The last time I went to the Philippines to visit family was in 2004. Along with the many tourist attractions, vacation spots and family gatherings during the trip, I was also inundated with words of criticism of my life from all of my titas and titos.
The trip would not have been complete without the addition of critiques from my family regarding my weight, overall appearance, who I was dating, what I was studying in school and so forth. I was only 17 at the time, therefore due to my naivete, I was susceptible to various methods of manipulation in order to mold me into the caricature they wished me to be. Not only was I easy to manipulate, I also had low self-esteem so any harsh comments of my appearance, I took seriously and ultimately, internalized.
When I first reunited with my family in the Philippines, I was met with questions as to why I was so dark. “Are you always out in the sun? You look like you work out in the field!” one of my aunts said to me. Her distaste for looking like a farm worker resonated with me for a bit before I came up with a rebuttal. It never occurred to me that my skin color could be considered ugly. Most white people I knew always remarked on how badly they wanted my tan skin color, and that they would go to the tanning salon often in order to obtain it. My skin color, I thought, seemed to be a popular trend, at least, within my community.
In high school, I was a songleader (which is basically a mixture of dance and cheer, with no stunting involved), so naturally I was tanner than my regular color, from all the time spent outside cheering during football games. Plus, we lived in California, where the sun shined everyday, so as far as I knew, this was my permanent skin tone. When I explained this to my aunt, she still insisted that I take measures to get “clear skin.” She said, “It will also make your skin smooth and you’ll have no more pimples!”
A few days into the trip, my aunt bought me a gift pack of papaya whitening soap. I told my mom I didn’t want to use it because I liked the skincare products I brought with me, but she urged me to try it. “You don’t want to be disrespectful. It’s a gift.” So I used the soap every day for that last week of the trip. I didn’t see any changes from what I could tell, but my aunt was very pleased that I would be having pale skin soon. “You won’t look like you work out in the streets or in the field anymore” is all I remember her saying on our last day in the Philippines.
Shortly after I returned from our trip, I went to cheer camp with the rest of the cheer and song teams. If you are not familiar with what goes on at cheer camps, we are literally outside for eight hours a day, 3 1/2 days straight, learning new routines or having spirit rallies. Oh, and the spirit stick awards happen at the rallies, so you know that urban legend about not dropping the spirit stick or you’ll have bad luck? True.
After the third day of cheer camp I noticed that my skin tone was extremely dark; I had literally turned four shades darker. The memory of my aunt reminding me that having dark skin was like looking poor, creeped back into my thoughts. Then I found the papaya soap deep in my luggage, which I assumed my mom had packed. That night I scrubbed my skin hard, hoping that the harder I scrubbed the dark skin tone would eventually evaporate.
The next day was the last day of cheer camp. I was up early and energized because that was the day we were tested on how well we knew the camp dance as a team and individually, which meant potentially gaining more award ribbons for our hard work. Our team prided ourselves on receiving the most Superior status red ribbons because it meant (in our minds) that we were the best team. And who doesn’t like being the best?
All morning we were out on the field and tennis courts at the University of California, Irvine. The sun beat down on us heavily, the sweltering heat, unforgiving. But we danced and cheered and all of us eventually lost our voices from chanting so loud. Throughout the morning, I had noticed some tingling sensations all over my body, particularly in my arms, neck and face. Then about every ten minutes I would reach to scratch one of the spots that tingled. I didn’t think anything of it since I was so immersed in cheering, that when we finally settled down to watch another team perform, one of my teammates looked at me and yelped. “LUANN! You have red spots all over your arms and face!!” I looked down and noticed that the innocent and subtle scratching I had been doing all morning, had turned my arms, neck and face into a splotchy red spectacle. Hives had invaded my body and soon my legs were next as I saw places where I had scratched on my thighs had been replaced by red bumps.
I immediately stopped scratching and sat still. I was mortified. We were about to perform and my face looked like a volcano that was about to erupt! I brushed my face slightly to feel the bumps and caught liquid on my fingertips — I had wiped away remnants of pus. But there was no turning back, I couldn’t sit out and not perform. Instead of standing at the front like we had practiced the night before, I instead stood in the back. I wasn’t going to let my team down and not perform, but hell if I was going to let an entire audience of mostly blonde blue-eyed girls know that my attempts at trying to look like them had failed. I tossed my blonde-dyed hair around as I performed and imagined myself, with lighter skin, lighter hair, and with a taller figure. I remember thinking at that moment, I will never be able to look like that.
When my parents picked me up from the camp soon after, my mom looked at me with fear and dismay. She asked me what happened. “The papaya soap,” I told her. She suddenly remembered that you’re supposed to stay out of the sun when using the treatment. “That’s not going to help me now, is it?” I retorted with attitude. I didn’t care if I was being disrespectful. I was in a lot of pain for the sake of beauty, a narcissistic endeavor, and for aspiring to want to look like something I was not. I felt stupid for believing what others or society dictated as what is and is not beautiful.
Many years have passed since that incident and, in a way, I’m grateful for it. Using the whitening soap helped me recognize the value of my skin tone and embrace it not only from within, but also as a stance against the oppression of women’s bodies. Now when anyone remarks on my skin tone with a negative connotation, I just say, “I like it” and I move on. Remarkably, I actually do.