Once again Western standards of beauty are on display in Asia, with beauty contest officials inevitably picking a mestiza to be Miss Universe Philippines 2017. Rachel Peters’ father is British, her mother a Filipina. Last year’s Miss Universe was Pia Wurtzbach, who had a German father. A former Miss Cebu, Raine Baljac, had a Croat father. Megan Lynne Young, a Filipino-American, was crowned Miss World in 2013. There have been precious few pure Filipina finalists in any recent beauty contests in the country.
Obviously Filipino women who gave birth to those contestants, to name a few among many, either traveled around the world where they met their partners, or foreign men were the ones who had gone to the Philippines. The fascination, even obsession, with Western standards of beauty dates back to the former western colonials which relegated the indigenous population to a lower social stratum. Analysts of colonialism have pointed to the socio-cultural problems which arise from that. But in developing countries like the Philippines, mestizos tend to be admired.
Some countries view such minorities either with contempt or a tinge of admiration. In colonial India, the offspring of Britons who married the natives were labelled “half caste,” “Anglo-Indian” or “Eurasian,” among others. (In Africa there were the Creoles or Mulattoes.) The mixed-race actress, Merle Oberon whose exoticism took her to the Hollywood zenith in the 1930s and 1940s, was born in India but claimed she was born in Tasmania, a secret she kept till her death.
It was former US President Barack Obama who spelled things out clearly when he described himself in an interview as a “mutt” soon after he was elected in 2008 as the media were digging into his antecedents. Curiously, he chose to call one of his biographical pre-election books “Dreams from My Father.” This may have been to highlight the racism that pervades much of American society towards what were first called “negroes,” then “colored folks” and finally “blacks.” The era of miscegenation lasted centuries, when marriages between white and black couples were often ostracized.
Even though Obama had a white mother, which makes him only half black, that tended to be overlooked by racists whose attitudes are deeply entrenched in America’s social, cultural and political life. Tales whipped up by the present President Donald Trump about Obama having been born in his father’s country, Kenya, festered in the minds of a segment of Americans who hated the thought of America having a black president. The Texan husband of a close relative of mine told me when Obama ran in his first presidential campaign: “I don’t want no nigger in the White House!”
Diluting the “pure”
The early waves of migration throughout the world from China, India and the Middle East served to “dilute” those races which wished to keep themselves “pure,” as it were. Those considered beyond the pale were seen as mongrels.
Today’s ease of jet travel encourages the itinerant nature of different races moving from their birthplaces to various corners of the globe. The mixed marriages that take place have produced progeny that populates today’s multi-racial world.
I’m the product of such a phenomenon. My grandfather hailed from Tennessee and joined the army during the time of America’s only colonial adventure. He was stationed in Cebu, the central region of the Philippines, where he met a local teenager who spoke only Cebuano and Spanish (learned from the Spanish colonials who occupied the Philippines for over 300 years). The Americans did not rule by the cross and the sword like Spain had when they took over as the new colonials although they ultimately prosecuted an ugly repression. But they also brought over the English language, education and technology, making native nationalists, later called their compatriots “little brown Americans,” who allowed the new rulers to exploit the country.
My Cebuana grandmother, who learned pidgin English from her foreign husband, produced 10 children who naturally became part of the mestizo class. My father, being the eldest, obtained an engineering degree from a top Manila university, which qualified him to run a cement plant in his mother’s birthplace, where I myself was born in the last century.
Growing up as the child of mestizo parents (my mother had a Spanish father) made me realize I was a bit different from some of my friends. My yaya (nanny) would sometimes tell me I was lucky because I had a straight nose, not a flat one like hers and most others’. She made me feel glad of this fact, which I later realized was just a colonial hang-over.
Whiteners, colonial hangovers
For decades, pharmacies throughout the archipelago promote “whitening” creams and light-colored hair dyes that are snapped up by women (and men) wishing to emulate western celebrities. Those are also colonial hangovers epitomized by Hollywood, but many among the general mass of people continue to derive satisfaction from aping current trends.
There is a larger infusion of Chinese blood in Thailand than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but fair skin is treasured by women in China, and especially Hong Kong where beauty salons advertise procedures that give women wide Western-type eyes with double eyelids.
Cookies from the cutters
Much has changed around the world today, with nationalist pride flourishing in even the smallest nations. A country like the Philippines, which attaches “world class” to even minor victories and glories in a prize-winning pugilist, has fielded the most Westernized-looking models in beauty contests so as to join the big league. The belief is that “kayumanggi” (brown-skinned) girls wouldn’t make the grade. Mestizas, of which there are countless numbers in the Philippines and Latin America, will go on being “cookie-cutter” Western types aspiring to reach the top of the beauty pile. Rachel Peters is the latest example. She won’t be the last.
– This piece originally ran in the Asia Sentinel on May 9 2017. –