Many of you loyal readers may remember a post I made nearly a year ago about beauty standards here in Cambodia, and how those standards are felt by Cambodians and foreign visitors alike.
While men and women deal with image issues, the concept of “beauty” is something women struggle with on many levels. It is the bell at the top of the climbing rope, the partner we’re always afraid of losing, and at times the construct that defines our gender.
This last manifestation is strong in Cambodia.
In my most recent English club, I used an activity I had borrowed from a friend. I asked my trainees to pretend they were the other gender. I then had them do a speaking activity I call “speed dating”- in which the trainees form 2 circles and rotate speaking partners every 3 minutes.
Their answers were fascinating and entertaining (as anyone’s would be) but I will skip to the relevant part. While the answers from the men imagining themselves as women were varied, they overwhelmingly explained that if they were women, they would be beautiful, with light skin and nice clothes.
It was a struggle for me to just listen and not jump in. My trainees are all intelligent, bright individuals. I knew that I might be the first person to ask them this question. It was not the first beauty conversation I have had. Last year I was in a conversation with two female trainees (who have since graduated) about why they think white skin is more beautiful. It was a circular conversation at best, and no matter how much I explained why many skin tones are equally beautiful, I could not fight 20 years of unchallenged conditioning. I felt sad that they were not taught to embrace their natural beauty and that there was no real positive, outside force which allowed them to do so. I have the fortune of being able to seek out positive images of real, beautiful women I can identify with. Where can Cambodian women see this? I have yet to see an image of a Cambodian woman (or Asian, or American, or ANY, for that matter) here who is darker complected or any larger than “slim.” If one based their idea of what Cambodians looked like on the media, their minds would be blown.
Cambodia has taught me, or I taught myself in Cambodia, that my shape is a far cry from the ideal here – small small small. When I am told I look beautiful I ask why. The answers I always get are always related to skin color, clothing, or my nose. According to standards here (which are far more widespread than Cambodia, but Cambodia is my reality at present) the only thing I have going for me is my whiteness – which having gives one the privileged experience of never thinking about or necessarily identifying with your skin color until it’s pointed out to you. Even within the PCV community one sees the same beauty preferences and standards held up amongst each other in both subtle and overt ways.
When people here tell me I am too big, or that I am beautiful merely because of my skin color or the shape of my nose, I am able to tell myself that these are beauty constructs. I am fortunate to have ways to combat these voices, internal and external. I am assuming the majority of Cambodian women are not able to separate themselves from advertisements. Whitening cream is easier to find than vitamins. Wavy, bushy, curly hair (natural in Cambodian lineage) is constantly being chemically straightened. Women here – hold up – everywhere – are constantly fighting or dismissing their natural beauty.
I have come to value my uniqueness. Approaching 30, I see my body more closely resemble my mother’s shape – which I have always admired – and my father’s stature. Two people I love and find beautiful. My sister used to talk a lot about getting a nose job – something I am so grateful she never did. She has my mom’s nose. That’s the thing about physicality I always found amazing. When I worked at Boys & Girls Club, I loved meeting the parents of the children I served, and seeing which feature came from which parent.
We curse our “flaws” and try to erase them, but they are eternal. They lie dormant or pop up every other generation, living reminders of our family and our ancestors. We own them, they are copyrighted to us.
I may be waxing philosophical and standing on a soapbox, as this is a struggle I still have not fully overcome. Many industries profit from this; and it is hard to project if and when that cycle will ever be broken. We are composite sculptures of soul and flesh – how is that ever not beautiful? When I look deeply at myself and other women, and then consider the impossible expectations of these beauty standards, I want to scream out: when will we be enough?