Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Filipinos Prefer Lighter Skin

Posted by butalidnl on 16 March 2011

The government is trying to crack down on skin whiteners which contain mercury, since these are poisonous for people. (Ban sought on Mercury-Laden Skin Whiteners) However, I think that most skin whiteners are (almost per definition)  harmful to our bodies, and thus should be discouraged or banned.

Why people would want to whiten their skin does not seem to be logical. But many Filipinos want to do it, and are willing to spend well-earned money to buy skin whiteners. They think that having fairer skin means that they become more beautiful and also more successful.

Always a Health Risk
Skin whitening almost always comes at a risk. And as shown by the present issue of mercury in skin whitening products, there are things that could go into these products that are quite harmful. Mercury, in the form of mercury chloride  or ammoniated mercury, as the active ingredient in some products could accumulate in the human body.  Mercury is a toxic substance, which could cause a lot of nasty diseases.

Skin whitening, in its essence, means that something is done to lower the skin’s production of melanin. There are inherent dangers when you artificially inhibit melanin. Reducing the skin’s natural production of melanin may result in the thinning of the skin, distorting the production of protective oils in the skin, and may even cause skin cancer. Some products have been shown to cause leukemia in animal tests. There is also the danger that using these products would reduce melanin production in spots on the skin, and result in an uneven skin coloration.

If evolution was allowed to fully take its course, people in the Philippines “should” be darker skinned, on the average. Skin tone evolves to fit the amount of sunlight that strikes a place, and this is mainly dependent on a country’s latitude (i.e. how far north, or south, it is). It is a balance between having too dark skin (which inhibits Vitamin D production) and too light skin (which limits folic acid production). Because of this, people with either too light or too dark skin will be less healthy, making them produce less offspring. But nowadays, cultural forces are a greater influence in skin coloration: people could stay more indoors, put on more clothing,  use skin whiteners or take Vitamins.

Filipinos are not simply divided into light-skinned and dark-skinned. There is a whole range of skin tones, and there are many people of intermediate shades, and whose skin tone is variable depending on exposure to sunlight. Some people would be considered by some people to be light-skinned, but by others to be dark skinned. The border is rather arbitrary. So, in a sense, people could conceivably move from being dark skinned to light skinned by using skin whiteners, and by avoiding exposure to sunlight.

Role Models
Lighter skinned people seem to be more successful in the Philippines. Just take a look at the lighter skins of the country’s lawmakers and movie stars.  All the country’s presidents were light skinned; Jose Rizal was light skinned, as were most of the country’s heroes.

The whitening drive does not necessarily stem from a colonial mentality. People are not trying to look Caucasian. If they did, there would be a run to have blond hair, and to have Caucasian eyes, but we see little or none of this. There are enough light skinned Filipinos with Chinese blood; so the thing is to be light-skinned, and not necessarily Western looking.

The problem is the role models in the country itself. Being light skinned seems to be one of the ingredients to success; and that is why people will do their best to become lighter-skinned. This light-skin bias is bad for a number of reasons. First, it makes it more difficult for dark-skinned Filipinos to succeed. Venus Raj and Nora Aunor are the exceptions, but they are too few of them. Even for men: take the jokes aimed against VP Binay, because of his dark skin; it is as if Binay doesn’t deserve the post because of his skin.

Light-Skin Bias
Historically, richer people of Spanish or Chinese descent chose light skinned partners. Other members of the elite also did so. Thus, there are a lot of light skinned rich people. Thus, the natural bias, becomes (in a sense) “natural selection”, with lighter skin being selected.Light-skin bias happens when companies hire new people. If two candidates are equally qualified, the company will probably select the lighter skinned one, who would be said to be more “presentable”.  And this slight bias continues upwards the corporate ladder; so that only the best-qualified dark skinned employees get promoted, while a lot of less qualified lighter skinned ones go through. The light skin bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is a light-skin bias even as early as when students are in school. Light skinned students are expected to perform better; and since many of the richer students are light-skinned to begin with, this bias reinforces itself. Thus, even though there are probably more dark skinned Filipinos, they make up a minority when they go to college.
My nephew, who is dark-skinned, noted that 40 out of 142 students (or about 28%) in his batch of Medicine students are dark skinned.  I suspect that this pattern would be similar in other courses. And this is even before the students enter the job market.

While not everything can be attributed to the color of the skin – class pays also a big part – skin color does matter. But all this is not reflective of the talent pool of the Philippines. There are a lot of talented darker skinned people, and if the Philippines were “color blind”, it would be able to utilize more of its population optimally. As it is, a lot of people end up under-utilized.

Another bad result of the light-skin bias is that people do unhealthy things just to have lighter skin. In addition to using skin whiteners, they also exercise less outdoors, and even use umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Luckily, there are vitamin supplements which can compensate for any Vitamin D deficiencies. But avoiding outdoor exercise leads to other problems like obesity, high blood pressure, etc.

What to Do
Skin Whiteners. The first thing is to “crack down” on skin whiteners. There should be a strict ban of whiteners with mercury. Pharmacies or other stores selling these should be punished, up to the point of closing them.

At the same time, there should be a tax on skin whitening products. These have no real added value, and people could very well live without them. They should be subject to a “sin tax” of sorts.

Anti-bias measures. Companies and schools should be instructed to correct for the light-skin bias. When a candidate who is turned down has darker skin, the company should take a critical look to ensure that it is not due to light-skin bias.

There could be an advertising campaign to push through the idea that dark skinned people are beautiful, and “presentable”. Casting agencies for models and movies etc should be required to have a minimum percentage of dark skinned models/actors.

Outdoor Exercise. Outdoor exercise should be encouraged. Ordinary people should be encouraged to take a stroll every now and then. Cycling and jogging should be promoted. And people should learn to walk more, instead of riding a jeepney for a journey of 100-200 meters.

One Response to “Filipinos Prefer Lighter Skin”

  1. You are right that having a light skin has become a status symbol of sorts for Filipinos. To me, this is a clear manifestation of colonial mentality. Besides, the media (for decades) has also played a big role in reinforcing the notion that only fair-skinned can be beautiful. Nice read! Hope you can check out my blog, too. 🙂

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