Monday, May 22, 2006

The Skin We're In

When my parents returned home from their vacation to the Philippines earlier this year, they predictably brought back enough loot to keep my daughters entertained for a good long while. Included with the dolls, the pearl necklaces, and the cute little crafty things was a cache of children's books written either entirely in English or in Tagalog with a side-by-side English translation. There are folktales, history, and contemporary stories. We're still working our way through them, and the other day the girls asked me to read Ang Pambihirang Buhok ni Raquel or Raquel's Fantastic Hair to them.

So this is a story about two female cousins, one from the barrio (Anna) and one from the city (Raquel). Anna idolizes her cousin and seeks to emulate everything from her fluent English to her smile, the way she dresses, etc. etc. This was okay, I suppose, but then I found myself having to do some quick read-aloud editing when I came to this line: Raquel doesn't know that I envy her. For she is truly pretty, with flawless fair skin. Raquel, for her part, thinks Anna is the lucky one.

Soon, it becomes clear that Raquel is quite ill. Anna and her parents go to visit her in the city often, where Anna is finally told that her cousin has leukemia. And this is her reaction (which I also edited as I read): I suddenly remembered what Raquel had been telling me about my being luckier...It dawned on me. Yes, I may not be rich, I may not be as beautiful, and I have a dark skin. But I am healthy.

So lemme see here...the message is that there are worse things than having dark skin or being poor: you could have cancer.

What the fuck? And what's "a dark skin" anyways? By the way, this is some sort of award-winning book, my friends. A 1998 PBBY-Salanga Writer's Prize, Honorable Mention, whatever that is.

Do we really do this? Do we begin telling our children that their dark skin is undesirable, is somehow lesser-than, in their picture books? And do we keep delivering the message until, as Sunny reports in this post our girls grow up to become one of the stunning number of Filipinas who feel the need to use a skin-whitening product? I'm looking forward to learning more about Joanne's work on this subject. Here's a little bit of what she has to say.

I've written before about the young Filipina that helped me take care of the kids for a few years when they were younger. The only point of friction I had with her in all the time she was with us came after I sat with Vida—she must have been just about four years old or so—looking through a book that contained pictures of children from all over the world. When we came to a page with a photograph of a young girl from India, Vida said, "I'm so lucky."

"Why is that?"

"Because I have such light skin and light hair."

"Why is that lucky?"

"Well, it means I'm beautiful."

"Who told you that? Who told you that?!"

The anwer to my question, of course, was that her Filipina babysitter had told her that. Had told her that she was lucky, that she was beautiful. I experienced so many feelings all at once: I was angry, sad, shocked, even slightly panicked. How long had she been filling my girls' heads with this notion? Why hadn't I realized? And what did I have to do to de-program them? Of course I went completely spastic on our babysitter, and I probably overdid the reverse brainwashing on Risa and Vida, so much so that in both cases it's likely that the three of them emerged from the whole debacle believing that I was slightly unhinged.

Which is pretty funny considering the fact that I wasn't the one espousing wacky ideas...


Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

Never more frightening words were spoken than when my OBGYN said:

You're having a girl.

You're right, you're right, you're absolutely right, Ver.

Like a mother bear protecting our cubs, we move to protect our daughters from that which could unravel them while their weaving is still open.

Thansk too for the warning that just because a book is a folktale from the PI doesn't mean it doesn't carry certain colonialist viewpoints/values.

ver said...

Hi Bec! So, yes, just by virtue of the fact that these books are from the Philippines and have such lovely illustrations, etc. etc. I had a false sense of...I don't know...oh aren't these quaint, won't these be great. I was even feeling a certain sense of nostalgia which is, of course, a longing for something that never really was. Crazy. The number of mistakes we can make as mothers—even in a single day—is astounding (let's's 9:56 am, and I can already recall four...)!

rcloenen-ruiz said...

It's terrifying how this desire for pale skin becomes an obsession for many pinoys. I remember waiting for two hours for a friend to come out of the bathroom, because she was soaked in a mixture meant to bleach her skin and make her look fairer. ( Me: Don't you know that can really harm your skin?

She: Basta, I just want to be whiter.)

I kept saying, what's wrong with being brown? Brown is beautiful. I mean, that's how God made us, isn't it? I mean, we should be proud we are brown. Look at all those white skinned europeans roasting on our beaches because they want to have our color.

If you look at the ads in the PH, there are these ads for skin whiteners and all that. It's an elitist thing, and folks just don't realize how anti-pinoy that type of propaganda is.

But that is one scary book, to have that kind of dialogue in it. I mean, I've never heard normal kids being concerned about the color of their skin until they're told what's desirable and what's not desirable.

And kudos for letting your kids know it's wonderful to be who you are no matter what color your skin is :) Best thing you can give them.

lolaLomy said...

I bought a few of those books (when I was last in Manila--I always shopped at the National Book Store)to read to my apos, but like you, I found myself having to do some quick read-aloud editing! at times I felt, no I can't read that to them!