Skin whitening is big business in the Philippines – in fact it is pretty difficult to find beauty products such as moisturisers, anti-perspirants and even soaps, that don’t contain bleach or some other whitening agent. All over Manila there are giant billboards expounding the whitening properties of scientific-sounding products like “placental protein” and “glutathione”, all featuring smiling local celebrities with ghostly pale faces.
The intersection between skin colour, class identity and ideals of beauty is notable in many countries, not least my own where a golden tan has come to signify all manner of positive identity markers, from wealth to fitness to wanderlust (although a tan that’s too orange has the opposite effect), and it has been remarked on with much amusement by my colleagues here that I desire to become darker while they desire to become lighter. Importantly, in the Philippines, light skin is also associated with wealth, as well as social status and health. This packet from local whitening product Pond’s Black is revealing as to how these associations are created and reinforced – the product offers to reduce “black impurities” for “purer, whiter skin”, suggesting that darker coloured skin is in some way “unnatural” and can be “cleansed” to reveal whiter skin underneath. The entertainment industry is another means of reinforcement – celebrities, who are very much celebrated locally as being a showcase for Philippine talent, all epitomise the white-skinned look and often lighten their hair to match. This is true even of famous male figures, although it is usually women at whom lightening products are targeted and who will avoid going out in the sun in case it darkens their skin, even when they live in more provincial areas.
It would be easy to say that this attitude is some remnant of the Philippines’ colonial past, and indeed I am often told that I am beautiful by virtue of my European features. However, what “beauty” means in this sense is unclear, and ideals of beauty are always subjective and are constantly being negotiated socially – whatever may have been “attractive” in the past is remade now under new circumstances and in new ways. European and American colonisers have long since disappeared (mostly – there are of course the inevitable enclaves of expats, some of whom act like they believe the Americans are still in occupation), but with the prominent rise of the call center industry, high status jobs do seem set to remain out of the way of the sun.
In many places around the globe skin colour has been, and continues to be, used as a bold statement of identity, particularly now that modern technologies and make-up offer the opportunity for people to make themselves darker or lighter to some extent, and it is often bound up in political and social statements about wealth, power and influence. At the same time, ideas of purity, health and beauty get mixed up with these statements, and whether intentionally or not can hide them from view. Yet in the Philippines, as elsewere, old elite families, the emerging young middle class and the urban and provincial poor alike are all aware of the ways in which skin colour can signify the identity they aspire to and are prepared to go to great lengths to alter their skin colour in order to identify themselves with particular social groups or ways of life. It will be interesting to see whether, as the next generation become more aware of these issues and particularly in the face of open attempts to foster a stronger sense of national pride and identity and disillusionment with traditional power structures, there will be a reversal of this trend and an attempt to reclaim a darker look as a standard of Filipino beauty, and therefore also of political and social power.