The girl in this photo is apparently nowhere near as beautiful as the women we might see in the North of Cambodia, or in cities like Phnom Penh. She is from a village in the South of Cambodia, in a tiny ecotourism village called Chambok, and the melanin that creates the smooth dark sun protection for her skin makes her less worthy of a suitor and less valuable in the community. I stared in shock as a local guide introduced a young Apsara dance troupe of children from the same village, saying that they were not as beautiful as the others up North, but they were all that the village had. I cried inside, for those little girls, for Channa who is always ‘joking’ about swapping skin with me, and for all the women here who will forever envy the sharp noses and white skin of the West. While we sit in the sun and slather on fake tan, these women bleach their skin and cover from head to toe in an effort to keep their skin as white as possible.
This idea of fair skin is not a new one that I have encountered. I knew in advance to bring my own moisturizer to Asia as the only ones available have skin-bleach in the formula. I saw this before in India, and I’ve seen women across the world trying to cover their beautiful dark skin with light coloured make-up in an effort to seem less like themselves. In this part of the world, to be white means you are clean, wealthy and healthy. It has connotations of good health, good education and everything a struggling person would ever want, and the Cambodians, like many others around the world, put themselves through rigorous processes to change themselves to be more like us.
I think I find this most confronting here in Cambodia because of the history of light skin, education and soft hands during the time of the Khmer Rouge regime. Anyone who seemed to be educated, or who did not appear to be a farmer had a difficult time staying alive in those four years. Lighter skin was a marker that you might be a target, that you might be one of the people with the skills and the knowledge to overthrow the new communist power. You were immediately at risk of ‘re-education,’ which meant almost certain death. Why, then, are they still searching for the fountain of whiteness? It’s heart-breaking to think that parents might devalue their own achildren or love them less simply because they happened to be born with dark skin, and naïve of me to think that this mentality might have any chance of changing in this century.
And so, as both the child and adult Apsara dancers showed their grace and skills, demonstrating the flexibility of their fingers from their painfully stretched wrists, their confidence coming from their white make-up and the fingers their mothers squashed into the insides of coconuts from a young age, I sat in awe. Their desire for ‘beauty’ is no less fervent than our own, just in a different way. They are absolutely beautiful, with their deep, dark eyes and the strength of their bodies. They move with a sense of calm and serenity I could only ever wish for, and for them, I wish them peace within their hearts. One day, we will change our minds and only then will the world change.