Reclaiming and Accepting My Roots
During the summer, my skin absorbs the sun as if it's being charged with the energy of the star's power. My skin turns dark brown, like chocolate, like coffee beans, like water-logged wood. When fall arrives in Michigan, when the sun hides behind the clouds, my skin begins to lose its once-pigmented color, as if the cold is trying to teach me something I haven't stopped hearing my whole life: You're more beautiful when you're a lighter shade.
Brown in a White World
I grew up in a majority-White, Midwestern neighborhood. I was surrounded by pretty White girls. Pretty White girls the boys liked. In middle school, I finally met another Filipino American girl, but she had a white father. The boys liked her more than they did me. I liked her more than I liked me. I liked her lighter hair color and her lighter skin, never questioning why that preference was so.
Bombarded with commercials filled with White, healthy and clear-skinned, women selling me products that would supposedly make me like them, I started using foundation in hopes to cover up acne, which unfortunately will not go away for another 15 years. During those 15 years, I took birth control pills though I was not yet sexually active. My mother encouraged and agreed to buy because my primary physician had prescribed it for my acne. I'd go into cosmetic stores and the customer service reps would spend ten minutes just to find the "right" tone. With each minute passing, I went one shade darker.
Lipsticks, too, never seemed to be the "right" shade. They were too red, making my face look clownish, or too brown, washing everything into one uniform palette, a face without a mouth to speak from.
My skin color would continue to be “hard to match,” until, at 28, I finally learned to quit squeezing myself between shades beauty companies didn't make for me.
What is, exactly, at the core of being sold pills and products that would make me appear more beautiful? And for whom was I being made to appear more beautiful for?
For me, as a Filipino American, the answer lies in a very long history of colonization and the Western idealization of beauty.
A Colonial History of Beauty
It's only been 70 years since the Philippines had been granted “independence” after having spent decades serving as a colony to the Spanish, then to the United States. Within this history is a layered message: white is better.
In her book Empire of Care: Nursing and Filipino American History, author and scholar Catherine Ceniza Choy chronicles how the United States used Western medicine, in particular through nursing services and programs, to continue racialized (and gendered) systems of hierarchy. In targeting young Filipino women to work as nurses in hospitals and training them to be professionals by white American nurses, White nurses’ uniforms and white skin became the standard, the ideal, the Dream Filipinas across the Philippines internalized. The Dream that has trickled down all the way to my generation, where we live within white communities not as Filipinos but as Americans, living by their standards, being sold products that doesn't suit our skin tones or our bodies.
We can and SHOULD break ourselves free from these systems, from these learned ideals of beauty, by listening to both our own bodies and the techniques and remedies our ancestors used to nurture themselves long before the sterilization of beauty and pharmaceuticals were imposed by outsiders.
Now, at 30, I've started to learn how important it is to (re)connect with my roots, to try to decolonize the way I look at myself in the mirror, to try to undo the standards to which I've held myself to all these years.
I do this primarily by choosing to see what is true: that I carry the skin color of a long line of people who have struggled and are still struggling. I've stopped caking my skin with foundation shades that don't match. I began to accept the imperfections inside me that had been manifesting themselves as pimples and that grew because of my internalized desire to fit in. I've begun to learn self-love, a force as powerful as the sun that darkens my skin. Slowly but surely, my body and skin will know what to do as I I return to my roots and care for myself in ways I was meant to be cared for.
Teresa Mupas Purugganan is a writer, poet, and teacher living and working off the northwest coast of Spain. Born in a tidy suburb of Detroit to a set of Filipino parents, she's also once lived in a crowded, hot suburb in Thailand. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on her travels on Instagram@teresamupas.