Monday, August 24, 2009

The Whitening Issue

Paint my face in your magazines
Make it look whiter than it seems
Paint me over with your dreams
Shove away my ethnicity

- Nelly Furtado, "Powerless (Say What You Want)"

So: the "whitener" issue.

Let's just get this out of the way. Yes, I am using an over-the-counter "whitening" cream right now. Yes, I understand that this creates some kind of paradox for me, because the fact that I am using one will make people wonder if I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and bleach myself away.

To which I say: People, it's just a skin cream.

The fact is, most of the over-the-counter "whitening" products that are in the Philippine market contain familiar ingredients that are meant to even out skin tone by "bleaching out" dark areas - safe chemicals like hydroquinone, kojic acid, a few hydroxy acids here, some vitamin action over there. That's fine, because they're there to help a lot of women deal with hyperpigmentation, which occurs for so many different reasons.

Ingredient issues aside, some of these ingredients are pretty safe for over-the-counter home use, and may even add a boost to any existing skincare routine. So, in and of themselves, most of these creams are harmless until definitively proven otherwise.

Except there's one thing: These skin creams are marketed for the purpose of "whitening" dark skin.

Again, it's one thing to use a fade cream to deal with your age spots, freckles, or any pigmentation issues... but it's another thing to use a cream or product that promises to give you "rosy white skin" and diminish the existing yellow undertones that you were born with in the first place.

Fine, you say, hyperpigmentation is a common problem in Asian skin; these products are made in Asia for Asians, blah blah blah. But guess what? Hyperpigmentation is not exclusive to Asians. It's also a problem with African Americans, with Latinas... heck, even the fairest of Caucasian women are using fade creams to help them out with their freckles and acne scars. While I can't be too sure if any of these women do want to be any whiter than they already are (hello, growing popularity of bronzers and tanners!), everyone agrees that they want their skin to be evenly colored, regardless of color. And guess what's in the creams that they're using to fade those pesky spots? Yep: kojic acid, hydroquinone, some hydroxy acids here, some vitamin action over there... different concentrations and price points, maybe, but pretty much all the same purpose.

There's a bigger question here about cultural identity and insecurity, of course... but I say that what we're really looking at is a conspiracy that's bigger and much more tangled than the weave on Tyra Banks' head. All these questions about skin whitening with regards to race, culture, and sexual politics point to a much, much bigger villain: the industry of beauty itself.

I'm not saying that women like me should give up on makeup, skincare, and fashion itself - otherwise, why would I bother with this blog? (Or democracy, for that matter. Heh.) But the fact remains that most consumers in the Philippines can be passive consumers.

Think about it: The majority of cosmetics lines available in the Philippine market have a limited range of foundation shades. And since foundation tends to be both the most expensive and most frustrating cosmetic product to purchase anywhere in the world, the average Filipino woman is more likely than anyone to get stuck with the wrong foundation shade, over and over again. And because a great majority of us (yes, me included) would haaaaate to let all that money and product go to waste, we keep using and using that same horrible shade of foundation anyway.

Imagine this disappointment happening to an entire market of women over and over again, to the point where retail fatigue sets in and all hope of finding the right shade has been lost. Imagine the disappointment being so vast that the average Pinay would wake up one day and realize that it's not the foundation's fault for making her skin look pasty - it's her fault for being dark and sallow in the first place, her fault for not keeping herself away from the sun. And instead of writing to the cosmetics company to demand a better range of shades, that woman turns to the whitener aisle of her local drugstore and buys a whitener for her face, a whitener for her body, thinking that all this product will turn her as pale as Nicole Kidman overnight... and life would be so much better, so much easier.

And so the cycle begins, all over again.

But what if the cycle stopped somewhere? What if the same woman stopped for a moment, looked at the ingredients of her skin cream, and realized that she was never going to turn into Snow White overnight? What if a professional were to step in between her and the product aisle - a certified dermatologist, a well-trained aesthetician, or even a very good friend - and tell her that what she's about to do is actually dangerous and potentially fatal? What if she just took one look at the mirror and realized that the best that she can do is... her skin color right now, but with a more even tone and a healthier glow?

That's the thing: The most important job of a skin cream - or any other beauty product or procedure - is to help you look more like a healthier, happier version of you. No product or procedure in the world will completely alter your skin color, your genetic makeup, or even your life's circumstances. And even when it does... well, Jocelyn Wildenstein still ended up with a broken heart, so what does it say for the rest of us?

And as for me, post-"whitening" cream, my skin is still the same sunny caramel tan color ... but at least it's a more even-toned, glowier version of said caramel tan. No need to bleach myself into oblivion here.


noi said...

hi! was able to drop by your blog through Karen's MakeupAndBeautyBlog! :D
i agree with your whitening rants.. i can't help but take pity and shake my head senseless when i see Filipinas hoarding whitening products that give them 'broken' promises :( some would say that it's easier for me to say this since i'm half-Chinese (thus i'm fair-skinned) but most of my friends are Filipinas so i can still relate.. i still believe in going with the skin color you're born with and working from there.. like those shimmer body lotions or those bronzers.. heck, i even use bronzer just to give me a glow (w/c some tan-skinned ladies seem to have)! :))
my mom too uses whitening cream, but NOT for bleaching herself like crazy.. since she's in her 50s, she has some dark spots which she needs to deal with.. this, i believe whitening creams are truly for! :D

meimei said...

Thanks, Noi! I also get that myself - I have Chinese blood, too, and a lot of folks who meet me in person tend to think that my skin's pretty fair. And yet, when I look at my pictures from the last 10 years, and especially my pictures from living in Hawaii, I actually come across as much darker and tanner.

I'm beginning to think that there might be a whitening backlash brewing in the Philippines right now, too. I recently read an interview with a popular Eurasian-born local actress - famous for leading-lady roles - who admitted that she's thinking about getting a tan because her natural "white" skin tone makes her look sickly. Magazines have also started to hire darker models (both local and foreign - Brazilians, especially) and acknowledge that "whitening" ingredients like glutathione and kojic acid are more useful for age spots rather than overall bleaching. Here's hoping...