The Standard of Beauty in the Philippines

Palmolive Naturals Advertisement

I look white. I stay white.”

I took the above photo in a department store in Antipolo, but these kinds of ads can be found everywhere, from in-store ads to billboards to TV and radio commercials.  This slogan is the defining characteristic of the Filipino ideal of beauty.  To some degree, it applies to men as well.

Filipinos have a mixed heritage that can be traced back to Malay, Korean, Chinese, and Spaniard origins, but the original inhabitants of the Philippines, called ‘Atas’ I believe, were dark skinned and had tight, curly hair and flat noses.  The Spaniards referred to these people as Negritos because they resembled small native Africans.

During the course of hundreds of years of colonization the Filipinos began to associate power and dominance with people of lighter skin tones, with long straight hair and sharp, ridged noses.  The word ‘Atas’ became a derogatory slur hurled by children in the schoolyard to describe someone that was ugly, dark, or to indicate a person that behaved in a primitive fashion.

Today, the average Filipino TV star, movie celebrity, music artist, and even sometimes politicians are mestizo, meaning they’re of mixed parentage, with one parent being Filipino and one parent being a foreigner, usually a Caucasian.  This is also sometimes referred to informally as being tisoy or tisay, depending on whether a person is male or female, respectively.  In the old days of Spanish colonial rule, these mestizos were placed on a higher social status, between pure Spaniards and pure Filipinos.  That idea of being in a higher social caste based on mixed parentage has survived in the form mentioned above until today.  Some mestizos take this mentality to an extreme and strut around with airs of superiority that generally piss off everyone around them.

For everyone else, there’s whitening products galore available in every ‘sari-sari’ store, grocery store, convenience store and department store in the country.  Whitening soaps, whitening creams, whitening bath salts, whitening deodorant, and even whitening cleanser for the genital areas.  Also, the standard hair treatment for Filipinas (female Filipinos) is to have their hair straightened and rebonded, which leaves the hair hanging straight down and flat, as far from short and curly as possible.  Also, nose jobs are popular among the more well-to-do Filipinas to give them a more Caucasian looking appearance.

The end result of this is narrow ideal of beauty is that most Filipinas wind up looking the same.  Oddly enough, this is more true of Filipinas in other countries, like Singapore, than it is in the Philippines themselves.  I’ve seen quite a few Filipinas in the Philippines who are working hard to achieve this standard look, but in Singapore I used to joke that the Filipinas there are part of a drone army, because they all look the same and you can pick them out of a crowd from behind, without even having to see their faces.

Men in the Philippines seem to have more leeway when it comes to standards of fashion with hair and skin tone (as long as they’re not too dark), but nose jobs are still popular if affordable.  Thankfully there are soap products available for men that don’t whiten the skin.  I’m white enough already.  In fact, I’m trying to get a tan.  The sun in the Philippines is like the sun at the beach and I still equate a tan with being healthy.

This is a matter of personal taste, but I always found that diversity breeds uniqueness, and uniqueness is what’s truly beautiful.  If everyone looks the same, with the same haircut, the same artificially whitened skin, the same nose job, then there’s nothing special about that ‘look’ anymore and it becomes bland and unappealing.

Whitening Products in the Philippines

One of the most peculiar things I found in the Philippines is the array of whitening products available in the stores. The range of the products is impressive to the point of national obsession. There are whitening soaps, whitening creams, whitening powders, whitening deodorants, whitening pills, etc etc.

(And as a side note, you can see in these commercials that most of their actors / actresses are mixed Filipino / Caucasian, further promoting the white is better mentality.)

It took me a while to wrap my mind around the purpose of these products, because the concept of wanting to whiten your skin was entirely foreign to me. In the US, people like to have a tan, and on the extreme side may visit tanning beds occasionally. Plus, becoming more tanned due to sun exposure is natural and normal. The idea of popping pills (or using any of these other products) to try to force your skin to turn a color it’s not meant to naturally be is absurd.

First of all, how healthy can it be to use these products to change the color of your skin? Second of all, there’s nothing wrong with the color of Filipinos’ / Filipinas’ skin in the first place! That naturally tanned skin is part of a Filipina’s appeal, at least from my perspective anyways. It’s part of what makes them unique and desirable. I’m not a make-up artist or expert, but beauty products should be used to augment your natural beauty, not change it entirely.

My wife explained what she thinks is the reasoning behind this fashion trend. The Philippines has been repeatedly dominated and/or occupied by other countries, including Spain (300 years of occupation), the US and Japan. This constant domination by fair skinned peoples may have caused a “whiter is better” mentality to set in and eventually become part of the national media/pop/fashion mainstream. My wife went on to say that fair skin has an impact on social status as well. The darker your skin is, the more likely you are to be ridiculed or socially ostracized from your peers. This perception is also carried over to visiting foreigners, in that white foreigners are placed on a pedestal and black foreigners are seen simply as a curiosity and an opportunity to try to make some money.