Sitting on a canvas chair in the white sand of Boracay Beach, listening to the music of the ocean, my cousin and I were getting henna tattoos.
For the hour or so that they painstakingly plied their craft on our flesh, we got to chatting. The artists, like many Filipinos we encountered, were greatly impressed with the fact that we were half-Filipino and half-American.
“I wish my skin wasn’t so dark and freckled,” one of the henna workers said. “If I was more white and beautiful I could marry a rich man.”
“What are you talking about?” I eyed her gorgeous, deep tan, a tan that Americans envy and spend obscene amounts of time and money trying to obtain.
“Look at you,” she replied, “You’re both so beautiful. You’re both so white.”
This was not an uncommon sentiment. And I wasn’t used to the sudden amount of admiration. When I and ten other members of my family arrived in the Philippines to visit relatives and reconnect with our roots, we met with distant cousins and aunts and uncles who marveled at our blended ethnicity.
One little girl I met at a family party gasped and actually called me a Barbie doll.
That was the strangest claim that I’ve ever heard, considering that my legs are neither long nor slender, and that my hair is a far, far cry from blonde. Thanks to my heritage, I’m naturally tan, and my skin darkens easily. But the year I visited the Philippines, I had spent a lot of time lurking under fluorescent lights at college and work so my skin was a yellowish-olive. In the eyes of my relatives, however, I was gleaming like Snow White. This is in contrast to the Philippine islands where the practically omnipresent sun naturally burnishes the people in a tan. It was a laughable paradox: I wanted to have their deep sun-kissed glow; they wanted my sallow skin.
In the Filipino malls, I was saddened to see skin-lightening and bleaching creams abounding. Influenced by this societal concept that “whiter is better,” Filipinos were trying to achieve a beauty that literally worked against the environment they lived in and that declared the very make of their bodies as “ugly.”
And women in the Philippines are not alone in wanting to defy nature for a some ideal beauty. NPR published an article that revealed a huge percentage of women in Brazil are getting plastic surgery to adjust their bodies in a way that goes against their natural frame in order to fit into a very specific look. And in the US, of course, women are constantly going under the knife or going to extremes in diet and fitness to be magazine-worthy.
Everywhere around the world, possibly in every country, people are struggling to obtain a beauty that goes against their bodies.
It Began Early
For quite a long time, stemming back into early childhood, I’ve hated practically everything about the way I look.
I’ve never had a slender build. I’m short and my hips and ribcage conspire to give me a thick waist. Fat clings to me like obstinate dryer lint on black clothes. I became aware that something was wrong with my body when my grandmother would good-naturedly pat me on the stomach and laugh.
“Taba. “ She said, “You’re taba.” Taba in Tagalog means fat.
As I aged, some of my baby fat melted. But to my horror and agony, my stout frame never lengthened. And so I hated my weight, and my squinty eyes, (due to Chinese-Filipino genetics) and short stature. I yearned to obtain the traits of girls that I saw on television and that my family praised: tall, slender, with big and beautiful sparkling eyes.
My family told me I was hard-working, smart and responsible. But I was never "pretty." And because I was never pretty the way I wanted to be, all of my other features seemed worthless. I shortchanged myself based off of physical traits that I knew I could never attain.
Throughout high school and college, my body image struggle continued. I refused to accept that no matter how much I starved, or regulated my body, I could never make myself into something that was, quite literally, the exact opposite of my physical make. My constant self-criticism sanded my confidence down to raw and vulnerable slivers that stuck into my heart and mind.
At this point, I think I should clarify something: There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be your best self physically. Resolving to be more active and to nourish the body instead of merely feeding it undeniably, is good for you—and fit looks good, too. There’s also nothing wrong with carefully deciding to alter one’s body, like Ariel Winters, for health reasons. But if a notion of beauty demands the alteration of the body to the point that it practically defies your very ethnicity and bone structure, making you hate yourself and destroying your confidence, then perhaps forcing that idea of beauty onto yourself is the wrong thing to do.
A tall woman with a naturally willow-thin frame and large eyes is beautiful. But so is a petite, wider-framed brunette with angled eyes. Beauty, like people, exists in many unique forms and varies from country to country. Unfortunately, however, all over the world, even in America and especially in places like the Philippines, a specific type of beauty shows affluence and defines worth.
We All Need a Shift
To this day I struggle with accepting my body. But I’m going to try, despite how I feel about myself or what others say, to embrace it. Because no matter how much I exercise I’ll never achieve an eighteen-inch waist, and no matter how much I stretch I’ll never grow five inches taller. I don’t need surgery to remove a rib to make my waist smaller. I can wear heels if the fancy strikes me to be a couple inches taller. Makeup is marvelous for widening my eyes. But it’s not required to make me beautiful. If I give into the critic inside my mind, if I feed her my insecurities, then I’ll live the rest of my life hating my body, and I don’t want to waste any more years letting myself get eaten up inside.
When my artist finished the henna tattoo, I gazed at the red-brown clay glistening on my arm. The tattoo made me feel bold for a few moments, but soon I wondered if it emphasized the girth of my arm. My confidence had waxed and was quickly waning. But then I looked around me, at the beautiful Filipino girls gazing at me with admiration and sadness, who wished that they had what I had. Who wished that they looked the way I looked, who wished they were someone else. Just like I did.
It was then, as I looked from my Filipino sisters to the turquoise sea dashing itself onto the white sands, that my ingrained notions of beauty wavered. We were all blind, including me, to the beauty that we held.
I realized that chasing a beauty that did not reflect who I am is as futile and as frustrating as trying to catch the waves of the ocean and carry them away in my arms.
Photo Credit: Tina Sosna