Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how as a country, we’re still very much in the early stages of a post-colonial reckoning. Think about it: We were under Spanish rule for 333 years, under the Japanese for four, and under Americans for 48. Considering we only won our independence 73 years ago, collectively, we’re still in recovery. We’re still reeling from that trauma. Though all around us it feels as though the entire world—or actually, just certain corners of the Internet—is progressing into this LGBTQ+-positive, body-positive, interracial, multicultural love affair, we’re still having trouble unlearning the beliefs force-fed to us by our former colonizers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we cling to Eurocentric beauty ideals.
Take, for example, the latest advertisement for a skin whitening company whose brand name is right on the nose: SkinWhite. In a misguided attempt to emulate the sort of “positive advertising” led by the likes of Dove for their “Real Beauty” campaign, the brand fires a series of convoluted and darkly insidious messages at a public that’s still largely unsure of how to feel about their brown skin.
As I tried to understand what exactly the brand was trying to communicate, I found myself distracted over and over again by the strange casting of the advertisement. Throughout the two-and-half-minute spot, which is scored by a mawkish and overwrought cover of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” we are shown several pairs of twins with skin tones that contrast in a way that defies nature. I understand that not all identical twins are completely identical. My older brothers are twins and one is slightly darker than the other, but there’s no way you would think that the darker one had a field day with an entire case of bronzing powder.
The timing of the ad is also unfortunate with the recent release of Jordan Peele’s horror flick Us, which is about underground doppelgängers (a.k.a. evil twins) known as “shadows” who bide their time until they can assume the lives of their counterparts on the Earth’s surface. The comparison is made all the more inevitable with a scene mid-ad where a light-skinned twin plays soccer while his dark-skinned brother lays on the field at his feet as his…shadow.
The first thing that I want to know is whether they scoured the country for twins or if they simply cast individuals and pulled a Parent Trap trick of movie magic with a break in filming so the “second” Lohans could spend an entire week on tanning beds first. Either way, there are clearly actors in the spot who are sporting black face, which is a cultural trope that continues to offend, despite being heavily criticized by many media watchdogs and an angry public on Twitter.
A word on black face in a Filipino context: A friend of mine has argued that since our original ancestors are dark-skinned Aetas, sporting black face in the local media doesn’t translate into the same kind of cultural appropriation that occurs when white Americans sport blackface in order to play, parody, or costume themselves as African Americans. It’s a fair point, however, as a race, we have the privilege of exhibiting a range of skin tones: morena, chinita, and mestiza. Instead of hiring light-skinned Filipinos and then slathering them in Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation in 498 (that’s the darkest shade, FYI), you could cast somebody with the appropriate skin tone for the character. Continuing to do otherwise sends a very clear message that morenas don’t deserve representation in the media.
Putting that issue aside, I still found many problematic images in the ad. For instance, interspersed among the footage of twins are inanimate objects that are available in black and white: a cafe latte beside a cup of black coffee, black and white chess pieces, white Chucks and black leather loafers. Are they trying to say that changing your skin tone is as simple as deciding whether or not to pour milk into your coffee in the morning?
Let’s side-step the politics surrounding skin color in our country and look at this practically: We are born with a set amount of melanin in our skin and it’ll stay that way until our dying breath on this increasingly warm planet. Yes, the dark-skinned among us could slather melanin inhibitors like kojic acid for the rest of their days to go from a MAC NC35 to NC40, but in a tropical country this hardly makes sense. We are originally meant to be brown. Plus, UV rays pose a significant threat year after year, so we need all the melanin we can get. Why fight evolution?
The ad continues along this vein of black-and-white dualism with the twins showing off their contrasting personalities. Oh, look, the fair one is a nun wearing all white standing beside her dark sister in an all-black ensemble who presumably rode all the way to the convent on her motorcycle. How apropos! Next we see another set of twins where the fair one is in a pristine white musketeer outfit beside the dark one who is a…gladiator? A cosplayer dressed as a gladiator? Will somebody get the costume department in here, please? Most problematic of all are the twins where the fair one is cisgender and the dark one is transgender. I’ll leave that sentence there to marinate without further comment.
All throughout the juxtaposition of twins is presented with a neutral stance: It’s okay to be either. There is no wrong choice. This would be seen as a positive, especially in a television industry where telenovelas depict morena characters as poor and/or evil and mestiza characters as wealthy and/or virtuous. It’s an attempt to challenge the cultural trope of dark vs light, which also has Eurocentric roots (see: the Dark Ages vs. The Age of Enlightenment). In popular culture, the villains are always in black, like Darth Vader in Star Wars representing evil and the “dark side” versus Anakin Skywalker in light, loose neutrals that would make Eileen Fisher proud. Similar messaging is clear even in a movie with mere symbolic representations of dark and light, such as Us, which features an entirely African-American main cast. In it, the “shadows” are the doppelgängers who live underground in darkness, then plot against and murder their innocent, unsuspecting counterparts who live under the sun. Even our cultural lexicon is littered with subtle references to black-and-white dualism: to “throw shade” means to diss somebody. To “see the light” is to realize truth and goodness.
To challenge such deeply ingrained color association would take more than just a two-and-half minute spot hawking a skin lightening body lotion and I would credit the brand for attempting to challenge these beliefs, except at the end, the words “Dark or White. You Are Beautiful” appear followed by the SkinWhite logo. I’m not the only one confused, right? The entire message they were trying to convey was ultimately negated by their own brand name and logo, and the company signed off on that. I don’t even know who to point fingers at because SkinWhite appears to be pointing at themselves.
SkinWhite is a brand under Filipino-owned company Splash Corporation, which has made a tidy profit over the years by preying upon the insecurities of morenas and propagating the notion that “white is beautiful.” (Their other brands include “whitening” products Maxi-Peel and Flawlessly U.) Some of their products on grocery store shelves literally have the words “White Power” clearly and prominently displayed on the packaging, which is a supremacist can of worms I don’t even have the space or energy to unpack.
To be honest, SkinWhite’s products aren’t all bad. If you’re looking for a daily body lotion with SPF, their products are economic alternatives to similar ones by Vaseline and Belo Body. But purchasing their products, which I have in the past, has always given me pause because the brand name is just so inherently problematic. As a Filipino company, not only is Splash way more nimble than global conglomerates like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, they also have the advantage of being native to the local context, instead of being a foreign company trying to cater to local tastes.
Here’s a free and not entirely insane suggestion: Consider changing your brand name. There’s no way to empower your consumers with a name like SkinWhite, which is a Stockholm Syndrome-like symptom gifted to us by the Spanish colonization, a period when we were taught to disavow our brownness, and that whiteness is the way to beauty, prosperity, and a billboard on EDSA. Let’s leave the morena-shaming in the past. The best brands, the ones that truly endure, keep up with the times and shift with the ever-changing needs and values of consumers. Filipinas come in all sorts of colors. Why shouldn’t we be proud of that?
Art by Marian Hukom
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