A Condensed History of Colorism in the Philippines
Updated: Mar 12
Dear Asian Youth,
“Long ago, God sought out to create the first people. In doing so, He baked the first batch for too long, causing their skin to turn very dark. The next batch He decided to bake for half the amount of time. When taking this batch out of the oven, He thought they were underbaked and too pale. While preparing his third batch, God decided to increase the temperature. This batch turned out a beautiful, even golden brown.”
The aforementioned narrative is a myth well-known in the Philippines and many other parts of Southeast Asia. It is a story charged with history, one that originated long ago, one that my mother and my mother’s mother had grown up hearing. It is a tale that alludes to centuries of colorism, of an indefinite struggle to feel beautiful in one’s own skin.
A born and raised Floridian, I often spent my summer months at two locations: the pool and the beach. My childhood was filled with the constant scent of chlorine, inopportune tan lines, and the soft sand between my toes. I remember countless sand castles, spirited rounds of Marco Polo, and gazing upon a calm, tranquil sea.
Anyone who has ever visited the “Sunshine State” knows there is a reason behind its name. Before each cannon-ball into the deep end or every venture into the crashing waves, I was forced to slather myself in copious handfuls of sticky, greasy sunscreen. “Why?” I had always protested, itching to once more be in the water, where the smell of chemicals would wash away with the pool water and sea foam.
Each time, my mother –a registered nurse– gave her usual spiel, bemoaning UV rays and skin cancer. However, almost as an afterthought, she once added, “You don’t want to become darker, anak,” as she covered me with yet another layer of the sickly-smelling goop.
At seven years old, I didn’t understand. While I knew that my skin darkened upon exposure to the Sun’s harsh rays, I truly didn’t see how this was a problem. How come my own mother –whose words were seemingly always true, who was always right– didn’t believe my skin was beautiful as it was?
Then, I visited the Philippines. I had braved the 24+ hour flight from Orlando twice before: once when I was one, then again when I was four. At the age of ten, I would be able to remember more than simple flashes deeply buried within the recesses of my mind. The first time I entered a Filipino convenience store is firmly implanted into my memory, even years later. As I viewed the endless array of beauty products –ranging from hair dye kits to skin whitening creams– gorgeous women with luscious black locks, stately, bridged noses, and ivory-toned skin stared back at me.
In the twenty-first century, people commonly attribute the mainstream Philippine fixation with a lighter complexion to Spanish colonialism, and it is generally accepted that skin tone only became a deciding factor to societal beauty standards through Spanish occupation. One such example of beauty customs before las Islas Filipinas got its name is the cultural practices of the Pintados (“painted”), who sharpened and plastered their teeth with black and bright red; to them, beauty was rooted in their canines, not the shade of their skin.
However, “colorism” in the most fundamental sense was already part of the diverse set of cultures throughout the archipelago, long before Spanish colonial imposition, as shown through the binukots of Central Panay. According to Joi Barrios LeBlanc, a lecturer for the South and Southeast Asian studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, the binukot was typically a wealthy girl selected at a young age for her exceptional looks. Purposefully hidden from the Sun’s harsh rays, she was as “pale as the moon and incomparably beautiful.” The binukot demonstrates that the “light is right” mentality existed even before colonial times.
During these times, in many locations other than this set of islands, one’s skin tone was often thought to correlate to their affluence, and thus, their social attractiveness. Paleness equated to not having to toil in the endless miles of rice fields, with the hot Sun beating down on your sweaty neck. It meant one was rich enough to pay another to labor in his stead. Tan skin, instead of being a proud symbol of hard work and dedication to one’s task, was seen as undesirable, even before the first Spanish explorer stepped foot on Filipino soil.
The association of skin color with beauty in the Philippine islands was solidified by Spanish occupation. With conquerors such as Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Spanish people established both a colonial government and a class system, with peninsulares and insulares at the very top of the social and political pyramid. Only these pure-bred individuals had the ability to occupy the highest seats in the Catholic Church, the most paramount roles in government. Furthermore, the mestizos, those with both Spanish and Filipino blood, were often educated and were given luxuries such as land and servants. Conversely, the native Filipino people (the indios) had access to none of that indulgence. While the pure-bred Spanish and mestizos enjoyed reclining in the shade, the indio was put to work in the rice and sugar fields.
During a time when a person’s worth was so deeply intertwined with their social standing, the system enforced by the Spanish perpetuated the belief that one’s value directly correlates to both their wealth and the prototypicality of their features to Spanish individuals. The distinctive Filipino nose –flat and wide– was seen as ugly when compared to the stately, bridged noses of the Spanish. The native Filipino eye –brown and often almond-shaped– was detested, with people yearning for wide baby blues instead. Most prevalently, the tell-tale Filipino tan was no longer seen as a beautiful trait, but rather, a dirty biological curse. And even after the Philippines was freed from 333 years of Spanish rule, it was once more put under another’s control when the United States extended their imperialist roots. Once again, Western standards of beauty prevailed, reinforced by the media in actors, actresses, and models – all of Hispanic blood.
I am only white-washed in the metaphorical sense. I do not pretend to completely understand the pain that is brought by skin color in many parts of the world. In the United States, a tan signifies the luxury to afford a tropical vacation. Growing up in America and having been enrolled in private school all of my life, I saw many of my friends constantly bemoaning their lighter skin. Pale. Pasty. As one of the darkest kids in the classroom, my naturally-brown skin was perceived as bronzy, tan, or coppery by my peers. The brown skin that I was born with is something that takes countless tanning oils or hours sunbathing to attain. It is something that is seen as beautiful.
With colorism such a deeply ingrained aspect of Filipino culture, I have heard accounts of my darker-toned brothers and sisters, who grew up believing that their skin was a source of shame rather than a symbol of honor, and history, and pride. I have heard stories of people who have spent countless pesos on skin-lightening products, after being bullied by their peers for the shade of their skin. Narratives such as the creation story have long persisted in Filipino culture, as the people of the past sought to reclaim their skin tone in the struggle against colorism.
I hope that one day, my fellow people will learn that the skin they were born with is wonderful just as it is, that they do not have to buy skin lightening soaps or creams to be validated and loved. I hope that one day, they will be able to freely race across white and golden sands and into beautiful blue waters, wearing sunscreen for protection, rather than fear of honey-colored skin. I hope that one day, they will realize that while the standard of beauty is ever-changing according to time and place, one thing remains constant. Just as there is beauty in skin as pale as the moon or as dark as the night sky, there is beauty in skin that has been kissed by the Sun.
Half Baked in Taiwan by Beth Fowler
“16th-19th Century Concept of Beauty in the Philippines: A Historical and Cultural Approach” by Zara Mazelene A. Amerila