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The Constructive Cambodian


Love, peace, war and skin colour. The common thread between these issues is their consistent impact on the society, economy and politics of all civilisations since the beginning of human history.

A perfect example of how skin color has caused social upheaval is the civil rights struggle in the United States during the 1960s, when violent acts were committed against African Americans simply because of their skin colour.

Imagine how many lives could have been saved during this era if no distinction was made between skin tones.

Then imagine how many more could be saved if such distinctions didn’t still persist in all parts of the world.

Asian society views dark or black skin as a sign of inferiority or low social status, while white skin suggests wealth, beauty and high social standing. It is not surprising that so many people in Asia want lighter skin even if it is not their natural tone.

Such prejudice prevails in many parts of the world, and particularly in Cambodia, where it holds the country back from an important step in social progress.

People should stop passing judgment on others or themselves because of the color of their skin.

Can we really choose how we want to look? Everyone wants to look their best, and advances in science have allowed us to alter some aspects of our bodies. Even though making such changes has become commonplace is not an endorsement for altering whatever features we dislike about ourselves, or those we think others dislike.

Cambodians’ preference for lighter skin dates back a long way to a time when young women made the transition to puberty. They prepared for a ceremony called joul malup (enter shade) by staying indoors and applying pale yellow powder to their skin. Lighter skin, it was presumed, would make the young women more likely to find a husband.

In most parts of Cambodia, the joul malup ceremony is a thing of the past, but its legacy lives on.

More than once I’ve been shocked at how Cambodian women from all parts of the country casually assume that white equates to beautiful and dark means ugly.

I recall an occasion when I worked as a research assistant on gender assessments. I was traveling in the northernmost province of Cambodia with a foreign colleague who was frequently praised as having beautiful white skin. I was dumbfounded by such a strong prejudice among populations who, after years of civil war, are almost completely isolated from the class divisions and variations in skin colour associated with urban areas.

True Khmers under Pol Pot’s regime were peasants with skin darkened from working under the sun. City people were pale-complexioned and considered lazy from living and working indoors, and therefore were targeted for harsh treatment.

But such violence has not changed mindsets in the Kingdom about skin colour. Men and women still pay a social price for having the wrong color of skin.

They are the subject of disparaging jokes from friends, coworkers and classmates. I have endured such treatment over my brown skin since I was a child.

No one wants to be perceived as a “hayseed” from the country, but such associations are unavoidable because of outdated beliefs and pressure to change who you are, especially as you get older.

While joul malup was a natural process of lightening one’s skin, many women today choose artificial and dangerous methods such as cheap skin-whitening products that are available at any market.

They spend money they can’t afford, though many studies have shown the dangers of such products, including acne, skin discoloration, cancer and various infections that leave women much worse off than if they had learned to accept themselves for who they are.

There is no formula for happiness, but if there was a first step it would be to accept what you have and make the most of it.

Although perceptions about skin colour might remain, education can change people’s minds. Then outdated beliefs will fade, along with the damaging products they support.

Most people agree that skin whitening is bad for your health, including Hun Sen, who said so publicly earlier this year. Yet, it seems like people are still selling it, buying it and using it as much as ever. Do you think Cambodian’s will stop obsessing about the whiteness of their skin as the country becomes more modern? Join the debate at angkorone.com/lift

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