Washing off the melanin

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It was shortly after my family trip to the Philippines when I was 13 that I caught sight of a rectangular object, about the same size as my palm, sitting on top of my luggage. The white box was labeled “Kojie San” and had a wonderfully drawn Geisha with ivory white skin stamped on the front. 

“It’s a bar of soap. You’re so dark now, it’ll help bleach your skin,” my mom nagged when I asked her what it was for.

Later that day, I took it with me to the shower. I rubbed the orange soap all over until I felt a tingling sensation akin to burning. I looked for immediate results throughout my body, wanting to see white skin instead of brown as the acidic contents coated me. Without thinking, I rubbed the suds onto my face, attempting to scrub the melanin off, until eventually, the orange liquid cascaded down into the shower drain. I used the soap religiously, stacking bulks of it in my bathroom. Even if it caused acne to form on parts of my skin that were usually smooth, I continued to apply the harmful substance on me. It was damaging my skin more than doing good, but I would have sacrificed anything to look like that Geisha on the box.

I used to trick myself into thinking the soap actually made a difference on my skin, that I was a better, more beautiful person if my skin was lighter. In the Philippines, the people who are considered beautiful are usually of lighter complexions. Many of our pageant queens and famous actresses were always half-white, with Eurocentric features and paler skin tones. Meanwhile, the girls from my province are always comedians, the brunt of every joke because of their more native features. The women I saw on television were nothing like me and so I grew up ashamed of the skin that I couldn’t get out of. 

It didn’t help that my family would poke fun of how dark my skin was compared to them. It didn’t help that all my friends were considerably lighter than me and that my dark skin was sometimes pointed out and teased in conversations. This internalized hatred had consumed me to the point that I start making fun of my friends who were darker than I was just to make myself feel better.

I remember one day in 2016, I was feeling incredibly disheartened and tuned in to a live stream with three guys who I looked up to very much. Two of them were bickering about who was darker and asked the viewers for their opinion. Eventually, one of the guys was hurt after being labeled the darkest person, obviously having the same insecurities as me. The live stream had noticeably shifted in tone, but people kept commenting on how dark his skin truly was. No matter how uncomfortable he looked, the insensitivity continued. I remember hearing the words of another person who didn’t participate in the conversation, although short and simple, having such an impact on me that I almost cried.

“So what about his skin tone? He’s still cool, regardless. Why do you all care about stuff like that? He’s still handsome, right?”

When you live in an Asian country and have a darker complexion, you are not considered attractive. My people have been called “jungle Asians” and “primitive” by paler East Asians because of our skin tones and our less privileged background. We are compared to monkeys as if the melanin we produce made us less human. When that streamer said those words, I was extremely touched that someone stood up for a person who looked like me. None of my friends had ever consoled me about my insecurities and I was elated to know that there were people like him in the world that didn’t equate being paler to being more beautiful.

Because of his words, I eventually stopped touching the bar of soap that caused breakouts of acne on my skin and opted for something less damaging. Maybe it was because I watched the live stream during a period of my life where I was so absorbed in self-hatred that I felt so comforted by what he said. 

I know now that these beauty standards have harmed young, impressionable girls like me who are so desperate to be paler that they damage their own skin and confidence for it. It took me years to realize that I didn’t have to fit into the porcelain beauty standards my culture put on a pedestal and I hope that one day, other brown girls will feel the same. I do not need a whitening soap to become more beautiful. What I needed was the confidence to love myself.

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