While recently visiting a cold and rainy European capital, I asked my host if her fellow Filipinos ever took advantage of the rare glorious summer days to stroll around the city's magnificent parks. 'No,' she said tartly. 'They're afraid that if they walk out in the sun their skin will turn dark.'
Her reply brought home to me how widespread the Filipino obsession is with skin colour. Of course, what I really mean is just one colour - white. For Filipinas, it is the 'Holy Hue' - it does not matter that this country's women are among the most beautiful and youthful looking in the world, the arbiter of female loveliness in Philippine culture is a fair skin. The fact that many men find it desirable may have something to do with it.
The slight problem is that we Filipinos are not white at all. Our complexions are brown, golden, tan, mocha or coffee. A few, those with white foreigners nestling in the branches of their family tree, have Caucasian features and fair skin. They are the so-called, much-envied mestizos, who find instant careers in entertainment no matter how empty-headed they are. (They probably do not know that the dictionary defines mestizo as 'Spanish and American-Indian half-caste').
At any rate, brown-skinned Filipinos seeking a white epidermis need not curse fate. Anyone living in Manila will readily notice how saturated the media is with adverts peddling what they blatantly call 'skin-whiteners' - soaps, creams, bleaches and lotions which promise to wash away that disturbing brown tint.
I can just imagine that, in the evenings, the country must be full of vigorous scrubbing sounds as women across the land, assisted by potions, soaps and (for all I know) stiff brushes and paint thinners, try to acquire smooth milky-white complexions. If that does not work, there are clinics that offer to turn their clients' faces white (probably after they see the bill). Beauty might be only skin deep, but as long as the skin is white, that is deep enough for the Filipinos whose ideology is dermatology.
Why this obsession? The answer: a sense of superiority. Filipinos were oppressively ruled for almost 400 years by Spaniards, and another 50 years after that by Americans. The experience shaped a colonial mentality which the culture has not shaken off. To have white skin means to be top of the heap, a class above everyone else.
There is a story that during the Spanish times, native families were pleased to see a daughter get pregnant by a Spanish friar; it meant that the child would be mestizo. For years, Filipinos who felt this way have been mockingly called 'coconuts' - that is, brown on the outside, white on the inside.