Ghostly white faces fill the scenes of popular Filipino television dramas, where the beautiful and admired resemble the porcelain faced geishas of Japan rather than the tropical island girls of the Philippines.
Commercials lack reprieve from these images, as illustrated by a Pond’s skin whitening ad. Instead, the advertisements promise a more desirable you if only you lighten your skin colour. A darker girl is notably dowdy, awkward and plain. Gradually, her skin becomes lighter and lighter and in the process the ugly duckling transforms into a paler than pale swan, turning heads as she floats by.
Reasoning Behind Skin Whitening
In 1565 Spain declared the Philippines its colony. The islands, having already been named after King Philip II a few decades earlier, was now under the control of a European crown and consequently, a Eurocentric mentality.
In the Philippines and in other parts of Asia, a lighter shade is historically linked with affluence and privilege. Those who worked in the fields under the hot sun had dark complexions. The men and women of leisure who stayed indoors also stayed pale. In the digital news outlet GlobalPost, University of Houston historian Gerald Horne explains that whiter skin has become â??a reflection of labour status.â?
Skin Whitening Products
According to Cheche V. Moral of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, skincare in the Philippines is a 22 billion pesos (over 500 million CAD) market. Whitening is front and centre in this industry, often making it impossible to buy beauty products without whitening ingredients.
In June 2004 Synovate, a global market research company, conducted a survey on skin whitening product use in Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. The survey found that Filipino women were the highest users with 50% using whitening products.
Global skincare companies have tapped into this booming business. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, only local companies were providing consumers with whitening products, according to Tina Arceo-Dumlao of Change Agent, a marketing research magazine. By the mid 1990s, global companies like Nivea and L’oreal found their way in.
Health Concerns of Skin Whitening
In 2002, Marianne Bray of CNN reported that 1,262 people contacted a Hong Kong health department hotline that was set up after reports that Rosedew and La Rose Blanche, two popular skin whitening products, had levels of mercury 9,000 to 65,000 times higher than recommended. Mercury can cause liver damage, kidney failure, damage to the central nervous system and fatal seizures.
Corticosteroid and hydroquinone are other ingredients sometimes added to whitening products. Corticosteroids has side-effects ranging from acne to osteoporosis and hydroquinone is banned in Europe and believed to be a carcinogen. Some companies resort to simple bleaching agents, making their products a cheap and available alternative.
While most whitening products remain safe, there have been a number of reports from women with devastating side-effects. One such individual is Seth Kahi, a University of the Philippines student. After using what she believed was a mild whitening product, her skin developed a rash which eventually caused scarring, according to Carmela Lapena of GMA news, a Filipino news outlet.
Whitening Products Perpetuating a Colonial Mentality?
E.J.R. David and Sumie Okazaki define colonial mentality as internalized oppression. This oppression is driven by perceptions of ethnic and cultural inferiority created from centuries of colonial rule.
Is the booming skin whitening industry a result of this inferior mentality?
The Filipino people have long favoured mestizos, Filipinos often mixed with Caucasian, Malay and Chinese and as a result have lighter skin. Although mestizos are a very small minority they represent the majority of those in the entertainment industry and the mass media. Existing as a Spanish colony for over three centuries and as an American territory for almost 50 years, have certainly left its mark on the Philippine ideal of beauty.
The standard of beauty in the Philippines is certainly not dark skin. Unrepresented in the media, young Filipinos are growing up believing that to be dark is to be invisible.
Alexandra Shimo, journalist for Maclean’s magazine, explains how women’s groups such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association, argue that skin whitening advertisements shown all over Asia have gone so far as to be offensive and discriminatory. One commercial shows a young mestizo couple in church for their babyâ??s baptism. To the shock of the priest the baby is revealed having dark skin. The motherâ??s family is seen in the background also having dark skin and the priest realises that the mother uses the whitening product being advertised.
The names of whitening products may also be interpreted as prejudicial. Early in 2010, Avon released Anew 360 White which contains 360 Whitality (white and vitality) technology. Other products names include Blanc Expert, White Light, White Perfect and Fine Fairness.
As a message of empowerment to Filipinos both dark and light skinned, Jejomar Binay, the mayor of Makati, a region in the capital Manila, issued a statement early 2010 accusing beauty companies of providing Filipinos with a false sense of beauty.
â??The idea being peddled is that we are not beautiful just because we are not fair skinned. That is not true. Love your colour,â? Binay said.
Another sign of rebellion against the current standard of beauty is seen in supermodel, actress and television personality, Wilma Doesnt, who is half Filipina and half African American. She has graced the cover of numerous fashion magazines and considers herself unique and beautiful.
â??In an industry that obsesses over whitening products, all of a sudden, thereâ??s this dark girl. So I love my colour, I love myself,â? Doesnt said. Her words of inspiration can be found in Dove’s 2009 Campaign for Real Beauty pictorial book project entitled, When I Look in the Mirror.
So perhaps the spectrum is broadening.
Arceo-Dumlao, T. (2004), “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Change Agent November.
Bray, M. (2002), “Skin Deep: Dying to be White.” CNN.com 15 May.
David, E.J.R. and Okazaki S. (2006), “Colonial Mentality: A Review and Recommendation for Filipino American Psychology.” Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology 12 (1): 1-16.
Moral, C.V. (2010), “Glowing Skin With New White Primer.” Lifestyle Inquirer 9 April.