There's a disturbing phenomena in this country that I didn't become aware of until I lived here. It's the obsession with white skin. A pale complexion, especially in women, is considered beautiful, and for some, the desire to have it is all-consuming. The whiter one's skin, the more attractive that person is perceived to be.
Among Cambodians, there is a definite perverse racism about dark skin that is tacit and rarely verbalized. I've heard them mention 'black' people, only to discover later they weren't referring to people of the negroid race, but to their own countrymen born with darker skin. Once,a tuk-tuk driver was pointed out to me as 'the black one'. Funny, because to me he didn't seem more black than the other tuk-tuk drivers he was with. Apparently, there's something they know (or see) that I don't.
I won't deny I've noticed variations in skin colour within the population, yet it's never occurred to me to make a distinction. To me, they're all Khmer people, and quite honestly, I find them to be among the most beautiful people in the entire world, not only because of their stunning facial features, but also because of their openness, goodness and trustworthiness. Still, I find it very alarming to hear remarks from Cambodians like: "Black people are bad" or "Watch out for black people in Phnom Penh. They are all robbers."
I will never forget my introduction to the Cambodian concept of 'white is beautiful'. On our first 'tour of duty' in Cambodia, while teaching children to embroider, a young girl of about twelve stroked my hand, and said 'Teacher, your skin so beautiful!' I looked at my wrinkled and gnarled old hand next to her smooth young skin, and said, 'Oh no. Teacher's hands are old! Your hands are so young and beautiful!', and she replied 'No! You white. Me black!'
I immediately asked my translator to tell the class that in my country, we think that brown skin is beautiful. I told him we even have special machines that we lay in to make our skin brown (tanning beds). Looking at their faces, I suspect they all thought I was ready to be committed.. especially the male translator. I've since learned that males apparently are the ones who drive this whole sick notion, because they want women with white skin and light hair. (Probably not much different than men who prefer blondes.)
Here in Cambodia, women go to great lengths to have 'white' skin. Even in 40C degree heat, they will wear gloves, long sleeves, hats, big sunglasses, and masks to shield their skin from the sun's tanning rays. They pile on light coloured make-up to appear whiter, especially when getting dressed up for wedding parties. Here are photos of four Cambodian women at a wedding party we were invited to two years ago.
The scary part is they use skin whitening products, which I've read may have toxic chemicals. Read this article from the Phnom Penh Post: 'Dying to be Pale'. I'm not interested in lightening my skin (or risking toxic chemicals), and I've found it very difficult to find toiletries here that don't contain skin whitening ingredients. See for yourself!
|Body whitening emulsion|
(I need white armpits??)
|More body lotion|
|Pore minimizer cream|
|Bars of soap|
|Body bleaching cream|
|Bigger-than-life-size advertisement |
in a shopping plaza
Interesting to note that the women pictured on these products and in the advertisement look far more North American than Cambodian. Sadly, through unrealistic advertising, manufacturers in North America have helped create a generation of self-loathing females longing to be thinner and prettier. Sadder still to realize they're now conferring these bizarre standards on the women of Cambodia, and adding a little twist of 'white' to the mix for good measure.