“You’re not beautiful because you’re brown," said the fair-skinned girl to seven-year old me. This reads like another story of racism except the girl who spoke those words wasn’t white. She was Filipino like me.
In truth, my complexion was just an average shade of brown for my race. But I took her words as fact because there were echoes of it everywhere. “Don’t worry, you might get whiter when you’re older,” I am told by a relative. “Don’t go under the sun, or you’ll get dark," warns my nanny. Because of my curly hair, another strong mark of undesirability in Filipino culture, I am teased by the same girl and called negra (black) and bruha (witch).
I am about the same age when I watch a local soap opera. The lead character, a brown, frizzy-haired girl, suffers from unrequited love. A fairy godmother steps in and offers her a jar of magic face cream. Viola! Her complexion becomes porcelain, her hair straight and lustrous. She gets her man. The message was clear: turn towards the white, and stay away from features that denote blackness.
Perhaps I was far too young to be appraising my appearance, but my fair-skinned mother had been a beauty queen during her time and I was the only child who hadn’t inherited her complexion.
Perhaps I was far too young to be appraising my appearance, but my fair-skinned mother had been a beauty queen during her time and I was the only child who hadn’t inherited her complexion. My father was a TV star who rubbed shoulders daily with the most glamorous women in Philippine showbiz, all with creamy skin and sleek hair.
“I’m not beautiful,” I told my mother one day. “Yes, you are. You look different and more interesting than everyone else,” she replied. I wore those words like a crown. If I couldn’t look beautiful, then I could look interesting, something I decided to cultivate. I was lucky to have more confidence than most.
Modelling was never my dream, but puberty and dental work can do magic and I became a model at age nineteen. My big break was a TV ad for a popular face wash brand. Skin care ads normally starred lily-white Eurasian models so I was astounded when I got the role. I was cast next to a fair-skinned model who looked the part much more than I did. I secretly believed that I was chosen to be a sort of sidekick, the inferior beauty.
I was cast next to a fair-skinned model who looked the part much more than I did. I secretly believed that I was chosen to be a sort of sidekick, the inferior beauty.
The ad attracted a surprising amount of attention focusing on the contrast in our appearance. In online chat forums, they pitted us against each other: who was prettier, the dark one or the light one? It amazed me that the debate was happening at all. I became a specimen being held up and examined against a backdrop of deeply held cultural beliefs about beauty.
And while many found my appearance refreshing in an ocean of straight-haired whiteness, I can’t say I wasn’t hurt by some of the comments. To some, my appearance was simply unacceptable. It just didn’t fit what they were taught to like.
Our cultural rules on beauty have their roots anchored deeply in a colonial past, first under Spain and then America. The racism they inflicted upon us has evolved into modern-day colourism that we now inflict on each other through normalised micro-aggressions: words that we repeat, and images promulgated by the media. It’s not wrong to love whiteness, but must it come with the denigration of our own brown-ness?
Afterwards, I was summoned to the office of a top celebrity-maker who was interested in working with me. Without being asked a single question, I was given the look over and told flat out that I had to change some things about my appearance. I knew exactly what he meant. If I said yes, I would be fed into the showbiz beauty machine, groomed and styled, and would come out the other side looking beautiful but a bit more like everyone else on TV. Easier to like.
Without being asked a single question, I was given the look over and told flat out that I had to change some things about my appearance.
I said no. I decided that if I was going to be on TV, then I would rather look interesting, in the name of all the seven-year olds who had been told that they weren’t beautiful because they didn’t have the right skin and hair. I wore my skin and curls like a crown for the rest of a successful modelling and TV career.
My act of defiance didn’t dismantle the systems of colourism, and it didn’t win me a nomination for a Nobel Prize. But people took notice, and more than a decade later, I still get messages from brown-skinned, curly haired Filipino women saying they learned to love and celebrate their appearance only after seeing me on TV. I consider it a victory for all women who didn’t know that they too could wear a crown.
Ala Paredes is a freelance writer.