Having perfect white skin in the Philippines appears to be a national obsession. Everywhere you turn there are advertisements for skin-whitening soaps and images of whiter-than-white Filipinos that are like no Filipinos that I’ve ever seen.
The local beauticians all offer skin bleaching treatments – I can’t imagine that the process and chemicals involved in bleaching your skin is a healthy thing to do; all claiming that you will have ‘perfect, pure white skin’. Even the term ‘treatment’ makes dark skin sound like something that you need to be cured of.
My mabusag (white skin) has been anything but pure here. Often oozing with sweat, clogged with pollution and dirt, and a bizarre patchwork tan due to my culturally sensitive swimming attire (gym tights and t-shirts) has created less than perfect skin.
Yet perfect strangers on the street (male and female) call me beautiful and sexy, which sounds flattering but I am finding the reverse. It’s a judgement call on my ‘whiteness’, a strange reverse racism that exists in the Philippines.
Several times I have been served first in a shop even if I am last to join the queue or greeted with more enthusiasm by a security guard when entering a mall. I can’t help thinking that the obsession with having white skin is not simply wanting what you don’t have, but is racially-loaded and a nasty hangover from colonial times.
Having people stare at me every day has made me feel quite self-conscious particularly if I have a breakout or if I clog the drain washing my hair (again) with my disturbing hair loss.
The other day at work the head of our Board of Trustees brought a street child with him that he is looking after. No more than 6 years old, she has several weeping scabs on her face and a horrific scar down the middle of her head. Sir Abon explains how her 11 year old sister attacked her with a bolo (a traditional long-blade knife) and how he’s taking care of her until he can ‘sort the situation out’.
Not only does this girl have to deal with the trauma of her abusive, violent home, she will always have disfiguring scars as a physical reminder.
It brings to mind my favourite line from The White Tiger “A rich man”s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white, soft and blank. The story of a poor man”s life is written on his body, in sharp pen.” The scars from my time in the Philippines can be patched up by a little concealer; giving me a humbling new perspective and appreciation of the skin I have.