Looking for moisturizer in a seedy Cambodian bodega, I found walls lined with bottles of miscellaneous liquors containing rare cobras, scorpions, and assorted feathery friends. Chocolate bars were double the price of a good breakfast of rice noodle soup with three iced coffees as a chili chaser, and the bleaching products weren’t just for your grubby, coffee-stained teeth.
They want you to bleach the pigmentation out of your skin too.
Skin whitening has long been a trend in Southeast Asia, and cruising through Phnom Penh in a tuk-tuk is a crash course on the subject. The heat is a big soup full of sweat, and the road is clogged with sick-looking cows and scooter fumes. But four out of every five women will be covered from head to toe in an effort to avoid the sun’s tanning rays. Hat, scarf, long sleeved shirt, long pants, long socks, and elbow-length gloves are the uniform of the beauty conscious young women of Cambodia. The idea that white is beautiful has a long history in Southeast Asia, and cosmetics companies foster the idea that ‘white’ is beautiful with a wide range of skin whitening products for sale.
Many Southeast Asians desire lighter skin. Largely, it is based on the centuries old assumption that lighter skin infers higher social status. While, in Western countries, the leisure time to achieve a “healthy tan” implies wealth, in many Southeast Asian countries the link is more explicit. Paleness is seen as a sign of wealth, and the desire to be pale is as baldly aspirational as lusting after a Maserati, not a matter of racial discrimination. However, cosmetics companies plaster billboards over southeast Asia that proclaim a message unrelated to wealth: if a woman is dark, she will not be marriageable and men will not desire her.
Traveling through southeast Asia as a pale person is an odd experience. The first time I visited Vietnam I received marriage proposals from three women (although in two out of three cases, a mother was asking on behalf of her daughter, who was not even there) I was always confused, and always uncomfortable. The first time I was at a tailor having some pants made by a gang of sweet middle aged ladies. Once they learned I was single they began pulling photos of their daughters out of their wallets and talking about what good wives they would make. One mother brought me an iced coffee, which I promptly spilled all over the floor when they started conferring about the quality of my posterior. It was one of the more awkward experiences of my life and it didn’t help that, at times it felt like they were trying to sell their daughters to me.
While this attention was uncomfortable for me, it was worse for my partner on my second trip. She is white and freckly, with red hair, green eyes, and a full figure. She suffered incessant leering from men in every direction, and it was hard to go anywhere without her feeling sexually harassed. All I could do was stare angrily at the men and try to make her feel better, but “try to take it as a compliment” only goes so far.
On the way to a hotel in Phnom Penh after an exhausting eight-hour bus ride across dirt roads, the first real sight I encountered was a Pond’s ‘White Beauty” billboard that dominated the main street into the city center. It featured the looming face of a young Asian girl. On one side she is dark; on the other she has been made to look more Caucasian after using a whitening cream.
On my first trip to Vietnam, I was approached by a man while walking down through the boulevard park between Lê Lai and Pham Ngu Lao. He said “Hello sir, how are you?” Which is the familiar cry of the Xe Om driver, so I was surprised when instead of offering to drive me to a “massage parlor,” he offered to buy me a soda. We ended up having a good chat on a nearby park bench: He asked me where I was from, and what I studied. He told me he was an insurance salesman from Malaysia, and that his daughter was studying to become a nurse. It became awkward once we ran out of soda. He started complaining that his daughter was still unmarried, and needed to find a nice boy like me to settle down with. He brought out pictures to show me.
“If she gets any darker, no one will take her.”
I left shortly afterwards. Later, when I had time to reflect, the conversation struck me as odd. It was a pitch. He had invited me to his home to meet his daughters, expressed interest in my prospects, even pronounced me as the type of boy he’d like to see his daughter marry. However, he never once spoke a word of praise for the girl in question. Not of her personality, her achievements, or her ambitions. It was her skin tone, and her possibility for a convenient marriage, that concerned him. Everything else was secondary.