By Rew Shearer
It’s the kind of remark, unsolicited, from a cousin, an aunt, an uncle or a friend, that is inevitable on a return visit to the Philippines.
“Ngek! Ang taba at itim mo na!” (“Gee, you’ve got so chubby and dark!”)
Many are understandably offended; most bite their tongues. The few who might call out the rudeness find it quickly deflected with the claim that “it’s just the Filipino way”. And whether such bluntly personal comments are the Filipino way or not remains an ongoing discussion.
But there is an additional underlying attitude betrayed by those comments; that thinness and fairness are the measures of beauty and that, automatically, bigger or darker is uglier.
It’s a beauty expectation absorbed at a very young age in the Philippines, particularly by girls and it’s not uncommon for young women who are beautiful in their own right to feel anything but: doubting and even hating themselves because of a measurement here, a skin-tone there, reinforced by body-shaming disguised, in a uniquely Filipino way, as humour – “Jokes lang! Hihi.”
This beauty bias is endemic and brutal. Actors, models, even politicians are criticised mercilessly for the colour of their skin. Any TV star who is not stick-thin will struggle to find success in any arena other than comedy.
New Zealand, by contrast, has a somewhat broader – although by no means all-embracing – concept of beauty. Any colour can be beautiful and it can be argued that there is much more liberal acceptance of different figures, too. Perhaps New Zealand’s more diverse population, in which beauty appears in every shape, size and hue, tends to open the eyes of the beholder a little wider.
Inna , 29, came to New Zealand as a teenager. In the Philippines she had been labelled too chubby and too dark and it showed in her shyness. But after a couple of years immersed in New Zealand with friends of many different ethnicities and being accepted instead of criticised, she began to see her place on a spectrum of beauty. Confidence in herself followed and now Inna is, in her own words, “Black, chubby and proud! Kiwis love my skin colour”.
Paola, 28, has experienced the comments from cousins, uncles and aunts. “When I was in the Philippines I did a whitening treatment.” But back in New Zealand her perspective has been restored. “I’m more confident here, because they like my colour,” she laughs.
Others echo the sentiment. Lyn, a 32 year old nurse and now naturalised Kiwi: “I feel a lot more confident with myself in NZ. There are fewer unnecessary comments thrown in relation to my skin, weight, sexuality and all the rest.”
Josephine, 40, feels the heat in more ways than one whenever she returns to the Philippines. Rather than suffer the remarks and criticisms and disapproving looks she wears long sleeves and long pants even on the hottest days, saving the singlets and shorts for New Zealand where she feels more comfortable baring her skin.
For some, though, the struggle goes on, even in New Zealand. Anna, 22: “You realise that nothing’s going to change about your body. You just end up accepting it. I can say that I love my colour anytime … even though I just accept it. They’ll never know.”
All agreed that the narrow-minded view of beauty so prevalent in the Philippines is sad and that there is so much to be celebrated here in New Zealand.
Inna sums up her experience in a sentence: “In general, here in New Zealand, I feel like I fit in fine no matter what size or colour I am.”
Perhaps acceptance is the first step towards true self confidence and with it, more eyes can behold the full spectrum of beauty.