Colorist Philippines and the MMK Epidemic

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

For our first official blog entry, E talks about Filipina beauty, the country's obsession with Eurocentric beauty standards, and how Philippine media perpetrate colorism and colonial mentality.

I have a multitude of body issues. Let’s start there. I grew up being teased about my huge forehead, my wide nose, my sharp jawline, etcetera. I’m not a big girl but I’ve always been fat-shamed by relatives, even when I was stupidly skinny in high school. “Uy, tumataba ka na.” (“Hey, you’re getting fat.”) Said my mom, my grandmas, my aunts… I grew up thinking that skinny is better. Not healthier. Better, as if the rolls of fat in my midsection make me “less” of a woman.

(Did you notice that the people who usually teased me were all women? In my experience, women are quicker to point out each other’s insecurities. It’s internalized misogyny, really. Girls are raised to live up to unrealistic beauty standards... But I’m getting distracted. We’ll talk about this in another TFFs blog.)

The one thing I was never teased about was my complexion. My skin tone has ranged from light morena/kayumanggi (light tan/brown) to maputi/mestiza (fair/light), although now I’m leaning more towards mestiza. I’m a freelance writer. I work from home. I rarely go out during the day. To be honest, I think my light skin is a sign of Vitamin D deficiency. But, to a lot of people I know, it’s a marker of being pretty.

“What’s your secret?”

“What soap are you using?” (I’m not even kidding—a woman I barely know asked me this question.)

“You look Korean!” (*eye roll*)

These are just some of the comments I’ve gotten over the past few years. I’m quick to tell my more morena friends: “Gusto ko nga magpa-tan e!” (“I actually want to get a tan!”) I remind them that the average Filipina skin is actually morena because we live in a tropical country, and that their sun-kissed skin is beautiful, that Caucasians lie in tanning beds and get spray tans just to have a skin tone like theirs. But they will always argue: “Gusto ko pa rin magpaputi!” (I still want to have fairer skin!”)

Growing up, I’ve always been praised for my light skin. Younger me actually aspired to keep the tone I have because I believed it to be beautiful. I got upset when I was in college and I saw tan lines on my arms and legs. I hated that my limbs were slightly darker than my stomach because I was conditioned to believe that light is beautiful. I mean, how could I escape this kind of colonial mentality when whitening products in the Philippines are as common as rice or bread? I and most, if not all, Filipinos were raised to believe that in order to be considered beautiful by society, you have to have light skin.

Filipinos are crazy over Glutathione. Glutathione pills, Glutathione creams, Glutathione injections—we have it all. If you’re not familiar with Glutathione, it’s an antioxidant that apparently whitens the skin. It has other benefits like clearing acne and evening out hyperpigmentations, but most people take it (in any form they can get) to make their skin lighter.

The craze doesn’t stop there. Left and right, you’ll see whitening products in commercial ads. Soaps, lotions, creams, masks—they will all make your skin lighter! There are a few lotion brands here in the Philippines that literally have the word “white” in their names! One of them is selling a product that has UV protection, but the tagline is, when translated: “For those who don’t want to have dark skin!” ("Para sa mga ayaw umitim!") Here’s the real kicker: Their lotion also has Glutathione!

I have nothing against Filipinas who are naturally light-skinned, but this obsession with whitening products is just outrageous! You’ll see celebrities who started their careers with more morena skin slowly getting lighter and lighter through the years. (Incidentally, as they get more famous.) They perpetrate the social standard that mestiza is more beautiful than morena. They become endorsers of whitening products. Do I blame them for wanting lighter skin? No, not really, no matter how heavily this contributes to the problem.

That’s because TV executives cast mestizas in roles of morena characters, and then they use bronzers to make these mestizas look more morena. (For locals, remember that LizQuen show and all the flak it received? It’s so ironic that they’ll create a show about indigenous “tribal” Filipinos, but cast half-whites who need makeup and spray tans to look native to the land, even though there are naturally morena artists in the industry.)

Our obsession with white skin and European features create unrealistic beauty standards for everyone, both men and women. Young children will look at celebrities and hate the color of their skin. They’ll grow up wanting lighter skin even though there’s nothing wrong with the skin they have. They’ll grow up seeing these commercial ads that mock dark skin, and then they’ll buy products that promise a lighter skin tone in just two weeks! They’ll watch these shows starring half-Filipinos with European features playing characters from Philippine mythology. They’ll even defend the casting. They’ll come up with reasons to justify why these actors are fit to play roles that misrepresent native Filipinos.

Mark Duane Angos, head writer of Bagani, defends the show's casting. Who knew Philippine mythology had half-white characters?

See how our obsession is like a self-fueling machine?

The problem doesn’t end with our obsession with whitening products and Eurocentric features, though. Colorism is still a huge problem here in the Philippines. Let me be more specific.

On March 24, 2018, an episode of a hit television show here in the Philippines used blackface. Yes, blackface. In 2018.

(Before we dive into this topic, a quick note: I am aware that "blackface" was and still is a racist practice used by white Americans to exert power and control over African-Americans. While the show did not use dark makeup to mock indigenous Filipinos, it is still colorist and problematic. I'll get into the "why" later on.)

Said television show uses real-life stories from inspiring Filipinos. The format has the host read letters from the subject of the episode, with dramatized reenactments of the person’s life. In this particular episode, they featured the life of Norman King, the first Aeta who graduated from the University of the Philippines. If you’re not familiar with Aetas, they’re an indigenous group residing in different mountainous regions in Luzon. They have dark skin and curly hair and most of them are poor and uneducated.

The story of Norman, the first Aeta ever to graduate from the country’s top university, is so inspiring. He was able to overcome barriers and stereotypes. When he received his diploma at graduation, he wore his people’s traditional clothing proudly. His life is a story worth telling.

But then, this television show casted non-indigenous actors to play Norman and his family: Zaijan Jaranilla played Norman and Jhong Hilario played his father. The show used dark makeup and curly wigs to make these actors look like Aetas. The thing is they still didn’t look like Aetas because—guess what?—they’re not Aetas! On top of that, the show had the audacity to use “equal rights” in their hashtag to promote the episode… How can it be an episode about equal rights when they obviously didn’t make an effort to find Aeta actors to play these roles?

Fast forward to March 30, 2019. The same show does another episode about an inspiring Aeta. Her name is Judith Manap and she's a beauty queen who challenged Eurocentric beauty standards, achieving breakthroughs for her community when she won the crown at a local pageant. In a colorist country like the Philippines, being a dark-skinned beauty queen makes a bold statement: Dark skin is beautiful. Dark skin also needs to be celebrated.

Like before, the show casted a non-indigenous actor to portray Judith in the episode. Maymay Entrata, an actress known for winning Pinoy Big Brother 7, was chosen for the part. Judith's entire family was also played by non-indigenous actors, including Nyoy Volante, Mercedes Cabral, and Mara Lopez. They were painted a shade ten times darker than their natural skin tones and made to wear curly wigs.

The intent of the show in both of these episodes were good. They wanted to share the incredible story of Norman and Judith to inspire people: With hard work and perseverance, dreams can be achieved.

However, their execution was just plain wrong. (Yes, I’m saying it. It was wrong.) Why? Well, aside from the obvious ignorance of using blackface to make these non-indigenous actors look like Aetas, casting them in these roles also misrepresent indigenous people! Their accent was wrong. Their features were wrong. The makeup on their skin looked like makeup. I mean, they’re incredible actors and all, and I am in no way discounting their talents and skills. But the fact still remains: They lacked authenticity simply because they’re not indigenous.

Do I blame the actors for agreeing to play these roles? Yes, I do. But not as much as I blame the show.

I mean, if a show wants to make an episode about Aetas, why not go the extra mile and hire Aeta actors? And don’t tell me that Aetas can't act because the show used them as extras and background actors. In other words, they can act and take direction! Indigenous people are capable of being actors—they're just not given equal opportunities to do so. (If you don’t believe me that Aetas can act, read this article about Gabby Cabalic, an Aeta who won best actor in the first ToFarm Film Festival. He was also nominated for Best Actor at the 40th Gawad Urian Awards along with Joan Dela Cruz, another Aeta artist who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Both of them received recognition for their roles in the film Paglipay.)

Now I ask the network: Did you ever consider giving Aetas a chance to audition for these episodes? To lead and be seen in stories that are about their people? Or were you complacent? Did you choose the convenient route? Did you think casting well-known actors over indigenous actors will have higher ratings? If so, was your true intent mostly driven by economic gains? Profits and ratings over authenticity?

How can we then eliminate discrimination against dark-skinned indigenous groups if we don’t help them become mainstream? If we don’t give them the platform to show people that they’re not their stereotypes? If we don’t allow them to tell us their stories themselves?

And to the actors: Did it cross your mind to tell the producers of the show to hire Aeta actors instead? Didn’t you hear about Amandla Stenberg, the biracial actress who walked away from Black Panther, one of Marvel’s highest grossing films that won multiple awards and was nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Oscars, because she knew it wasn’t her story to tell? She walked away from what would have been a huge opportunity—a blockbuster superhero movie and the sequels she would have continued to make and profit from—because her skin is too light to represent a native African. I don’t question your abilities as actors, but do you think they were enough to wholly represent Norman and Judith, their stories, their families, and their people? Let me help you with that last question.

The answer is no. Especially when, after the episode has aired, the praises and recognition are for the artists and not the people whose stories you are trying to tell.

Filipino artists need to realize that by taking up space that are not meant for them, they help to perpetrate a system that discriminates against dark-skinned indigenous groups. At the end of the day, they will remove the dark makeup on their skin, but Aetas and other indigenous groups in the country will continue to live in the margins of society—oppressed, discriminated, and limited by negative stereotypes associated with the color of their skin.

At the same time, we, as a nation, need to recognize that colorism is still a major problem. Beautiful Filipinos and Filipinas shame themselves because of their naturally tan skins. Lighter-skinned actors are given more projects, more opportunities. More seriously, as long as we ignore colorism, dark-skinned people will be discriminated. Derogatory words like “baluga” (loosely translated, this word means “unclean” or “unsanitary”) and “nognog” (from the word “sunog” which means “burnt”; has almost the same weight as the n-word used to degrade African-Americans) will be used to describe them. Minorities will remain underrepresented in Philippine media and Filipinos will remain ignorant about the importance of authentic representation.

I mean, just imagine if someone produces a Hollywood film about the life of Venus Raj, a U.P. graduate who's also a beauty queen, but casts, say, Scarlett Johansson to portray her. Even if Scarlett Johansson is a great actress who is popular internationally, wouldn't it be weird to see a white American woman act as a Filipina? Wouldn't it be offensive if they darken Scarlett Johansson's skin just to make her look like Venus Raj? Wouldn't we want a local celebrity like Nadine Lustre to be chosen for the role instead? Wouldn't it make us proud that a Filipina is chosen to lead a Hollywood film? Wouldn't we want authentic representation in Hollywood?

Change Venus Raj to Norman King or Judith Manap, and Scarlett Johansson to Zaijan Jaranilla and Maymay Entrata. Even though Zaijan and Maymay are Filipinos like Norman and Judith, they are not Aetas. Nationality is different from race. When will Philippine media realize this?

I am mestiza and I know that the color of my skin somehow gives me privilege. People will not assume that I am unclean just by looking at the color of my skin. People will not continue to make wrong assumptions about me because I don’t look unclean because I have light skin. Cousins and friends will keep asking me about my “beauty secrets” and skincare routine. They don’t know that I am also self-conscious about my acne-prone skin. I have stretch marks on my butt and thighs, pimples on my back, blackheads on my nose, and scars on my stomach from surgery. Being mestiza isn’t all there is! (I am still struggling to embrace my imperfections.) And, as far as “beauty secrets” are concerned, I don’t have any!

If you’re reading this and you’re morena, please embrace it! If you’re mestiza, love your skin too! If you have dark skin, be proud of it! After all, your skin tells stories about you and your heritage. It carries the long and colorful history of your people, your roots. Enough with these Eurocentric beauty standards! It’s time that we celebrate Filipina beauty in its full spectrum of colors, features, and gorgeousness. You are Filipina and you are beautiful.

So say it with me: I am Filipina and I am beautiful!

x E

While indigenous representation in the mainstream is important, we need to remember that Aetas continue to struggle with discrimination and poverty. So The Filipina Feminists want to talk to you about two non-profit organizations that help Aetas and other indigenous groups in the Philippines.

  • The Aeta Tribe Foundation gives clean water to Aeta families. For a $5 donation, you can give a 5-gallon water container to an Aeta family. This organization also builds water wells in neighborhoods and provides other types of assistance to Aeta communities. You can give a donation to the Aeta Tribe Foundation here.

  • Project Liwanag provides light, water, livelihood, housing, and education to Aetas and other indigenous tribes in the country. Donations will support their sustainable projects that aim to address the lack of basic necessities in these communities. You can give a donation to Project Liwanag here.

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