The Politics of Beauty

By Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor

In 2006, I wrote the poem “The Politics of Beauty” in response to a Filipino friend’s lament that her young daughter had been told she was lucky because of her light skin and hair. As a mother of Euro-Filipino children, I too was horrified that someone, even in a well-meaning way, would teach a child such a racist viewpoint. As the poem developed, however, I began to realize that the poem was really for all women of color, especially Pinays, who still believed that their bodies—short, dark, flat-nosed, slanted-eyed—marked them as less desirable, less intelligent.

Time and again, I have heard the stories of Pinays having their eyelids altered so they would appear more round-eyed. Skin-lightening creams are popular both in the US and in the Philippines. As a child, I was told never to play in the sun so my skin wouldn’t darken any further. In public women’s rooms, I overheard jealousy over taller, thinner, paler women, and I realized they were wishing to be different than who they were physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Why this self-hatred? It was easy to blame commercials and ads showing leggy blonds draped in jewels strutting catwalks while cameras flashed all around them, but not everyone wants to be a model, not everyone needs the power of attention.

As a US-born child of immigrant parents, I realized that wanting to be different was a matter of survival; the closer we can align ourselves with the dominant culture, the more likely we are to succeed socially and economically. We often feel powerless to change the systems of oppression we experience. It seems easer to change our own bodies to undo the violence of colonialism and capitalism inflicted upon our predecessors and us.

The problem, though, is that it is very difficult to see self-racism, to be brave enough to encourage each other to be proud of the bodies we have, to see the irony in the popularity of tanning booths and products to make pale skin look “sun-kissed.”

“The Politics of Beauty” was written in hay(na)ku, a form created by Eileen Tabios, a Pinay writer from California. The crisp pace of the form focuses the images as they shift from the body to the landscape. The poem wraps with a mention of Mebuyan, the Manobo Goddess of the Underworld. Mebuyan refused to live in the sky where her brother ruled. Instead, she created a place where the dead could rest before being judged by the Creator. The halls of her kingdom are polished gold so the dead can see themselves clearly. Only good and sensible things are discussed there, and when the dead speak, everyone listens. Mebuyan takes particular care of the unborn children and she is often depicted with many breasts with which she nurtures the unborn.

In my poem, Mebuyan weeps because the dead come to her altered from their true selves, broken and believing that there is nothing good or sensible about them. She weeps to heal; she weeps to mourn the loss of fulfilled lives. Part warning, part prayer, “The Politics of Beauty” is dedicated to the silent ones whose beauty shines beneath the layered pain, a pledge to work toward a world where our daughters will shine with authentic beauty inside and out.

The Politics of Beauty

your nose
tight and high.

your skin
from darkening sunrays.

your feet;
no shuffling steps.

your back
tall and lean.

your tongue
around English words,

words erasing,
taking away skin,

almond brown,
hair, midnight sky.

you’ll pass
through golden doors,

behind paddies
and plantations ripped

jungle hillsides
where kulintang sing

songs for
dark-skinned children begging,

mothers turning
tricks, sending daughters

to broken men
with violent hands,

Mebuyan weeps
the dead home.

About the Author: Publishing under the pen name Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, Rebecca A. Saxton received her MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University in 2012. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Katipunan Literary Magazine and the online magazine Haruah. Her short story “Yellow is for Luck” appears in the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults, edited by Cecilia Brainard. Her poetry chapbook Pause Mid-Flight was released in 2010. She has been performing as a storyteller with the Bellingham Storyteller’s Guild for six years and specializes in stories based on Filipino folktales and Filipino-American history. Currently she is a member of the English Faculty at Northwest Indian College.   

To contact Rebecca, please email

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