How I Learned to Love My Own Skin After I Moved Abroad

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An essay I wrote for Rappler, a Philippine-based social news network. See the original article here; below is the pre-edited version. Enjoy 🙂

10 years. That’s how long I used whitening products from the first moment I felt I was ugly because I was dark.

Chinitas and mestizas

When I was 12 years old, I came up to my cousin’s room after a family dinner at my aunt’s home. She was a couple of years older than me, and at that age, one of the biggest female influences in my life (being the eldest child I have no older siblings of my own). In her bedroom was a spread of Candy magazines featuring all mestiza (Caucasian featured) and chinita (Chinese mix) models from front cover to back. On her table were a couple of bottles of Nivea Whitening Lotion, one of which she picked up and started lathering onto her skin, rubbing vigorously, because she wanted her body to absorb as much of it as possible. All the while giving me a lecture about beauty, and what exactly that was.

That experience began a decade-long journey of sun-avoidance, experimentation with almost every whitening product in the market, and then a slow and healing consciousness, upon leaving the Philippines, that I had been brainwashed by my own media and society into hating the color I was born with.

with my dad in Borobodur - where I got my complexion

with my dad in Borobodur – where I got my complexion

Growing up, especially during my teenage years, I always felt in the shadow of my fairer cousins and friends, who would always get gushed over and adored for their ‘cute’ or ‘clean’ looks. Mukhang mabango kasi (because they look fresh) – and how was I supposed to take that? Was I dirty in comparison?

“Negra,” some guy teased me in high school. Even “exotic” and “morena” were insults. Later on, in Hong Kong, my Spanish and South American friends would tell me that “morena” meant a hot, tanned brunette girl (usually booty shaking, ha).

with my high school friends

In college, my block was divided jestingly into a “tribe” comprised of morenos and morenas, versus a “dynasty” of Filipino-Chinese students. The joke was that our tribe’s advantage was moving unseen through the night. Ha-ha.

Make-up for me consisted of white powder in an effort to blend in with the rest of my fairer friends in pictures. In retrospect I cringe at what I must have looked like, what with a powdered white face and then the rest of my body brown in stark contrast.

Louis Koo

Louis Koo

When I moved to Hong Kong in 2011, little incidents worked towards an eventual acceptance and love for my own skin color. Even the local Chinese here would comment on it: the girl at the spa (she said I had beautiful skin, reminded her of Louis Koo of all people), the classmate in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (“I love your skin, looks like ho-ney!” with a Cantonese accent), the Caucasian friends who would grow translucent over winter (“why do you look so healthy while I look like the living dead?!”)

Yes, even in another Asian country where whitening creams are ubiquitous, people still appreciated me for my colour better than in my own country.

All those years of self-loathing, blowing cash on whitening products, hiding from the sun, not enjoying myself at the beach… how could I have lived like that for half my life? I only wish that other girls who are still stuck in that mentality would wake up and embrace it.

Last Christmas, I went on a boat trip in Camiguin with my K-pop obsessed teenage cousins, who were going crazy on the sunblock and wailing about how dark they were getting. I guess the more sun they got, the farther they would get from 2NE1 or Girls Generation (I beg off knowing more current acts).

Girls Generation

But I held my tongue – getting preachy on them about how they shouldn’t try to be something they would never be, I knew, would never work. They will have to come to that realization themselves. It was with a secret tingle of liberation that I floated all afternoon that day on my paddleboard without freaking out about how dark I was going to be when it was all over. My cousins were squealing at how “burnt” I got as we were sailing home, and I triumphantly told them that I did not care.

last Christmas in Camiguin

last Christmas in Camiguin

With the advent of morena role models over the past years such as Venus Raj and her successors, I’ve begun to hope that the concept of beauty in my country is shifting. People have started to realize that the world loves Filipinas who, well, look Filipino. Hence our recent successes at beauty pageants over the last 5 years, or so I’d like to think.

Venus Raj in national costume; fourth runner-up Miss Universe 2010

Shamcey Supsup 3rd Runner-Up Miss Universe 2011

Janine Tugonon, 1st Runner-Up at Miss Universe 2012

Ariella Arida, third runner-up Miss Universe 2013

However, during my trip back to Manila last weekend I still saw Metathione (whitening pill) ads on giant billboards along EDSA. (Anyone remember those Glutamax advertisements, by the way? Those were ridiculous.)

wtf

Metathione

A changing of paradigm is not going to happen overnight, I know. The status quo is, I suspect, an extension of a colonial mentality ingrained in us over more than 300 years. But I believe, as it was in my experience, that change will result from individuals beginning to love and accept themselves. Hopefully, it won’t have to take moving abroad for it to happen, where other people are able appreciate you before you can learn to appreciate yourself.

julienne

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8 thoughts on “How I Learned to Love My Own Skin After I Moved Abroad

  1. Ray H says:

    The whitening products in Asia are still a source of culture shock for me. The pictures you posted are absolutely beautiful, and good for you for learning to love your own skin!

    Like

  2. Maesie Bertumen (@supermaes) says:

    I often get teased about how I blend in the night because I’m dark or how I can be a shadow. Doesn’t really bother me because I’m brown, NOT DARK. Gets under the skin especially when I get compared to my fairer skinned friends. I actually want to be browner – your skin is gorgeous btw! – and its somewhat saddening to think that morenas like us are perceived differently just because of our skin, in our own country. But we do get some stares at the club because of our skin, so screw them!

    Like

  3. Ruby says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have struggled with my skin being darker than my friends of another race all my life. I found your article while search for how to love my skin. Funny, I found so many articles about darker people wanting to be lighter while lighter people hate theirs for being too pale. You have that perfect middle color they want, yet you wished to change it. We all have issues with what we have, don’t we? Disliking what I have seems so silly now. You are SO beautiful and I am so glad you see that.
    Those magazine models are all under heavy lights, wearing tons of makeup and are color adjusted in Photoshop anyway. When all that comes off, they are normal people, probably hating silly things about themselves too.

    Like

  4. John Mercado says:

    I dislike Filipino media because the undermining thoughts that lighter skin is more attractive are so prevalent. It’s satisfying to know you found beauty in yourself. It shows in your photos.

    Like

    • Yeni R says:

      Thanks John, I totally agree with you that Philippine media is just so bad for local women’s self-image. Though I’m not the biggest fan of Miss Universe and those international pageants, it took THOSE to make us realise that natural / native Filipina beauty is actually what the rest of the world finds fascinating

      Like

  5. Jessica says:

    I have a little fairer skin, I guess it’s because of the Spanish ancestry from my Father’s side. But I do agree with you. Most Filipina are so obsessed with whitening product or having fairer skin than what they have (I’ve read somewhere that Western people also have the similar problem – they would be criticize (sorry I can’t get the right term) over having a fairer complexion and they have been using tanning machines.)

    It has been embedded in our minds that having fair skin is more malinis tingnan or maybe it’s because of media and our obsession with foreign movies. But I think it’s slowly changing – our front runners in beauty pageants are all morena and morena actresses are being acknowledged too by the local media! Kathryn Bernardo, Ylona Garcia, Gabbi Garcia and Kate Valdez to name a few. I’m hoping that this slow process of accepting our own skin color would be a success.

    I hope people who are trying to change what they have been given will come across this article. More power!

    Like

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