Illustration by Bernice Delos Reyes

Celebrating Brownness

Never in my life had my skin tone been referred to as beautiful. How could anyone possibly think of being brown as beautiful?

Growing up in the Philippines, the words brown and beautiful did not go in the same sentence. How could they, when I grew up driving past billboards that advertised whitening pills, lotions and soaps, billboards that said having fair skin equaled being elegant and sophisticated? There would always be ads on TV showing women skeptical of going under the sun, afraid they’d get darker — and the whitening products were their knights in shining armor, protecting them from the so-called harmful rays of the sun.
My preadolescent self fell prey to this constructed notion of beauty. Every time we went to the grocery store, I would always bug my mom to buy me papaya soap. When she finally did, I would look at myself in the mirror daily to see if anything had changed from the day before. I was always skeptical of playing under the sun for too long: before visiting the swimming pool, I would lavishly apply sunscreen, and I was the first one to leave. I was the target of nicknames like Brownie, because I was apparently too dark for the taste of my kid neighbors. I used to think maybe the boys in school didn’t have a crush on me because I had the skin tone of slightly burnt toast; I wasn’t white enough to be considered pretty.
The papaya soap never worked its magic on me, but I grew to be nonchalant about it. I stopped caring because nothing was changing. In the summer of 2014, I was walking in New Haven, Connecticut, with friends I had met the night before when one of them told me how much she loved my skin.
“Dude, you have no idea how much I’d give to have your skin tone, it’s so beautiful,” she said. I was struck with awe. Never in my life had my skin tone been referred to as beautiful. How could anyone possibly think of being brown as beautiful? It baffled me. I then told her what it was like back home: dinner parties filled with remarks from aunts about how I should consider taking glutathione pills, saying it would make me prettier; how hard it was to buy make up for myself because every other make up store sold their darkest shade two tones lighter than mine; how at times I wanted to hide my own skin, because I didn’t feel confident in it.
It’s quite ironic how ashamed I was of being brown in a city filled with brown people. Whiteness was held so high as the standard of beauty that renowned local celebrities were portrayed sensationally on the news for rejecting endorsement opportunities with whitening product companies, and billboards on major avenues continued to shame women with dark skin.
Two years after that summer, I decided to drive out of those streets decked with shaming billboards and found myself on a plane en route to Abu Dhabi. Here the make-up department looks starkly different: hues of brown in the foundation section finally have an expanded spectrum. On campus, shades of brown, white and everything else in between coexist. Instead of being called names for my skin tone, I find myself in the midst of compliments, just like that summer in 2014. I am still getting used to hearing beautiful and brown in the same sentence, but if there is anything this campus has taught me about beauty, it is this: it can have so many definitions, and being white isn’t the only one.
Bernice Delos Reyes is Deputy Social Media Editor. Email her at
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