Perceptions of Paleness

“Ang puti puti mo, Ms. Katrina! Ang puti, puti mo talaga!” Auntie Claude crooned as she approached me, wanting to stroke my pale forearm, something I indifferently attributed to months of being mostly inside during the COVID lockdown. “Your skin is soooo creamy and so light! Naka maganda ka, talaga!” 

For much of my life, this has been my reality: elder family members and community members commenting on my light skin tone and how white it looks— how beautiful it makes me. It’s nothing my siblings hear, who take after Dad’s much darker caramel shade, having deepened into various shades of almond and leathery chestnut after years of whiling away weekend mornings playing tennis with his kaibigan (friends) at the local high school tennis courts, no visible bottles of sunscreen in sight. 

No, apparently I take more after Mom and by proxy my grandfather, a Filipino of Spanish-Chinese descent who bore a fair complexion, a man who died long before I was born. To my family, Grandpa was handsome, a man with a tall-bridged nose, “talino” or smart…a man admired by both his family and the community he lived in. Reflecting on these words now, it almost seems as if his skin color somehow correlated with his luck in life: his brains, looks, privilege, and opportunities. I never heard these same comments made about my Grandma, a darker-skinned Ilocano woman, who dressed hair for a living and whose sarcasm I seem to have inherited, despite only meeting her twice. It was my Grandpa who embodied the moniker of looks and charm in our family, at least according to my great-aunts.

It is a sort of paradox when reflecting on my childhood as a Filipino-American growing up in Los Angeles, where many of my white peers equated pale skin with being undesirable and thus set on weekly treks to Torrance Beach and Manhattan Beach to bake out in the sun for a few hours, garnering golden tans that would eventually fade at the end of each summer. These were the same skin tones that my aunts and cousins fought so furiously to scrub off with their Likas whitening soap, skin tones that my Auntie Mely would caution her daughter Hazel against acquiring when she would run out in the late morning sun to bike around the narrow strip of our backyard, bordered with kamote and sayote leaves as well as my Mom’s prized roses. On the contrary, the skin tones that my family aimed to acquire were the ones showcased on The Filipino Channel (TFC), where celebrities would dance and sing on stage with skin tones that I could only describe as whiter than a white person, shades of lightness that certainly wouldn’t be lauded on this side of the Western hemisphere. 

At best, my lighter skin tone made me feel special like I was a beautiful, pretty Miss America. At worst, it had me feeling like an animal on display for people to gawk at, for middle-aged white men to eerily comment “Maganda Ka” in grocery aisles and for others to questioningly ask me, “So what are you, actually? You don’t LOOK Filipino.”

This whiteness and attention to light complexion was only part of a culture of code-shifting that I didn’t retaliate against when I was younger, but rather learned how to juggle depending on who I was with. As I grew older, I started to question Mom by asking about why we didn’t go out and get tans, why we needed to slather sunscreen on ourselves and bring out the payong (umbrella) before walks, while my friends lay out in the sun for hours. I rarely received answers that I found acceptable, but more often was tut-tutted along as it wasn’t something to question, as if the quest to maintain pale skin was all part of an unwritten rule of being Filipino, of what it meant to be Asian. I was told that pale skin was akin to being part of the upper class, while it was fabled that darker-skinned Filipinos were affiliated with those who toiled in the field, working for their living instead of having others work for them. It’s an explanation that although I found fascinating while I was younger, cringe to consider now. How can I possibly ignore the implications that this statement makes about people with darker skin? It’s disheartening to hear for me, so I can’t imagine the realities of generations of people who have been constantly berated, degraded, or even killed because they weren’t considered “beautiful.”

When I consider it all, I cannot speak to the realities of skin whitening in Asia; I am no expert, but overall I am aware that beauty standards are created of and within a society. However, I know how building up certain definitions of beauty often means that someone is going to get cut down, left out, and ultimately hurt. For myself, despite having lighter skin than many others around me, the rest of my body didn’t correspond: from my unmanageable thick, coarse, curly hair, to my heavyset body (I was at least 20 pounds heavier than the petite Filipino girls in my class) and overall painfully shy demeanor contributed to years of feeling outcast and alone amongst a primarily slender, Filipino peer group. Being lacking in any type of preconceived notions of beauty results in sore feelings, self-pity, and a raw desire to want something that the body is not capable of. It is a sort of pain that can do damage internally and for a long time.

When I consider what is meant by beauty construed through skin tone, when I think about how something like skin color has caused division, a sense of “other,” and the indirect damage it causes for those who feel the need to invest time, money, resources, and stress into looking a certain way for fear of criticism, shame, retaliation, I realize how much skin color truly does matter, despite some people claiming it doesn’t, despite other people claiming that color is something not to be seen. At least for me, it’s important to recognize how much damage this has done, as well as to acknowledge the responsibility we each bear toward one another to build each other up on what’s on the inside, while openly celebrating what is on the outside, whether skin is light, dark, creamy, mottled, and everything and anything in between. 

I am but one person, a Filipino-American on the cusp of two cultures, but more primarily an American one these days. As anxious as it has felt these days to be who I am (I tense up when walking around my own neighborhood, fearful of what racial slurs could potentially be thrown at my Chinese-American husband and me in these days of COVID), it is important to continue the push toward respect of all people. For humanity’s sake, it is important to maintain the utmost respect and dignity toward others, toward everyone I encounter. It is essential to continue to educate myself on the injustices that exist to equalize those societal gaps. If my Grandpa was truly as great of a man who everyone says he was, then it is my responsibility and duty as his granddaughter to use our luck, our talino, to use these lessons to help make this world even just a little bit better.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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