. To many westerners, paleness is lifelessness, weakness, and deprivation. White is unfashionable.
I once met a Swedish gal who had never heard of whitening products until I enlightened her. She looked at me wide eyed through her thickly sunscreen slathered face (she’s cursed with a sensitive skin) and said, “What?! Whitening lotion?” For her people, who get the sun as often as we get a blue moon, skin whitening is unheard of.
We’re of the darker race so we want to be lighter. They’re light skinned, so they want to be tanned. Is this merely a case of wanting what we do not have? We’re obsessed with the idea of looking like snow queens, storybook characters that we will never be, because no matter what we do, we will always be Maria Clara with brown eyes and not even colored contact lenses can hide that fact. But while we put Snow White on a pedestal, maybe we should also remember that the stage is big enough for Maria Makiling. Although what I’d really like to say is throw away all your whitening products and head to the beach. We’re blessed beautiful brown children of Bathala; let’s shed not our melanin, but our tops, and allow the sun to paint our shoulders golden.
Can you get any darker?
(The author maintains a travel blog — www.anaviajera.com.)