Lumen Scholar studies perceptions of beauty

Elon University senior Meagan Harrison is exploring the relationship between self-esteem and perceptions of beauty among Filipina women.


By Caitlin O’Donnell ‘13

It was the look on the face of a 10-year-old girl that propelled Meagan Harrison into a multi-year research project that has taken her around the globe and strengthened her passion for public health and human services.

During a summer volunteering in the Philippines after her freshman year at Elon, Harrison casually explained the American practice of visiting tanning beds to darken the skin.

“To see the look on her face, it was ‘are you kidding me?’” she said. “That’s where my interest came from. I built my experience around one conversation with this little girl.”

The senior human service studies and public health double major is using the university’s top prize to explore the relationship between self-esteem and perceptions of beauty for women living in the Philippines, a society bombarded with messages about the beauty of lighter skin. Her undergraduate research is the most recent in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2012.

When women leave their homes, they shield their bodies with umbrellas. Billboards line the road to the capital of Manila showcasing clearly manipulated skin tones. Lotions are marketed with emphasis placed on their skin-whitening elements, some of which were recently taken off the market because of high mercury levels.

“You see people who literally don’t have money to go to school and are on scholarship, but are using skin-whitening products five to seven days out of the week,” Harrison said.

The crux of her research hinges on a survey answered by 80 Filipina women about their use of such products, self-esteem and perception of beauty, which Harrison is currently crafting to an explanatory paper. Targeting women specifically due to their minimal presence in daily happenings, she discovered that the majority of women perceive men to be more attracted to lighter skin.

It’s a facet of the society that has often been neglected by researchers and Harrison said she hopes her work serves as a launching point for future study.

“ I think that the field is going to open up a lot, especially with skin-whitening,” she said. “It’s a much newer phenomenon as to what local people are able to do to modify their skin tone. I see this becoming a health issue in the future, just as tanning in the United States has a connection to skin cancer.”

It’s an interesting paradox between the two cultures – one priding itself on lighter shades of skin and the other on the bronzed look of one returning from the beach. In Harrison’s opinion, the perceptions of beauty in both the United States and Philippines are partially based on notions of status.

“In the Philippines, if you’re white that means you’re not out working in the fields,” she said. “It’s a status thing- a socio-economic issue, and it has been historically..”

In contrast, women in the United States who have the money to spend on tanning products or time to lounge on the beach are associated with more sophisticated levels of society.

The Lumen prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.
Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Kristen Sullivan, assistant professor of human service studies, said Harrison has taken more initiative in her project than any other student she’s known.

“Meagan amazed me when, despite numerous challenges including severe rains and flooding from a typhoon, she was able to collect double the number of anticipated complete surveys – 80 instead of 40,” Sullivan said.

The name for the Lumen prize comes from Elon’s historic motto “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

Harrison, also the recipient of the Elon University Ward Family Leaning in Action Award that supported a three-month stay in the Philippines working with the Stairway Foundation, said the prize has allowed her to dream big and set her sights on life-changing experiences. She devoted a chunk of her funds for PhotoVoice projects in the Philippines, Honduras and India, a project involving participatory photography which Harrison plans to use in the future.

“Every single hour I spent writing a proposal has been worth it because I wouldn’t have been able to have these experiences without that support,” she said. “For me, for my development as a person and as a scholar – I don’t know who I’d be without travel now.”

Upon graduating in May, she will pursue a Master’s of Public Health and plans to eventually work in community-based participatory research, specifically using Photovoice in the area of public health and community development.

“At the end of the day,” Harrison said, “this experience has completely pointed me in the direction of where I want to go after I graduate.”