I’m Filipino, and I’ve lived in the Philippines for most of my life. The skin-whitening industry in this country is unbelievable; celebrities are paid millions to endorse whitening soaps and lotions, and famous doctors advertise services like chemical peels and wraps that will supposedly whiten your skin. Some registered nurses even supplement their incomes by providing injections—heck, some people who aren’t professionals learn to do this under the table… and some scary stuff can happen. I made that mistake personally.
But why are we going through all this expense and pain? Light skin is the primary standard of beauty here, and it's acceptable to casually make comments about each other's skin tones. They don’t care if you look like Angelina freaking Jolie—if you have dark skin, you’re ugly. You’re unwanted. This perspective really stems from an outrageous degree of self-hatred, because Filipinos are naturally tan or dark—the fair-skinned folks here are typically those who also have some European or East Asian ancestry.
When I was a very little girl, I remember the older women in our family talking about how it’s fine for the males to be dark-skinned, but it’s unfortunate for females. They would fawn over my cousins, whose dad is part European, but never over my sister and me because, well, we're a bit darker-skinned. They would always say that we could be smart and good at other things, but the idea that we could be beautiful was completely off the table. Of course, I wanted to be both beautiful and smart. But I didn’t have a foreign father, so I thought my skin automatically eliminated me from being beautiful.
My mom used to bring my sister and me along with her to her dermatologist, who always prescribed her lots of expensive lotions, soaps, and treatments to rid her skin of melanin. Ironically, my mom's name is "Melanie," which literally means "dark beauty," and she is indeed beautiful. But she has never been able to embrace her dark skin.
My mom’s obsession with skin lightening rubbed off on me. As a kid, I rarely went out of the house, for fear that the sun might burn my skin. I stayed inside an air-conditioned room, because I'd heard that the cool air would make my skin lighter. However, every summer, I'd end up going back to square one thanks to our annual family reunions, where I’d spend the whole morning and afternoon swimming with my cousins. Whenever we were about to go home after all the fun in the sun, they’d tease me by calling me "negra," which is our equivalent of the n-word. It hurt.
By the time I reached high school, I was only more insecure about how I looked. I was fat growing up, so a lot of my body chafed... and when the skin healed, it turned darker. I never wore anything that exposed my skin. To hell with the hot weather, I didn’t want anyone to see how dark my inner thighs and armpits were. When I got my monthly allowance, I would make my way to the nearest drugstore and scour through the whitening lines from Pond’s, Garnier… whatever brands were available. I was supposed to make that money last all week, but by the time I get out of the store, I would only have money to buy lunch for the next couple of days or so. But being light-skinned was more important to me than eating.
Of course, it was all useless—none of the products worked. I was frustrated at the thought that my skin would never become white. At best, it would turn a sallow yellow or tan, not the paper-white tone of the girls whose faces shone from the products' packaging.
I experimented with whitening creams until I was in my first semester in university, when my mom started gushing over this new treatment, which used an antioxidant called glutathione. Her coworkers were getting injected with it every couple of weeks or so, and they started to develop skin that could rival the true whiteness of a Caucasian. It was expensive. My mom was one of the first people I know who eagerly got injected with this medicine.
The injectables were supposed to be the most effective, but it also came in the form of soaps and oral medication, and Mom started to buy anything and everything that had glutathione in it. It worked; she really did turn into the fairest shade of white in no time. I was jealous, but I was too proud to ask her if she could pay to have me injected, because she was also paying for my tuition.
Just like when I was in high school, I decided to set aside a huge chunk of my allowance to pay for these injections myself. I got a raise in my allowance, but it certainly wasn't enough to pay for the glutathione and my meals, plus school expenses. A friend recommended a nursing student who was learning to administer the shot and whose fees were cheaper than at a clinic. I happily handed over my money, and she bought a box of glutathione. I was ready for my first session.
This is where I realize that I completely f*cked up.
Of course, this nurse who was willing to inject me under the table didn’t actually know what she was doing and literally forced the needle into my hand. The procedure was done in less than two minutes, but because of all the pain, it felt like two hours. For the rest of the day, my right hand was barely functional. By the next morning, it was so swollen that the slightest movements made me wince in pain. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone who asked that I was suffering because of my vanity.
But I didn’t learn my lesson just yet. As soon as my hand healed, I went out and decided to just buy glutathione pills. They made me break out into hives, so I had to go to the clinic for an antihistamine injection. The doctor who administered the shot reprimanded me for taking oral glutathione and getting injected with it. She told me that some people's organs can be affected by unregulated medications and that this stuff was untested—it might even lead to death. She said that I just had to let go of my obsession with having light skin.
I had to tell myself that enough was enough. I couldn’t sacrifice my health just to be called pretty by the people around me. So what if it meant I wouldn’t turn heads when I entered a room? What’s the purpose of having my culture's ideal skin color if my skin became ultra-sensitive, my organs started to fail, or worse, I ended up inside a coffin?
My years of insecurity and obsession didn’t make it easy for me to abandon skin lightening. However, I'm happy to say that I've come to accept how I look, and the only skin-care products that I splurge on now are Dove soap and a moisturizing lotion for the colder months. Glutathione supplements, products, and injections are still selling like hotcakes, but they’re not for me.
If you weren’t born with the skin color that's considered "ideal" in your country or culture, you don’t have to go to extreme measures to become beautiful in other people's eyes. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how dark or light your skin is.
What matters most is that you’re comfortable in it and you don’t let other people's cruel, insensitive words influence how you feel about yourself.
Spending hours in front of a computer inside my dark bedroom might’ve done some magic, because for whatever reason, I'm lighter now than I was as a kid. But these days, I'm not thinking about it as much. I still try my best stay away from direct sunlight when I go out of the house, of course… but not because I’m still scared of getting dark. Like everybody else, I’m just terrified of skin cancer.
Christine Celis is a twenty-something who runs on 36 hour days because she doesn't know how to handle her time. When she's not being lazy, she spends her time with her fat pugs, trying to convince herself that she's probably a mermaid.