Fair or tanned?: Some thoughts about appearance-shaming and colorism
By: LUONG Nguyen Minh Hanh (Hanie)
“- Hanie, you are sooo beautiful. – Awww thanks, Pauline. You are very beautiful, too. – Yeah … but you are much prettier, because your skin is whiter than mine hehe. I am brown.”
Pauline, my Filipino sister, talked to me in a happy voice and with a genuine smile, as always. Apparently, she did not think much about what she just said. She simply expressed her personal preference.
“What made such an innocent 10-year-old soul think that a person with pale skin is prettier than one with brown skin color? What is the problem of having dark-toned skin?” – Some of you may wonder, or even feel shocked or angry.
Personally, I was not surprised when I heard such words from Pauline. Why? Because I myself grew up being told that possessing light-colored skin is a privilege. When I was a secondary-school student, my skin was a bit tanned so I did not dare to wear bright-colored clothes, such as pink, yellow, light green or white. Whenever I did, my classmates would repeatedly made fun of me and say “Oh, you are standing here. I’m so sorry that I didn’t see you, because you skin is too dark. I could only see your shirt.” Do you really find it funny? I didn’t.
Was I too sensitive? I do not think so.
For them, it was simply a joke. However, such endless “jokes” were stuck in my mind for years. They made me, that 13-year-old girl, believe that fair skin meant beauty and dark-toned skin did not. They made feel that I was actually ugly and I did not deserve respect. For years, I felt so insecure about my appearance. For years, I was envious of those attractive girls with fair skin.
All I knew was that I was teased for having darker complexion compared to my fellow friends, that Vietnamese advertisements of skin-care and beauty products I saw daily on TV was always overwhelmed with pictures of flawlessly white females, that no Barbie doll in the supermarket was yellow, brown or black, that all members of the popular “Cool Girls” group in my secondary school had pale skin, and that every winner of Vietnam’s Beauty Contests over the years was fair. Nonetheless, I had never had the faintest idea about when and why fair skin became a beauty “standard” for my classmates, relatives, neighbors and almost everybody around me at that time.
Only until last year did I write a research paper analyzing the criteria of Southeast Asian female facial beauty that I got to know the rationales behind this desire of most Vietnamese for pale skin. One of them involves the origin of Vietnam as an agricultural nation. Historically speaking, if a person had tanned skin, she was most likely to be a poor farmer working under the sun in the paddy fields all day long. Pale skin, on the other hand, depicted the life of luxury and wealth – “sitting in the shade, eating from a golden bowl” (Nguyen, 2017; Topolsky, 2010).
Whatever the reasons are, however, I do not think they should ever become excuses for any form of “appearance-shaming” – the practice of making humiliating comments on how somebody looks or “colorism”, which means the preference for lighter skin and discrimination against individuals with dark skin.
Sadly, even after 7 years, when I came here in the Philippines, nearly 2000 kilometers far away from where I experienced appearance-shaming for the first time, such issues still exist.
Estela, my host mom, told me that like most Vietnamese, a majority of Filipinos found pale skin more attractive. Neneng, my neighbor and Elizabeth, the manager of Jagna Gym and Beauty Products also gave me the same answer when I asked them about their preference for skin tone.
Likewise, street interviews with random Filipino girls conducted by an organization named “Asian Boss” in 2018, which has more than 1.2 million subscribers on Youtube, showed that most interviewees agreed fair skin was generally deemed beautiful and desirable in the Philippines.
Such aspiration for fair skin explains why skin whitening has been such a big and booming industry in the Philippines (Mendoza, 2013). According to a recent estimate, one in two Filipino women has used skin brighteners at some points in their lives (Jelinek, 2019).
What is worse, due to the equation of light-toned skin for beauty or attractiveness, appearance-shaming and colorism are likely to occur, because not everyone can possess such “criteria” of beauty.
“Hey, Aeta, Aeta. That’s how some people here, in the Philippines, call you if you have dark skin”, Estela said.
“Aeta” people are the original inhabitants of the Philippines, who had dark skin and flat nose (Kriegerm, 1945). Over hundreds of years under colonization, however, Filipinos began associating the definition of beauty with lighter skin tone and tall, straight, pointed nose. Consequently, the word “Aeta” gradually became an insulting word to address those who have dark-toned skin or wear old-fashioned clothes (Chua, n.d).
In addition, there were times when skin tone was even associated with social class status in the Philippines. The light skin of European colonizers is a sign of higher status, whereas the dark complexion of Filipinos tends to be a marker of inferior class (Liu, 2018). This has made a great number of Filipinos growing up under tons of pressure and prejudices solely because of their skin colors.
“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”, as a saying goes, but why are many of us suffering from the so-called “beauty standards”? Why do many of us still have to deal with appearance-shaming, and colorism everyday?
I experienced it myself. I witnessed my friends, my family members and people around me facing similar incidents. I am upset. I am furious, and I know that such issues do not take place only in Vietnam, or the Philippines – “Home of Beauty Queens in Asia” but everywhere, every corner on this blue dot 🌍.
Perhaps I am too tiny to change the world, yet I do hope that I can make some positive impacts on the small community around me, or at least on you – those who are reading my blog.
Therefore, I’m writing a few words to you, who have ever mocked others for their skin color or physical appearance, Sometimes you may simply regard what you said as a joke, but you never know a single sentence or a conversation can haunt a person for years. Words are powerful. They can make someone’s day, yet they can also ruin a person’s life if used for wrong purposes.
Words can be forgiven, not forgotten. Appearance-shaming and colorism can take a heavy toll on the victims, as well as lower their self-esteem and confidence. You cannot imagine how cruel it is until you experience it on your own, so please put yourself in others’ shoes and treat them the way you want to be treated.
And to you, who have ever been a victim of appearance-shaming or colorism, do not believe in what they say. You are not unattractive. Some people are just rude. Never ever let anyone make you doubt your worth. It does not matter if you are white, yellow, red, brown or black. Your skin color can never define who you are. One day, you will realize that your physical look is just temporary, while your heart, your soul, your confidence, kindness and knowledge are what will go with you till the rest of your life. Most importantly, I hope you know that you are never alone because millions of people out there are going through the same experience. Stay strong. Love yourself. I’m here, and always willing to listen to your story. Oh, and lastly, in case somebody forgot to tell you today, I just wanna say “Gwapa ka”. In Filipino language, it means “You are beautiful”.
Chua, C. (n.d.). Is there an ideal beauty? Personal Excellence. Retrieved from https://personalexcellence.co/Jelinek, K. (2019). The new generation of Filipino women rejecting skin whitening. Retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/Kriegerm, H. (1945). Races and Peoples in the Philippines. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 4(2), 95-101.Liu, M. (2018). Skin whiteners are still in demand, despite health concerns. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/Mendoza, R. L. (2013). The skin whitening in the Philippines. Journal of Public Health Policy, 35(2), 219-238.Nguyen, N. (2017). “Street ninjas” battle sexism and the sun in Vietnam. VN Express International. Retrieved from https://e.vnexpress.net/Topolsky, D. (2010). Vietnamese Beauty: Exploring the Definition of Female Beauty in Present Day, Urban Vietnam as Seen Through the Desire for White Skin. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection.875