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Prior to coming to Cambodia, I lived in sunny California for the last ten years—the La-la Land of bronzed goddesses with spray tans. To a Khmer woman the idea of painting yourself brown is beyond comprehension. If we are to believe the billboards and TV ads, all Asian women want to look like white ghosts. White Perfection, Pink Pearl, or True White is the look we’re going for here. Whitening agents are in nearly every product that touches your skin: soaps, creams, sunscreen, and even deodorant. I asked our Peace Corps doctor how (or why) one could make underarms white? He explained that these products are not merely bleaching agents, they contain substances that are absorbed into the blood, which affect the color of the skin. He cautioned against using them. Well. That’s weird. Circumstantial evidence from neighbors confirm that Khmer women who “over do it” with the creams have suffered cancers and other disorders, even death. But what is in these products and what it actually does to your body is not the focus of this post. I am curious why White is so desirable.

Naturally, one can see that the wealthy may enjoy air-conditioned comfort and SPF 50, while those in the rice fields may enjoy a straw hat. This color distinction between the classes dates back throughout the ages. If you are working outside you are going to get brown as toast, while the leisure class stays pale the shade. That’s one reason why white is preferred. It is a sign of wealth.

But even within working class families I have seen mothers label one child “beautiful” and “white” while the other is “dark” and “not so beautiful” when actually both kids are the same shade of Mekong River brown. This perception of beauty according to the shade of your skin is of course silly, but it is also profoundly damaging to those children who grow up with such labels. Yet, this white preference is so ubiquitous that it is taken as fact. White is better. White is more beautiful. White people get good jobs.

One ad on TV shows two college girls getting ready for a party. The lighter girl is the belle of the ball, she’s so white she sparkles. No one asks her brown friend to dance— until she uses the magical soap that bleaches her skin so the boys will want to dance with her. The images on TV of these Weird Whites are eerily ghost-like. They have been Photoshopped into an outline of a person with no contours. Their skin is the color of skim milk, slightly blue, while their hair is long, glossy and black. I have never actually seen a blue-milk person. Not even in the air-conditioned Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh, which is about as fancy as it gets..

This preference for white skin color is not limited to judging the girls in the village, but to anyone who is a shade darker. African American Peace Corps Volunteers are often asked “Why are you so black?” Some have even been told they are “too black”. It’s difficult to endure such comments every day, as it is for PCVs who have random strangers comment on their weight or complexion. This very afternoon when I went to the market for noodles, a woman at the counter stared at me, then asked the noodle seller “How old is she?” Noodle lady turned to me, my chopsticks wound with noodles and bean sprouts, to ask, yet again, “How old are you?” Same as last week, I wanted to say. Yet these sort of obvious (and to Westerners rude) comments are most often innocent, born of childlike curiosity. Yeah, it’s tiresome, but I can deal with it. ‘Tho getting comments about the color of your skin has got to get old fast.

We are all sold the goods in our respective cultures on the ideal image of beauty. I don’t mean that metaphorically—it really is about selling products that you don’t need, which may kill you, to create an image that is not only unobtainable, but frankly ludicrous. My Khmer host mother and her daughters are beautiful and brown. They are strong and clever and healthy women. I want them to know that. I want them to be appreciated for who they are, not for a ghost of someone they are told they should be.

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