I wore medals around my chest, gold and silver glinting under the scorching afternoon sun. I held trophies and was named most valuable player. I grew strong, pushing myself off the ground a hundred times a day, ran for miles every morning, and exhibited the grace of any dancer as I rounded the bases in record time.
I had accolades, tournaments abroad, heartstopping softball at-bats, and even the cheers of my teammates as I swept the diamond with a single swing. With every high five, every piece of metal around my neck, I was reminded that I had every right to hold my head up high. I should have been proud.
Still, whenever I stepped away from the softball field and put away my cleats and glove, I’d be back in classrooms or family reunions where all the medals and all the cheers that erupted from the dugout didn’t matter.
Nobody saw me for what I did or how strong I was. Suddenly, I am dressed down and medal-less, my tan lines stark when I shift, and my school uniform or house clothes lift to show a strip of lighter skin contrasting so heavily against the tan my sports socks and shorts have left me with.
My skin is always met with a scowl. It’s never a neutral statement when someone comments on my skin. It’s always accompanied by disgust, no matter how much someone tries to dress it up as a “joke.”
In a country that’s beaten down by heat and sun, famous for its beaches and summers, and nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient, the depth of my skin was still something disagreeable—it was almost like a bad punchline, except I was never the one laughing.
“You’re so dark na,” was the most common, but I’d be a fool to undermine people’s creativity when insulting my skin—as if being tan was somehow an insult to them and it was now a comedy competition.
“You’re going to be darker than what a blind man cannot see,” a relative said to me just as I returned home from Jakarta, Indonesia, where I hit home runs and caught the most impossible pitches. “Oh, I didn’t see you there!” An uncle jests as he pretends to bump into me, clownish, but he doesn’t make me smile. This is after I win a game with an almost impossible double play.
It takes all my resolve not to storm away.
When I was leaving for an immersion activity in college to live with the Aetas in Quezon province for a weekend, one of the staff members in the office in charge of the activity said, after remarking on the depth of my skin and the curl of my hair, “They might not let you board the bus back,” as some attempt at a funny quip. When I didn’t laugh, they went stone-faced.
“What do you mean?” I asked, intent clear in my voice. “You know… ‘Cause you look…”
In the cool halls of my university, one that espouses love and acceptance in its core values, I stare this adult down, still in my softball uniform from earlier that morning, a uniform I earned through a scholarship in my competence on the field and in the classroom. I was a decorated scholar and athlete, but somehow everyone felt they could strip that away to point and laugh at the most low-hanging fruit they could observe about me.
I wasn’t—and am not—the only one.
Softball, a sport I’d given more than a decade of my life to, gave me a scholarship opportunity at my dream school, and made me a strong, focused, and disciplined athlete and person.
Still, someone, anyone who felt compelled—and there were plenty of them—to tell me something about myself I couldn’t change in the next 10 seconds seemed to have the boldness to humiliate me.
Despite all the games I won or the plays I carried, all that mattered was that I had tanned so deeply.
This was a constant. If it wasn’t softball, it was a trip to the beach or just a particularly hot vacation. I’d tan, and it seemed to bother people to the point of them needing to point it out.
“You got… you know…” The trepidation in their voice, the hesitation that confirms that people are aware of how terrible they sound despite how much they hide behind niceties and some false politeness.
It’s the fact that they’re aware of it, that they know it’s probably not a nice thing to say, but they say it anyway. What compels them to say it, I’ve never understood, especially when they seem to acknowledge just how messed up it is to bring someone down that way.
It may be a normalized sense of humiliation, something we’ve culturally embraced as something we can do as a “joke.” But jokes are supposed to be funny. Not once did I laugh.
I told a loved one I’d be taking a 12-day trip to the beach to unwind and mourn the end of a relationship. It was something I was excited to do, something I’d been looking forward to for months. But for all that I was sad, I also wanted to celebrate a new job, new beginnings, and new things to look forward to.
I had been steadfast in my healing, wanting the best for myself and my heart. I pushed past crying nights and mornings I didn’t want to leave my bed.
Still, when I talked excitedly about the trip and the healing I would do, the only thing they said to me with a sneer was, “12 days? Magiging negrita ka.”
I loved this person and understood that they had their own issues to work through about how they were teased for their skin too, so I remained quiet—but it crushed me inside. I thought I’d left all these comments behind in college. I suppose this national consciousness and disgust for anything south of what any local cosmetics brand can offer complexion-wise will pulsate deep into the future—mine or otherwise.
Because being dark had never been a fear I had until everyone around me convinced me it had to be. And even when I acknowledged that the depth of my skin didn’t matter, people still took it personally—to the point of making it seem like how I looked mattered so much to them that they had to bring me down as a result.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having dark skin. So the way people weaponized it against me and other girls who looked like me to make us feel bad came across ignorant at best and sinister at worst. And when we would point out how that literal “skin-deep” comment isn’t something to be making an insult out of, they’d suddenly double back, saying it was just a joke we shouldn’t be taking so seriously.
Insult when unconfronted, and a joke when ignorance is pointed out—that’s how these people operated.
When I’m in line to check in for the said 12-day trip and excitedly talk about how I’ll be on the beach, one of the airline security guards scrunches his face, laughing. “Naku, ma’am! Iitim ka, sayang.”
The funny thing is—you don’t need any accomplishments at all to be treated decently. Nobody needs to win a Pulitzer Prize to justify their anger at the most disparaging observation from strangers.
Nobody, even people who feel they aren’t particularly decorated in terms of what they’ve done, deserves to be minimized and reduced to their skin color.
There is so much more to someone than the depth of their skin. They could be unfailingly kind, incredibly smart, or are the rock of their family. And even if they aren’t any of these things, they still don’t deserve your sneers and offensive comments about their skin—as if that’s all they are.
The Philippines has internalized a mentality where we all strive to be light-skinned, thanks to papaya whitening soaps lining supermarket aisles. There is nary a locally produced skincare product that doesn’t whiten alongside its other benefits.
Here, in a country where half the year is heat and sun, we are expected to be as white as snow—a weather phenomenon we don’t even have, which makes that expectation doubly ridiculous.
A great majority of our celebrities are light-skinned, with plenty of them sporting foreign surnames. So many people want to look like them—and they know it.
Their teams, managers, and agencies all sign deals with whitening lotions and soaps or anything that will lighten the complexion. “You can look like me,” they promise, despite selling to an audience that wasn’t born with the same light skin they have.
In commercials, the “before” is almost always darker than the “after,” implying there is something undesirable about being dark and that we should strive to be lighter.
Some shows have even gone to the extremes of using darker foundation or straight-up blackface as a point of comparison to their light-skinned heroines.
It’s come to the point of ridicule at more than just family reunions—though I am far from forgetting aunts and uncles who are more outraged about my skin than anything.
“Don’t you use sunblock? Is there no sunblock budget in your team?” They’d ask with a laugh. And everyone wondered why I wanted to always just hide out in my room.
When I contracted anemia from a series of complications, I grew slightly pale.
It would disorient me to stand too quickly. I felt sick and dizzy at training and would be on the verge of losing consciousness during particularly stressful practices or games. Even school was a pain to sit through sometimes.
I was incredibly weak and could barely walk without feeling like the world was spinning.
Funny enough, this was when I got the most compliments—and the only thing that changed was that I was sapped of iron in my blood, making me a little lighter than usual.
I knew this is what these compliments were referring to.
“Don’t get dark na ha. You look great.”
As I fought fainting constantly, I thought I was finally beautiful.
It still bothers me sometimes, I won’t lie. And the fact that it bothers me frustrates me even further. There’s nothing wrong with tan skin—especially in a country where the sun is resolute in scorching the Earth for half the year. Instead, I was convinced it should bother me. I was convinced by people who were so caught up in that insecurity that it should be mine too.
Still, when I think about it and how ridiculous it is that someone would be so personally offended on behalf of my own skin, I just try to hold back laughter.
It’s no fault of mine that people feel they need to project how they feel about literal skin-deep, superficial issues onto others. It was no fault of mine when I was a child, my first time coming home from a family vacation to the beach, that an ignorant uncle felt the need to tell someone who was barely seven years old that she was ‘too dark.’
As if I had any reason to think I was too much of anything at that age.
Now, as I sip a fresh shake on the beach (day 10 of 12, everybody), completely content to tan, I can think of nothing else but how good the sun feels, how the waves froth around my ankles, and how little I care about how I have gone a few shades deeper.
Why? Because it literally doesn’t matter. And I wish I’d convinced myself of that sooner.
Art by Ella Lambio