Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Unbearable Being of Lightness

After an 18-day vacation in the Philippines, it’s no surprise that friends and coworkers would expect a white guy like me to come back with a tan. Sorry to disappoint. I may actually have spent less time in the sun than I do at home. Why? It’s hot outside in the Philippines, and I do my best to stay inside as much as possible unless sitting next to a pool under an umbrella. With my shirt on.

To generalize, the people of the Philippines are with me on this. It’s not like the Filipinos were urging me to get into the sun, but for very different reasons.

I’d love to get a tan. Back in high school, when I spent summers outdoors, I had a great looking tan. Those were the days when I’d start in the spring with a good, solid, full-body sunburn to establish my “base tan.” After that, I could stay outside for hours without getting burnt, and often did.

Now, I stay out of the sun because I think ahead. I'm an adult. I plan for my future. Avoiding age spots, deep facial creases and perhaps even more importantly, melanoma, means no tan is a healthy tan.

In the body conscious gay community, this has meant endless snide comments and scornful leers at summer pool parties and Atlantis cruises. But just you wait, bronzed hotties. Wait until we're all 60 and you look like Abe Vigoda. It'll be revenge of the palefaces.

I’ve been using a facial moisturizer with an SPF of 30+ for at least a decade. Though it’s hard to appreciate when I hang around so many Asians, I actually look quite a bit younger than I am. I was tickled to be told this week by a casting director that I was too young looking to play the parent of a high schooler. And I recently had an audition where I was to play a high school guidance counselor. Even I thought I looked too young for the role. And when the part called for me to call a student “son,” I knew I couldn’t pull it off.

The short-term cost is I’m too pale for American standards of male beauty, and certainly gay standards of beauty, but that may be changing too. That dude from Twilight, Robert Pattinson, seems to be giving pale white guys new life, but we’re not there yet. As a woman, Nicole Kidman is admired for her milky white complexion, but as a pale guy, I feel like I should be auditioning for a crystal meth PSA--if only I had fewer teeth.

I knew I might have been overdoing my sun aversion when my doctor ordered a Vitamin D test, and then sent me a coldly worded e-mail that with the results, saying I’d have to start taking a Vitamin D supplement once a day as long as I live. Here I thought I was doing something good for my health, and it turns out I’ve sentenced myself to a daily pill to keep my bones from turning into potato chips. Somehow, I sensed in her e-mail that she relished giving me this news. I imagined a cackling, witchy voice when she scrawled “as long as you live.”

Standards of beauty are entirely cultural, and they can be reversed. For reasons that surely date back to Magellan, many Filipinos are obsessed with looking lighter. I never saw any Filipino news media after the results of Sammy Sosa’s skin lightening treatments came to “light,” but I imagine that he was seen as a role model and Google searches for “Sammy Sosa whitening treatment” must have spiked in the Philippines.

You’d be hard pressed to find a tanning bed or a skin bronzer in Manila, but drug stores and cosmetic counters are teeming with products to lighten skin.

One line of whitening creams is marketed under the name “Placenta” and actually contains bovine placenta. I suppose the theory is that babies come out with such light skin because they’ve been mixing it up with placenta for nine months.

But why use a cream when you can enjoy lighter skin by drinking a healthy lemon drink? Sold in the Philippines is a powdered drink called “Slim n’ White” which contains glutathione which “surely whitens.” Not only does the drink promote “whiter, healthier skin,” it’ll give you youthfulness and stabilize your red blood cells. And I didn’t even know my red blood cells were suffering from instability.

My Filipino partner, Robert, lamentably, fell for the marketing ploy and bought one of the whitening skin creams. There’s no subtlety in the packaging. The front of the package features no fewer than eight words alluding to whiteness or lightness: 1) Whitening + Cream + Powder, 2) SkinWhite, 3) POWERWHITENING, 4) Light beige, 5) Whitens in as fast as 7 days, 6) Whitens continuously, 7) and my favorite, Reveals your Whitest White (a two-fer).

This particular product contains a sunscreen, even though there’s no mention of its sun blocking properties. I had heard on some TV news show that most of these skin whiteners are just sunscreens, so I guess there’s nothing stopping me from using this stuff. At 55 pesos (about $1.20), it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the Olay Regenerist moisturizer I use daily. (Who is more guilty of falling for slick marketing claims?) I should have brought back a case of the stuff.

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