As much as we would like to believe that beauty is subjective to each individual, how we perceive what is beautiful is very much dictated by our culture. What is deemed as beautiful is subject to trends of fashion throughout generations and cultures, leading people of similar backgrounds to value similar traits in themselves and people around them, and people of different backgrounds to be attracted to people of different body shapes, complexion, style, age, face shape, and even personality. It is not surprising therefore that Cambodian people have a standard of beauty which contrasts vividly with the UK.
In Cambodia it is fashionable for women to have a small, thin body. It is also seen as elegant to have hands which curve back, replicating the style of traditional Khmer dancers: children from a young age will stretch and bend their fingers every day in order to achieve this. Long fingernails are also traditionally a sign of being wealthy, particularly among men, because people who work on the land (and are generally quite poor) have to cut their fingernails for practicality due to their physical job. Often men in Cambodia will have long fingernails, or a single long nail on the little finger of each hand, although this fashion is losing popularity in the younger generations.
The most prominent difference however is that pale skin is highly prized in Cambodia, especially among women. Often young women will go through extensive measures to keep their skin from tanning, such as wearing lots of layers – even hats, scarves and gloves – in 40° heat. Whitening products are also hugely popular, to the extent that it can be difficult to find non-whitening shower creams and moisturisers in shops. These products are very harmful to the body. The lotions can contain corticosteroids, and molecules such as hydroquinone (which are carcinogenic) or even mercury salts which are highly toxic. Every year women die from using these products, often when using them in excess in order to look more ‘beautiful’.
The fashion of pale skin is consolidated through the media. On television, every celebrity (male and female, although women are visibly lighter) has extremely pale skin, and even in televised competitions involving people from the public, such as The Voice Cambodia, the contestants are rarely more than a shade or two darker. In advertisements, and even paintings, illustrations and wedding photographs, everyone is depicted with white skin. A contributing factor to this may be because Cambodia idealises Korean culture, admiring their literature, television programmes, music scene, and fashion, including the Korean complexion. The prevalence of pale skin in popular images including the media strengthens the idea that to be pale is fashionable, and that the colour of your skin can dictate how successful you become.
Dangerous and simply quite strange practises in order to look more beautiful prevail in every culture however. In the UK, we have our own beauty extremes which includes the culture of tanning. It is attractive to have bronze skin in Britain because a tan proves that someone has spent their leisure time in the sun, indicating that they are well-travelled, i.e.rich and world-wise. Women especially will use tanning booths and go sunbathing, despite that the exposure to UV rays increases the risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.
We value tall, slim, athletic bodies with hairless, unblemished skin in both men and women, and due to this every year we spend hundreds to thousands of pounds on products and services that will help us to achieve this ideal. For example we buy skin care products like moisturisers and spot creams, hair removal products, make-up, braces and teeth whitening services, as well membership to gyms, excersize classes and sports equipment, slimming “medicine”, dieting group membership and speciality foods. All of this is supported by the media which enforces the idea that to indulge in these beauty regimes is both fashionable and normal.
In Cambodia, women who do not comply within the normal beauty standards, for example if they have dark skin or acne or are tall or have a big body, will find it very difficult to find a partner. Both men and women can be ridiculed and bullied for having dark skin, so it is not surprising that people are very conscious of their appearance. In general, when people feel they do not fit into the cultural norms for ‘beautiful’ this causes problems with self-esteem, causing a higher risk of eating disorders, anxiety and depression across cultures. It can even lead to isolation from social circles and social stigma.
The importance we place globally upon being beautiful, particularly for women, is detrimental to our physical and mental health. The more we obsess about improving our faces and bodies, the less content we are with them. Individually, we must reconsider our own standards of beauty with the understanding that it is just a trend in fashion, not a universal or real measurement of value. We should endeavour not to judge other people around us for how they look or how much effort they put into their appearance, be content with how we look ourselves, and give our health and happiness a much higher priority.