Archive for the ‘beauty’ Category

Commenting on the Body

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Furthering the topic of the Khmer culture in regards to their attitude regarding the human body, I want to explore the reasoning behind Cambodian’s frequent and seemingly blunt commentary on the physical appearance of their and other people’s bodies.

Throughout our month-long stay in Cambodia, one frequently occurring comment that Cambodians make in regards to others is: “Wow! (insert person here) is so fat!”  One time this happened, our tour guide Mot was commenting on an (admittedly humongous) baby.  The baby’s parents, the restaurant owners, smiled and laughed, even when Mot noted that the baby must take after his slightly chubby father. Commenting on a baby’s weight is a common occurrance in America; parents and family celebrate when the child is gaining weight, as it is a sign of health.  So, I did not think much of the comment, although I perceived the second comment as a bit “rude”.

Another time I saw a Khmer man comment on a body was in Sianhoukeville, when our friend Chen said, in extremely close proximity to an obese Frenchman, “WOW!  He is SO FAT! Do you see how fat he is?!”  To which Amy and I both tried to shush Chen.

Why do Cambodians respond so strongly to obesity?  One obvious explanation is that obese, or even slightly overweight Cambodians are an extremely rare sight to see.  For example, according to this website (, 0% (that’s right, ZERO, or at least less than 1) percent of Cambodian females in 2010 have a BMI greater than 30.  Overweight people are rare because poverty is rampant.  Cambodians cannot afford to gorge themselves on food like Americans can. Eating, from what I observed, is an enjoyable, celebrated ritual, to be sure.  However, buying more food than your family needs to survive is a waste of what hard-earned, little money a family has.

The second reason that Cambodians are vocal about obesity and physical appearance is that it is simply not seen as a rude thing to do.  The amount of fat one has on his body is obviously visible to the public– why NOT comment on it?  Because of someone’s hurt self esteem?

Self esteem is something Cambodians seem to have little of.  This is not to say they are not intelligent, smart, and beautiful (they SO are!), however, the Khmer people seem to think less of themselves than Americans do.  You hear the message every day in US media– “Big is Beautiful! Don’t judge a book by it’s cover!  It’s the inside, not outside, that counts!” In Khmer culture, one’s worth is not based on outward appearance, therefore, it is seen as fine to call yourself ugly.  After all, what’s it to you?  You have more important things to do than look in the mirror all day!

(In regards to Khmer men’s “self esteem”, they seemed to “put themselves down” most often with the comment “I am so lazy!” It was seen as a very funny joke!)

Every Single Khmer Woman we ran into commented on how dark their skin was compared to ours.  ”So beautiful!” they would say, running their hands over our white skin, hair, or teeth.  ”My skin so dark! So ugly!  Yours so beautiful!” Was this a means of complimenting a potential client in order for them to purchase more? Sometimes, sure.  Other times, when no money exchange was involved, it was simply a comment: You are white.  You are beautiful.  I am dark.  I am not.  This wasn’t said with sadness by any Khmer woman.  It was just an accepted “fact” to them, regardless of how true their white counterparts thought it was.  No Khmer woman accepted a “No, YOU’RE beautiful!” rebuttal from us– they laughed and shook their heads.

In summary, it is my hypothesis that Cambodians do not have as strong of a connection between outer beauty/inner self-worth as Americans do, therefore, commenting on things such as skin color, obesity, teeth, and height are seen as appropriate topics of conversation.


Cambodian citizens participating in a group dance/ aerobic workout on the streets of Phnom Penh

Cambodian citizens participating in a group dance/ aerobic workout on the streets of Phnom Penh


Thursday, October 18th, 2012

OVER GENERALIZATION ALERT: I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about being a first grade girl that brings out the need to be constantly concerned with appearance. The second grade girls aren’t nearly as bad. My first grade girls like to put on lotion, put on foundation, use mirrors, glue their eyelids back (not exaggerating, this happens), and comb their hair all during class. When I ask students if they can pay attention while staring at themselves in the mirror they unashamedly say yes. When I ask students who they’re trying to impress, as it’s a gender-segregated school and they have no free time anyway, they just look depressed.

The boys can also be pretty bad, but it’s a different sort. The first few weeks of class there’s always a few who stand up in the middle of my lectures and walk to the mirror in the back of the class and check out their profiles, patting down their sideburns until they notice me staring at them and they meekly slink back into their seats. After week two I have no more problems with the male students and their beauty regimen.

But the girls. The girls. Shake your head. Fluff your hair. Flatten down your bangs. Frown at yourself. Pin back your bangs. Apply foundation. Put lotion on your hands. Stare at your cuticles. Squint at yourself in the mirror. Look at your eyes. Poke at your eyelashes. Pop a pimple. Reposition your bangs. Take your comb. Comb your hair. Focus heavily on your bangs. Put on your glasses. Make a face. Take off your glasses. Make a face. “Sneakily” get the girl three rows over to throw her lotion at you. Put more lotion on your hands. Look in the mirror. Make a face.

Now. I appreciate that they’re trying to make themselves look good. I remember being a super awkward high school sophomore myself. I have no issues with people taking pride in their appearance and trying to maintain it – but when you do it to the exclusion of everything else, that’s when we start to have problems.

I have confiscated so many bottles of lotion, combs and mirrors (even broken a few by accident) that I could open my own secondhand store  The other day I confiscated my first ever pair of scissors, because a girl was cutting her own hair in the middle of my lecture.

As frustrating as this is, today when I was cutting up papers for my club class and I used my confiscated pair, I did feel oddly victorious. There’s something quite beautiful about taking the same pair of scissors that served as a distraction and using it to create education materials to benefit those same students.

Plus hey! Free scissors.