Beyond Skin Tone

Photo by Tracy Fuentes

By Tracy Fuentes

“I saw you playing outside, under the sun,” my mom would angrily say when she picked me up after school. I listened as she drove our red minivan home. “I told you to stay in the shade!”

She would say this a couple of times a week when I was in second grade. My sister was in AM kindergarten, which meant that right when my mom picked her up halfway through my school day, it was second-grade recess. She would drive around the back of the school where the field and playground were, looking for me. Checking on me. Making sure I played in the shade, so that my skin wouldn’t get darker.

In second grade, I didn’t really understand why she didn’t want my skin to get darker and I really did not understand racism. I simply wanted to play wherever my friends wanted to, and they thought it was weird my mom wouldn’t let me play out in the sun. I knew that I was Filipino and that some food that I ate at home wasn’t eaten by everyone else, so I only ate school lunch. I definitely had no idea about the hundreds of years of colonization that Filipinos endured, leading my mom and many other Filipinos to favor lighter skin tones over darker ones.

Papaya soap is a popular product in the Philippines, praised due to the belief it can lighten one’s skin tone. My mom gave me my first bar in middle school, and when my aunts visited from the Philippines when I was in high school, they gifted us about ten bars each. It confused me, as my mom and aunts praised my lighter skin tone while my white peers sought out fake tans.

Beyond skin tone, my mom would tell me stories of her pinching my nose when I was a baby, hoping that my nose would turn out to be more like my dad’s, rather than her flat nose. I wished for blue eyes, lighter hair. I always wished to be taller, like the non-Filipinos in my classes. Even though I grew up in a diverse community with many Filipinos, we all strove for whiteness in order to properly assimilate.

American representations of Filipinos in the media were nearly nonexistent when I was a kid. My parents watched a lot of TFC, or The Filipino Channel, and that was the only chance I had to see Filipinos on screen, which I’m grateful for. However, colorism remains present in these Filipino works. All the actors and actresses are light-skinned with Eurocentric features, many of them English speaking, half-white and half-Filipino, born in places like Australia or the United States.

One of the biggest events of the year for Filipinos is the Miss Universe pageant, due to the numerous Filipinas who have taken home the title of Miss Universe or been in the Top 10. Even if you can’t watch the entire program, you’ll be sure to read about the results on Facebook the following day, especially if Miss Philippines does well. Our two latest Miss Universe winners from 2015 and 2018 are sources of pride for many Filipinos. However, both Catriona Gray and Pia Wurtzbach are half-white and half-Filipino, sending the message that Filipina beauty is only celebrated if they have Eurocentric features.

The popularity of mixed actresses and pageant queens perpetuates the lighter skin beauty standard and marginalizes those with darker skin tones. Thankfully, there have been some changes and movements to address colorism within the Philippines and the diaspora, such as the social media campaign #MagandangMorenx, started by Asia Jackson, actress and content creator. The campaign addresses colorism within the Filipino community and embraces darker-skinned Filipinx/o/as, especially those who are mixed race. 

Whenever I see people using tanning beds or self-tanner, I’m reminded of my childhood avoiding the sun. Sometimes it’s surreal to me how other people seek darker skin when my family has been so ashamed of their own. Beauty standards are fleeting, yet have such a profound impact on our culture and how we view ourselves. I’m happy to say that I no longer have any papaya soap in my bathroom, and that I only avoid the sun for my skin’s health, not because I’m scared of getting darker.



  1. Proud to be a Filipino!
    Taas noo kahit kanino.
    It was a colonized mind set in the Philippines that having lighter skin and pointed noise makes you more attractive.
    Good story Tracy, I believe lots of our kababayans can relate. -:)


  2. Amazing article Tracy! I can totally relate as a Filipina who grew up in the Philippines and came here at age 20. Everything you talked about is so relatable.


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