Colorism

Today I read an article regarding the cover for FHM Philippines magazine. The cover depicts a Filipino actress named Bela Padilla. She is surrounded by three Filipino models who are representing “the shadow” that the actress is emerging from. On the surface this sounds like an artistic, maybe even fashionable (for FHM), photograph. So, what’s the problem?

For starters, the three models accompanying the actress have been painted to appear as if they have much darker skin tones. The tagline for the cover is, “Stepping Out of the Shadows.” In America, this photograph conjures up imagery of “Black Face,” which is a medium that the majority of African Americans would agree is offensive. But, that’s our American slant on things. This publication is out of the Philippines and, to understand the backlash and the offensiveness of the cover, you must consider THEIR history.

Several years ago, I was on the interwebs looking for products to even out my skin tone. While I was researching this, I came across a forum where young, mostly Asian, girls were discussing different ways to lighten their skin. As an American, with little exposure to the outside world at the time, I was shocked at the suggestions that were given and I was shocked that there were girls out there who loathed themselves to that degree. That self-loathing didn’t come from a desire to skin cats or feasts on the bones of children, it was based solely on something that is completely out of their control. Their skin tone. As a black American, I was intrigued by what I discovered there because, until then, I had not heard of people from other, non-white, races suffering from “colorism.”

So, what is colorism? A quick web search will get you the following definition:

Colorism is discrimination in which human beings are accorded differing social treatment based on skin color.

I consider colorism to be the preference of light skinned individuals over dark skinned individuals within one race; or vice versa. People who “practice” colorism believe that if someone is dark skinned, they are generally and inherently inferior. (This mindset is often subconscious. Personally, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard men, in passing, describe their perfect woman as having light skin, for instance.)

Most people who do not understand the concept of colorism have a difficult time understanding the offensiveness of this photograph. If it wasn’t for my own experience with colorism, it’s a good chance that I would not get it either.

As I research colorism within the Filipino culture the picture that is painted is that, although they are the minority, light skinned Filipinos receive the best jobs and generally live a high class life while dark skin Filipinos do not.  If you were to see a Filipino movie, or to pick up an average Filipino magazine, you will likely see mostly light skinned Filipinos. Along with this, Filipinos are inundated with ads for skin whitening creams. I’ve read many comments like the following over the years:

“I’m just wondering if light skin makes a person more beautiful in the Philippines. It seems everywhere I go around the Philippines there are commercials, billboards, ads, ect. that promote skin whitening products.” (Link)

With the prevalence of this mindset, it is no wonder that FHM Philippines felt such a huge backlash from readers who are fed up with being told, directly and indirectly, that they are inferior. That dark skin is a shadow that must be shed in order to emerge, beautiful, pristine and, most importantly, white. In FHM’s apology, they stated that they will strive to be more “sensitive” in the future, but IMO, it goes beyond sensitivity. Until people understand the harm that colorism causes, they will never truly understand what is so wrong with that cover, thus it’s likely that they will struggle to see it in the future. For example, in an attempt to clear things up, Padilla stated that the models weren’t actually dark skin models, but had been made up to look as if they were. So not only are they portraying dark models as “the shadow” they also still refused to hire dark skin models for the shoot.

To sum things up, a user that responded to my post on the Huffington Post stated it perfectly:

…. this happens all over the world, especially in colonised/commonwealth places + among various ethnicities.

people are made complacent through controlled stimuli, while others try to imitate what is considered to be ‘majority’ social concepts – whether it is stifles them or not – to fit in…so sad. when messages such as the one depicted in the picture are so slight that most people miss it and some who see it chalk it up to a misunderstanding or overreaction, this is to be expected from both sides.

history is relevant. truly understanding a culture in order to appreciate nuances of perception is important. what to some might seem completely irrelevant, may not be so to others. it depends on how it impacts lives from both spectrums on a fundamental level. in this instance the message is clear. it helps when you understand the role of advertising. -Nikmc

I concur.

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