One of the first things I was warned about before coming to Cambodia was to bring plenty of skin moisturizer and cosmetics from home. Why? Because the majority of products sold here have whitening powder in them. Below is an example of an advertisement for moisturizing cream:
Unlike in the US, where we strive to look tan and sun-kissed, in Cambodia people avoid browning their skin to be any darker than it is. Here, dark skin is a sign of a labourer – someone at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who has to slave away in the hot sun all day. Having white skin is seen as beautiful, as well as a status symbol. (Similarly, men having long nails in Phnom Penh is also very common: if you have a higher pay job in a city, you can afford to have long nails, whereas if you were working with your hands in the fields making low income, you could not.) Having white skin is seen as a privilege, and if you are white, people tend to show you more respect.
I’ve had a few weird encounters with this phenomenon since coming here. On hot days, I generally trek around in tanks or tube dress to maximize tanning potential. Conversely, Cambodians (especially Cambodian women) make sure to fully cover themselves on the hottest, brightest days. It is not unusual to see a woman wearing a hat, medical mask, long sleeves, pants, stockings and even gloves in 90-degree weather.
One day when I was volunteering at the orphanage, I was working on teaching my kids adjectives. I brought in the picture posted at the end of this post, assuming they would see it as tall and short. Instead, they told me: ugly and beautiful. “Why?” I asked them. To which they responded, “Because he’s black.” The next day, I brought in some pictures of beautiful black men and women, trying to show them that this interpretation of skin color and beauty wasn’t correct. They shot all of them down, criticizing the color of their skin, and their features (one girl told me that a gorgeous picture of Lauren Hill smiling was ugly, because she has “big lips.”)
The same girl who told me Lauren’s big lips were ugly has skin the same color as Barack Obama. But when I asked her what color her skin was, she said “pink. Like yours.”
Somehow this prejudice against dark skin exists in tangent with blindness towards color.
I experienced that again in class at my new school this week. We were cutting up magazines to make collages, and one of my five-year-old girls eagerly brought me a picture and said “teacher! She looks like you!” Two of the other students agreed. “You have the same hair!” The woman in the picture was black.
I just finished reading The Help yesterday, so race and color is really on my mind right now. I’m not yet sure what to conclude from these notions towards skin color in Cambodia. It’s just something so interesting that people should think about. I’m lucky to have come from such a diverse town and state – a melting pot, where we are all mixing together.
What I look like, apparently: