Already Light-Skinned: Navigating Non Binary Beauty and Poverty

Pain is beauty, and beauty is privilege.

By Lani Felicitas

Everybody was already in their rooms. It might have been around the time when dinner had passed and no one talked to each other for the rest of the night. I would leave my room. Take a break from scrolling through Tumblr. Walk to the kitchen. Flick the light on. Open the fridge. Grab the lemon juice. Squeeze some onto my right hand, and lather it all over my forearm.

I can’t remember when, but at one point, I had googled “natural skin lighteners.” I found myself scrolling through beauty websites and wiki how-to’s, and my google searches always included the word “natural.” I didn’t want any surgery or chemicals that could fuck up my skin. Lemon juice came up up the most so that’s what I did.

It wasn’t even an actual lemon, but the lemon juice that came in the two pack giant green tub from Costco. It had an odd smell that you could only detect when you put your nose up to it. It had probably been in our fridge for at least a year.

Putting on lemon juice wasn’t a ritual. I did it whenever I remembered to. Maybe once a week, or once every other week. Maybe if I had let it become a ritual I would have to acknowledge to myself that this is what I wanted.

Colorism in Asian-American communities is not just about having light skin, but knowing how to maintain light skin and other non-black features. For women and femmes, it means straight, moisturized hair. It means makeup rather than plain faces. It means smooth skin rather than rough hands. It means knowing exactly which products to use. It means the difference between buying papaya soap and other mainstream beauty products rather than using the lemon juice in your fridge. It means knowing what “natural beauty” is and actually embodying it.

Colorism wasn’t just me wanting to become white, but also the secrecy of that desire. I put lemon juice on at night. I did it when everyone was in their rooms and no one was looking. One time, as I was rubbing my arm: “What are you doing?” My brother walked in. “Nothing.” My eyes didn’t dare meet his so I don’t know what he saw or what he thought of it. I left the kitchen.

Navigating colorism also means navigating gender and beauty. Women and femmes are pressured by the beauty myth: that you have to be beautiful in order for your success to be validated. Thirteen-year-old non-binary me internalized this, and rejected everything that made a woman “beautiful.” I wasn’t interested in wearing makeup. I refused to use the fragrant lotions and soap my mom and sister bought from Bed, Bath and Beyond. I put down girls who wore fancy jewelry. I prided myself on not wearing earrings as a way of asserting my masculinity. I was not interested in becoming a woman. I was not interested in being beautiful.

Yet when sketchy websites suggested yogurt as a possibility for lightening skin, I seriously considered going to the store and spending money to buy yogurt. I was coming up with scenarios in my head on how to hide the yogurt in the fridge so no one in my family would eat it. I was thinking about how I was going to use money from my part-time job—that way I didn’t have to ask my mom for cash. This is all evidence of how I, an already light-skinned Filipino, socialized as a woman although aspiring for masculinity, internalize and enacted colorism through skin products that I refused to put on my body for womanhood, but was willing to use in pursuit of whiteness.

I spent my money on clothes, brands and aesthetics, but lived in section 8 housing, ate Hot Pockets and kimchi ramen bowls for meals, and had no goals for college.

Recording artist and producer J. Cole said it best when he commented, “As a man I don’t have to do anything. I can throw on a t-shirt and some pants. I still have pressure…but nothing compared to what a woman has to go through.”

Growing up non-binary, I internalized toxic binary beauty standards: women spent a ridiculous amount of time to look beautiful; to be a man, you throw on t-shirt and pants, not having to worry about beauty. Men wore “simple clothes” and could walk out the door. In other words, I was navigating how to be masculine and apathetic, but was simultaneously concerned with how I presented myself to the world. Around this age I would throw on the plain black jacket from Walmart I bought from my friend four out of five days of the week. I wore the same Vans every single day for my entire freshman year of high school. Wearing the same outfit every day was asserting toxic masculine apathy. This, together with colorism, stresses the pressure on adolescents to be beautiful in order to be desirable and deserving in this world.

I am not just navigating colorism, gender, and beauty as a non-binary person. Beauty operates off of gender and race, but also off of low income immigrant communities. I spent my money on clothes, brands and aesthetics, but lived in section 8 housing, ate Hot Pockets and kimchi ramen bowls for meals, and had no goals for college. Beauty is not a “distraction” for poor people from understanding their material conditions—particularly for those who are dark skinned, or whose first language isn’t English, or who deviate from cis-heteronormativity. Rather, beauty is an order of capitalism that decides how we are perceived and treated: who gets access to resources versus who’s on the backlist; whose neighborhoods have sidewalks and whose don’t; who is safe at work versus who’s going to get assaulted; who is going to be assisted at the store versus who’s going to be followed.

[G]lobal systems of oppression, such as imperialism…not only force people of color from their homelands, but offer the promise of achieving wealth and security through beauty as an exchange for people’s liberation.

I was more concerned about the color of my skin and looking masculine than I was about my mom having to work three jobs, or my dad not being able to provide child support because Hawaii’s living costs were cruel to old, immigrant, disabled fathers. I, as a low income, non-binary kid from an immigrant family, prioritized beauty over the rights to affordable housing, food, and education. As long I looked naturally beautiful, I was willing to risk the burning of citrus on my skin if I forgot to wash my arms the next morning and exposed them to the sun. As long as my skin was lighter, people liked me. As long as my skin was lighter, my prospects of higher education and middle class income were that much higher.

We must ensure, however we embody, enact, or enable beauty, that it does not rely on the colonial mentality of privileging light skin, and that it does not perpetuate the capitalist mentality of obtaining economic security through aesthetic conformity. Beauty without genuine security is a disservice to poor, gender non-conforming people of color in America who can’t afford trendy aesthetics. From housing and education to the ability to speak our mother tongues, oppressed people shouldn’t have to conform to colonial and capitalist ideas of beauty to prove their self worth.

Prioritizing beauty and aesthetics actually counters third world revolutionary movements who organize to end global systems of oppression, such as imperialism, that not only force people of color from their homelands, but offer the promise of achieving wealth and security through beauty as an exchange for people’s liberation. As a non-binary Filipino organizer with Anakbayan Portland, I understand that it is only by organizing to end imperialism that the people, trans or cis, poor or well off, can live without their dignity being threatened by colonial aesthetics and capitalist motives.