The filmstrip that is EDSA in a quick-moving Grab is a plethora of billboards: glutathione pills, ads for doctors who can get you back into your most “lovable” shape, underarm whitening. All fair-skinned celebrities, most with European noses or surnames, extending their arms or holding their hips or looking away in fake laughter. All of them the “after” models of whitening soap products.
As we drive, my driver eyes me in the rearview mirror. Me in all my wild, curly hair, my morena skin, my painted lips (a time before N95 masks were a necessity). I toy with a pearl earring as I tap my fingers on my phone screen, eager to meet with friends for a drink that night.
We slow by a streetlamp and I am illuminated in it. When I am, he chuckles. “Ma’am,” he says, offering some kind of slow, deliberate smile like he’s doing me a favor by talking to me. I meet his eyes in the mirror. “You’re so pretty, kahit morena ka.”
I never avoid tipping my Grab or Angkas drivers, so I still slipped him a bill that night but with a stiff lip and without a word of goodbye. I enter the bar, scowling. I worked hard on my hair, the wing of liner lifting my eyes, my perfectly glowing blush. Why did it bother me?
It wasn’t until a few drinks in that I figured it out.
What he was saying was: You’re pretty, even if you’ve got a feature that’s not supposed to make you pretty.
“You’re so pretty,” he types to me, and I smile at first, enjoying his words. “I don’t usually like morena women. Brown girls don’t really do it for me. But you…”
The dating app proved lackluster, all the more with this reply. I wonder if that ever works for him. I don’t even hide my frown—not like he can see it through the screen—before I hit backspace on my angry response berating him.
I begrudgingly delete a message about him skulking about the inner workings of red light districts, trying to find someone to stereotype into his submissive Asian fantasy. It’s not worth the energy, I tell myself, as I block him.
On the other hand, I get men who say, “I love exotic brown women. You know how to cook right?” Fetishized, I block yet another.
Instagram, while home to many cute cat reels and the adorable announcements my friends have for the world, is also the hub of the filter-frenzied.
It’s also become a place where I question reality.
In popular subreddits, users often post screengrabs of unrealistic edits. Whether it’s warped doorways because of the liquefy tool being abused or just an unfortunate tanning filter gone wrong, these subreddits are full of blunders.
What confuses me, however, are fellow Filipinas, whom I know are fair-skinned, tanning themselves excessively, on top of that adding bronze filters, and purposefully creating texture in their hair. It seems like some suspicious move to ride the trend of skin positivity.
Contemporary movements have pushed for more acceptance of deeper skin colors, highlighting and appreciating naturally tan skin, affording them more options in terms of cosmetics, and making them more visible in media. Some people are riding that wave for their own benefit without having to deal with the negatives that come with having deeper skin tones, such as the bullying I had to face (normally from the same people now tanning their fair skin). What these people are doing is very similar to blackfishing (or even actual blackfishing, like how San Pablo, Laguna’s the Miss Universe Philippines 2022 candidate from San Pablo, Laguna seemed to dramatically change her look to appear African-American and “exotic”).
The problem here isn’t that they tan—most of us do, really. It’s the fact that they say that it’s how they naturally look when it clearly isn’t and they’re only using the trendiest parts of deeper skin to their advantage, almost like some kind of costume.
I see these people all so proud to be #sunkissed #beachbabes with deliberately textured hair (achieved through hair treatments) and spray-on tans. They get praised for their look, for the aesthetic that comes with the bikinis and the woven bags and the beach towels. But once they’re done, they can simply scrub away the spray tan and never have to endure the overbearing titas that tell you “you’re getting too dark,” the sneers from beauty consultants, or the fact that deeper-skinned people are often depicted as the undesirable “before” in beauty commercials.
When I get backhanded compliments for the natural state of my skin, saying I look beautiful even for a girl who’s “dark” (and I’m not even that dark!), I see these women, some of them my contemporaries, some of them my old classmates who used to poke fun at my tan skin, and watch as they now revel in their bronzed visage. I frown. Suddenly, I think, why is it okay for them?
I’ve been tan my whole life, to the ire of many of my family members who would always exclaim, “You’re too dark! You’re getting too dark!” Gifts of whitening soap and sunblock were not lost on me. I knew what they were saying.
Still, on the opposite end of these scathing remarks were compliments that seemed to hide some sinister loathing for anyone who didn’t match Asian-brand foundation shades as well. “You’re pretty for a brown girl” was never what it seemed to be. And while many who said it thought it would elicit a smile from me, I would just politely excuse myself, barely restraining myself from asking: “What do you mean by that?”
Their intentions may not have been malicious, but it did reveal a dark truth to what many of us still think.
It’s that, societally, in a never-ending roll of ads that demand us to whiten our skin with papaya soap, glutathione, and whitening lotion, we’re told that dark is ugly. And to be beautiful in spite of it is some sort of uplifting bonus, some exception to the rule. You’re saying that, as a whole, being morena is unattractive, and that some people just seem to rise above that—and they should be praised for it.
When you say I’m “pretty for a morena girl,” you say that morena girls, as a whole, are not pretty. That they’re unappealing or undesirable in the depth, the richness of their skin. That you strip away every interesting facet of these girls—maybe their brains, their kindness, their innovation—and reduce them to the amount of pigment in their skin and decide, then and there, their visual appeal and worth.
When you tell me I’m “pretty for a morena girl” you say I am some kind of anomaly. That morena girls like me aren’t beautiful. That morena girls who aren’t the exception should strive to rub our skin raw until we feel light-skinned enough to resemble EDSA billboard girls, like you believe we should. That, if morena girls don’t look pretty “in spite of” their skin tone, they have to do something about it to appeal to you.
It only makes girls with deeper skin more insecure, less likely to feel included and accepted by societal beauty standards, and struggle even more with self-worth and image.
So no, it isn’t a compliment. I don’t care that you think I’m beautiful “despite” my skin tone. I don’t care that you think it was well-intentioned. I am beautiful, period.
If you’re so concerned about the pigment in my skin and how it seemingly makes or breaks my beauty, stare at some EDSA billboard instead—you might just be happier that way.