Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Fairest of Them All

It was perhaps inevitable that folk tales should have been exiled to the nursery. before we renamed them fairy tales and heavily censored them, they were a kind of cultural subconscious. The original tales, like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, are filled with strange imagery and associations that only an ethnographer would understand.

One of their tales, called "Snow White" in English, is essentially about a contest between two women over which one is the fairest. Though the word fair is most often interpreted to mean "beautiful" by modern readers of the tale, its very title suggests another meaning. For who could possibly be fairer than snow? "Fairest" in the context of this tale must certainly mean "lighter-complected."

Originally, "beautiful" and "lighter-skinned" were probably interchangeable terms. And in many places in the world they still are. The Philippines is one such place, where the conflict between Snow White and the wicked queen is still being played out. A mixed-race society with a brown-skinned, racially Malay population accounting for a majority in numbers but occupying the bottom social stratum, the Philippines also has a taller, lighter-skinned mestizo, or half-breed, group that occupies the middle and the top. (1) While they are invariably part-Filipino, they are distinctively part American or part Australian or part what-have-you. It is this group that is by far the most visible in Philippine advertisements, television and film. The Binibining Filipinas Foundation is a rather august organization which chooses the women who will represent the country in international beauty pageants like Miss Universe and Miss World. The minimum requirements for contestants include being a Philippine citizen, between seventeen and twenty-five years old, and at least five feet five inches tall. While there are no strictly racial requirements, the height requirement alone disqualifies most of the women who call themselves Filipinas, particularly those who are not mestizas.

So completely is the Philippines dominated by the half-breed minority that many internationally-known skin-product companies, like Ponds, Garnier, and Vaseline, are marketing skin-lightening creams, soaps and solutions here with names like Flawless White, Healthy White, White Beauty, and Clear Fairness. Though sometimes quite innocently intended to provide women with skin protection from the harmful effects of exposure to the sun - a sun that is especially bright in these seven thousand islands - the explicit purpose of these products is impossible to mistake: they are intended to turn darker-skinned women into fairer-skinned women.

Ponds recently presided over a contest called The Pinkish-White Dream Date. Contestants were required to use Ponds' White Beauty cream on their faces, photograph the results and submit the photo along with their entry form. The winner of the contest, who had the most noticeable pinkish-white complexion, was awarded a dream date with a Filipino celebrity nobody like Piolo Pascual or Dingdong Dantes. (2)

Certainly some of these skin products are available in the U.S., but just as certainly they are marketed differently, even in a country with a majority Caucasian population. It is almost as if in the Philippines there is a master race and a subject race with both groups taking their respective social positions for granted and neither group seriously questioning them. Much of this is due to the "colonial mentality" - the widespread and quite irrational conviction, created by four hundred years of Spanish and American domination, that everything "made in the Philippines" (including its people) is never as good as "made in the USA" or in Japan or Taiwan or just about anywhere else.

After watching this incessant emphasis on whitening and lightening in Philippine media, I wondered if perhaps it was nothing but a fashion fetish, like white American women going to tanning salons. But there is nothing like the degree of emphasis on a single, most desirable skin color in the States. For many reasons, not least of which are legal ones, there simply could not be.

I have heard, every now and then, a single dissenting voice in the chorus of hosannas for these products in the form of a TV commercial sponsored by the Philippine Dermatological Society. It depicts a pretty young woman in her coffin, put there by excessive use of whitening products. There are warnings printed on the products' labels that are there to circumvent liability for their misuse. But, like cigarettes, if anyone buys a product they are probably not afraid of its hazardous effects.

If there is any other serious questioning of this brazenly racist phenomenon it is certainly being successfully suppressed by Filipino popular culture. It is in the nature of whatever is popular to also be essentially brainless, but such brainlessness as that being shoved down the throats of Philippine women would require a radical change of attitudes and a re-examination of prevailing prejudices that may never come.

(1) Not to mention an ethnically Chinese minority that keeps a low profile but is believed to own everything.
(2) In fairness, Dingdong was recently voted the "3rd sexiest" man in the world by the American "E" Entertainment Network. His name may have had something to do with it.

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