21 Aug On Neocolonialism and Our Ideals of Beauty
When I was 16 years old, I achieved my dream of becoming a published author when I wrote an Op-Ed for the national paper in the Philippines. At that time, I was reading, “Mga Ibong Mandaragit” (Birds of Prey), the Philippine literary classic about neocolonialism by social activist, Amado V. Hernandez, and had just come back from a trip to the United States. My article was about the destructive effects of colonial mentality that was still so pervasive in Philippine society over a century after Spanish colonial rule officially ended.
Growing up with dark brown skin in the Philippines, I never considered myself beautiful or attractive in any way, shape, or form. The ideal beauty at the time was a demure Filipina with pale skin and westernized features. I was even once passed down for a modeling job because I would not capitulate and say that I was not pure Filipino. The casting director wanted me to say that I was part-Filipino and part-something else. I just couldn’t do it. It was just something that I accepted as a teen. I thought to myself, “Ok. You have to accept this. You are not physically the ideal concept of beauty here, so you are just going to have to compensate by being intelligent, charismatic, athletic, and fun to be around”. So I grew up not putting value on looks and placing my worth on my achievements and accomplishments instead.
But when I moved to New York City, it was totally different. I was exotic. I was attractive. I was beautiful. Why was it that my dark complexion was deemed inferior and unattractive in the country I was born in, but exalted as exquisite in my adopted country on the other side of the globe? It was confusing and hurtful at times. It was so disheartening to realize how social constructs can be so damaging to how a teen views herself, her beauty, and worth as a person. So damaging, in fact, that it is still something that I am actively working on in my daily life as an adult.
Fast forward to almost 25 years later, I see that this pernicious thinking is still quite prevalent in society, as impeccably illustrated by the Black Lives Matter movement. People of color are still marginalized. It is still difficult to get representation in various areas. I have friends who were born and raised here, whose parents were born and raised here, get asked, “What country are you from?”, automatically being just thought of as foreign because of the way they look. This not only affects the psyche, but studies show that racism profoundly impacts the health of children and adolescents in a negative way.
It is so difficult for a marginalized individual to even go after the same opportunities as everyone else not only because of what is available to them, and what they have access to, but they may not even go for it because of lack of self-worth or the belief that they will never be given a chance. What someone conceives as “feasible” in their realm of possibility, is ultimately different for a person of color, because of how their life experience shapes their perception of the world and how they see themselves fitting in the bigger picture. And I haven’t even started talking about LGBTQ+ individuals…(that’s another blog post waiting to be written). Hard to believe this is happening in America in 2020, but yup. That’s the truth.
I mean, it was just in 2015 that Mattel made dolls for children of different races and other shapes and sizes. Imagine, how it is growing up for a girl of color and seeing Barbie, a white girl as the epitome of beauty. The little girl thinks: “This is what beauty looks like. I don’t look like that. Does this mean I am not beautiful?”. This ideal colors the way the girl views herself and the world.
To be honest, as a minority woman of color, I have never considered myself marginalized or a victim. I was born in a third world country sleeping on the floor of a one-bedroom for the first 8 years of my life before my family moved to the suburbs, but I never let that define me or see that as a disadvantage. That made me who I am today. But as a person of color in America, there are just certain realities that you just learned to accept and deal with that someone with white privilege can never understand. You know you’re going to be the underdog in the arena, so you armor up, find your cojones, work harder, show your best self, and never give up.
This work is constant. It is tiring. It is difficult. We will take one step forward and 2 steps back, but we can never stop. Because as one of my favorite musicians of all time, Sam Cooke, sings, ” A Change is Gonna Come”, and I can feel it.
I am glad that these long-standing issues are being given attention and that people are receptive and are listening. But we just have to realize that we all ultimately want the same things in life: love, security, belonging, being truly seen, meaning, and joy. We are all the same regardless of our skin color.
Lots of love,