Can we have Filipino representation without centring it on whiteness?

A writer reflects on the standards of beauty portrayed in media and its impact on her acceptance of her Filipino physical heritage.

Growing up in Canada, it took me a while to embrace my Filipino features. My flat rounded nose, short stature, my dark almond-shaped eyes, and the yellow undertones of my skin. 

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An immigrant of the Filipino diaspora, I would turn on the television to find few young, Filipina actresses. From Disney Channel to MTV, most shows would have all-white casts, with few Asian characters. I would idolize the few Filipinas I saw, such as Shay Mitchell and Vanessa Hudgens. It was exciting to discover that these gorgeous, popular women have Filipino backgrounds – “You know she’s Filipino?” I would hear people say with pride. 

I later learned that these Filipino actresses were part white. They possessed Caucasian features, which were considered beautiful.

I was not the only one that idolized that type of Filipino beauty I saw on TV. As a child, my mom taught me to pinch the bridge of my nose. I would shape and squeeze the button on my face and envision gradually molding myself into a narrower nose.

I wasn’t the only Filipino daughter that practiced this. In fact, other women I know were pressured to use skin-lightening products as darker, native-Filipino-like skin is widely viewed as undesirable, while whiteness equals greater opportunity in life. 

In the Philippines, fairer skin is typically associated with economic, political, and social value (Sapiens). Skin-lightening means appearing more attractive, smarter, of higher class, and it is considered an investment for better chances in your career. In an article by Refinery29, it was reported that Manila has one of the highest rates of skin-bleaching use in the world, where “nearly half of the population actively uses skin-lightening products.” Yet, many products and procedures are experimental, unregulated, with high health risks, such as organ poisoning. Many Filipinos are subjecting themselves to high health risks just to have more Caucasian-like features.

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What Refinery29 highlights is that Western ideals influence and shape values about physical appearance among Filipino women and assigns worth based on proximity to whiteness. Eurocentric beauty standards have been embedded in Filipino culture since colonial times, and colourism and internalized racism continue to dominate Filipino society. 

By continuing to spotlight half white Filipino women to the detriment of Filipino women with native Filipino features, the media is helping to perpetuate colourism and internalized racism that dominate Filipino society.

If Western media casted more young, dark-skinned women, more brown-skinned Filipina actresses, I wonder if it would lessen the numbers of young women who feel insecure about their bodies and appearances, or the rates of women who succumb to pressures to undergo dangerous skin-whitening products and procedures which could cost them their lives. I wish we could have Filipino representation in the media without centring it on whiteness, and create a safer space for women to embrace their authentic Filipino features and natural skin tones. 

See also: Reflections on raising my Filipina baby girl

Whiteness in the spotlight

While I’m grateful for modern films that finally cast Asian actors for lead roles, such as Crazy Rich Asians, there’s still not a lot of young (under 30-years-old) Filipino women in key roles that aren’t mestizos (those of mixed race) with European backgrounds. 

When I look at the Filipino actresses in the Philippines or Hollywood spotlight, they are usually part white. Narrow nosed and fair-skinned; often white-passing and visibly privileged. Yet, while mestizos are common in the Philippines, mestizos with European backgrounds only represent a small minority of the population. 

I am not saying that biracial women cannot be part of Filipino representation, or that I am against part-white Filipinas in the spotlight. I am also not saying that half-white Filipinas are not deeply impacted by Filipino experiences. What I am saying is that Filipino representation should spotlight more than one subset of the Filipina population. Filipino representation should spotlight Filipina of all backgrounds and showcase the full range of what Filipino beauty has to offer.

Eurocentric beauty standards in Filipino culture and media have social consequences. The pattern of upholding white-supremacist ideals through positioning whiteness in the spotlight – through having part white women or light skin people in key roles, perpetuates ideals of what beauty means to Filipinos. Casting people of colour or mixed race actresses with Caucasian backgrounds in lead roles feeds the widespread perception among Filipino culture that whiteness is superior.

It’s why I remember my sisters, relatives, and Filipino friends beaming at the idea of having white partners and creating half-white children. We watch and grow to admire the white characters in popular romantic TV shows during our adolescence. And the love interests in the majority of films and shows are typically white or fair-skinned. 

It’s why the majority of the Miss Philippines contestants for the international Miss Universe pageants are usually part white – and Filipinos embrace this. 

In a video by Asian Boss, several local Filipinos in the Philippines were questioned about their perspectives on Catriona Gray winning Miss Universe in 2018. Respondents expressed pride in having Gray, who was born and raised in Western Australia as the daughter of an Australian father and Filipina mother, represent their country. 

Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray of the Philippines waves to her supporters as she arrives at the Manila Internatinal airport in Manila on December 19, 2018. (Photo credit: Noel CELIS / AFP)

“There’s a bit of special treatment for half-Filipinos as they’re constantly advertised as the standard of beauty usually in ads, in show business,” one said.

During my teenage years, I most valued the characteristics that positioned me closer to whiteness – my big eyes, fair complexion, and my Western education. For many in Filipino culture, it was a compliment to be told that you could pass for half-white, or that you “don’t look that Filipino”. It was as if the less Filipino you look, the better.

In a Huffpost article, Joanne L. Rondilla, an assistant professor of sociology at San Jose State University, summed this mentality up, stating, “power and privilege in the Philippines has a particular look. We see it on television and other media, politics, etc. There is an overrepresentation of lighter-skinned people in these arenas, and it perpetuates the idea that those who are not light are not worthy or do not belong in those spaces”.

If we can celebrate and spotlight more women with their authentic Filipino features, their brown skin and wide noses, perhaps the media could help redefine Filipina beauty the way it has influenced society into favouring whiteness – and help the next generation of Filipino women embrace and take pride in their physical heritage.

Not an isolated issue

Meanwhile, there are non-white, mixed-race Filipinas who are treated more negatively. As fair skin is viewed as ideal in Filipino culture, dark skin in turn is often degraded and viewed as undesirable. 

In another video, Asian Boss exhibits the two separate experiences of young mixed-race Filipinas that grew up in the Philippines, one half-white and the other half-black, where the latter evidently experiences more racist attitudes. 

Indigenous, black Filipinos represent a portion of the population in the Philippines as well – called “Negritos” – yet, as anti-blackness is prevalent in society, their blackness excludes them from representation in Philippine media. Their absence in the media perpetuates the sentiment that they are nobodies, not worthy of recognition.

It’s important to realize that in order to address racism and dismantle Eurocentric values, we must address anti-Blackness in Filipino culture. 

While Asian representation suffers from the issue of racism, discrimination and white supremacy, the battle against white supremacy cannot be achieved separately from the issue of anti-Blackness that runs deep in society – there must be solidarity between Asian and Black communities where addressing white supremacist values involves us supporting and listening to Black voices. 

See also: Black and Filipinx solidarity: Lessons from the Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines

Not just skin-deep

Representation through appearance is important. While these traits in Filipino culture may seem skin-deep, a shift in skintones from part-white Miss Philippines candidates to brown-skinned, native-born Filipinas is an example of hitting the surface of a deeply embedded, social issue. 

Filipino representation in the form of leading women such as Vanessa Hudgens, Shay Mitchell, or Catriona Gray, impacted how I viewed beauty as a child and how I perceived Filipino identity. To me, it is important for our society and the media to recognize the underlying issues of centring whiteness and see that Filipina beauty is not limited to our nearness to it. 

We need to sustain a space that values women’s authentic features.

I want to see more Filipino women in the media who look like me, my mom, aunts, or native Filipino friends; women with full Filipino features with wide and flat noses, round faces, and skin complexions of brown, red or yellow undertones. I want Westernized media to transform the harmful cultural traits built upon white-supremacist, colonialist ideals, where Filipino representation can be achieved by spotlighting women with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds – providing an inclusive space for non-white Filipino mestizos as well. 

For me, Filipino representation is only fully achieved when young women and children like me can open the TV and see Filipina beauty represented through characters and public figures who look like us, who share the same Filipino features and backgrounds; when young girls can look in the mirror and feel proud of their authentic Filipina beauty. 

See also: Conversations with our mothers on beauty, body confidence, and self-esteem

Featured Photo Credit: Thetopfamous

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