Published on October 21st, 2015 | by Renee Macalino Rutledge2
How I Tell My Mestiza Daughters They Are Pretty by RENEE MACALINO RUTLEDGE
As a Filipina woman, I’ve long heard the message that my beauty is subpar. It started when I was little, when the mestiza, or mixed, kids in the family were enthusiastically praised as the great beauties. My elders often raved about their lighter skin and hair, or their more Caucasian-looking eyes. So-and-so’s daughter “doesn’t even look Filipino,” they’d exclaim, and this was meant as a compliment.
But, while my friends and cousins fantasized about how cute their half-white children would be, I pictured a son or daughter with golden hair and hazel eyes, and something felt unsatisfying—the image didn’t look at all like me. Fast-forward a couple decades: I’m now a mother of two mestiza daughters; their father is Puerto Rican.
My husband and I are both people of color. But his features are less Asian, and therefore more revered. I’ve borne witness to this with my firstborn, the bias communicated in stages to coincide with her changing features, then again with my second daughter ten years later, in nearly identical fashion. Now great-aunts and uncles, voices of my own generation, and acquaintances of every age and background exclaim how blessed my daughters are to have my husband’s height and eyes, complete with long, thick lashes. As each of them outgrew their button noses, they were immediately complimented for having my husband’s tall, straight bridge. “Lucky them—it’s not a Filipino nose!”
I love having mestiza daughters and would pay a hefty sum for eyelashes like theirs. I also realized I had been naively thinking that marrying outside of my ethnicity could make me disappear. I carry forward an inheritance of shame as well as pride. So I, too, have been guilty of thinking that “mixed kids are the cutest,” admiring features that blend in a way that is unique for every child and that seems to defy categorization. When I recognize my own in a mestiza/mestizo, I don’t hesitate to claim them: “That beauty’s got Filipino in them—I can tell.”
There’s never a doubt that hearing my girls associated with their daddy’s likeness is supposed to be flattering. I cherish my husband, his looks included, and take pride and joy in seeing him in my daughters. This is not about ego or the quest for ownership. It’s about reversing negative associations about identity that have been perpetuated in the culture for generations.
Physical traits will be passed down. Recognizing and appreciating these traits is part of celebrating heritage. My daughters will not fully appreciate theirs if they’re constantly informed that one side is more beautiful than the other. So while I celebrate my daughters’ Latina traits, it doesn’t need to come at the cost of diminishing their Filipino lineage.
Young children do not checkmark their identities in boxes (that happens later). My toddler and her friends still take turns playing Elsa and Anna from Frozen, but inevitably, someone at the playground will tell her she can’t be Elsa because Elsa is a blonde and she is not. I must raise my daughters with knowledge of their culture and pride in their diverse roots, so that when others compare them to existing icons, they’ll realize the portrayals are limited and flawed, not what they see in the mirror. Just recently, my 4-year-old came home from school and asked me which Disney princess I would be: “Are you Mulan?” she asked, identifying me with the Chinese heroine. I told her I wasn’t, that there is no Disney princess quite like me, or like her. I reminded her of Princess Abadeha, a character in a Philippine picture book who has an evil stepfamily and a tree spirit for a fairy godmother. We dug through our shelves to find and reread it, scrolling past illustrations of Filipino faces in magical scenes. We read through another book of princess tales from around the world, showing her not only the many portrayals of princesses that exist, but the varied complexity of storytelling found outside of popular culture. It was a teachable moment, even though at the end of it, my daughter decided I would still be “Mulan,” who she currently adores and whose theme song her dance class had just performed to.
My daughters will always be inundated with messages about what’s pretty and what’s not. One day, it’s in to have a big booty, another day it’s out. Skinny comes and goes on the magazine covers. My 14-year-old older daughter already seems to favor “light over dark.” She corrects me when I say she has black or dark brown hair, firmly asserting that “it’s medium brown.” This same daughter seems genetically inclined to be slender. She feels self-conscious about her developing body and how her legs may not be as filled out as the next girl’s. I remind her that slimness does not make her less of a woman, that self-confidence and true beauty come from accepting who she is. Since we are people-watchers by nature, it’s been an organic exercise to compare women from the screen to real life, taking note of how no two bodies are the same. She’s appalled and fascinated by the show Botched, and watching one episode became an opening for an animated dialogue about plastic surgery and self-esteem. What would the world look like if everyone altered their bodies according to what’s trending? While she doesn’t always respond immediately or agree, I know our talks sink in. She no longer begs to get her thick eyebrows waxed, frequently asks me how to say words and phrases in Tagalog, and recently, on her Instagram profile, placed the Puerto Rican and Philippine flags, side by side.
Some people are against telling their daughters they are beautiful because the value is overemphasized and too many other traits are overshadowed, such as brains, such as a sense of humor, such as compassion, such as worldliness. So long as physical beauty is not an unbalanced pedestal, I’m not against telling my daughters they are pretty.
But, I tell them that I love their hair color for its depth and sheen, not because it is lighter than black. I tell them that I love their eyes for their unique shape and size and the light shining from within—not because they are “less Asian.” I am happy that they’re tall, but not because it keeps them from being “short Filipinos.” I marvel at the curve of my younger daughter’s lip that so closely resembles her father’s, the slant of my elder daughter’s eyes that so closely resembles mine, and how the features on their faces come together in a way that is entirely their own. Raising them up does not have to come at the price of bringing them down. Like their Puerto Rican heritage, their Filipino side is beautiful. They wouldn’t be themselves without it.