If you drive on the roads of Phnom Penh, you will notice women on bicycles and moto bikes wearing gloves, socks with sandals and a hoodie on top of their regular outfit. No, it’s not because they are cold and they are not protecting their skin from the sun (intentionally anyway). It is to prevent their skin from getting darker. I first noticed the makeup. Women here wear foundation about 2-3 shades lighter than their complexion. Most Cambodians have naturally beautiful skin and are gorgeous so this was strange for me to witness as an observer. But I soon realized this was the culture.
I grew up with this in Pakistan and then saw the same thing in India. I remember the fair and lovely ads where a dark skinned girl would go for a job interview and get rejected. She would then go back for the same position with the same qualifications after using Fair and Lovely for 8 weeks and would land the job. It was infuriating. Just like in South Asia, Cambodians consider light skinned women more beautiful than the rest. It is difficult to find a picture of a regular woman around the city. Instead, you will find photoshopped models on billboards, on tv, and in photo studios. It is believed to be easier for a light skinned girl to find a husband. They are also treated with more respect. Ah Khmao is a frequently used derogatory nick name and it means “little darky”. I wont go in to racism and discrimination but it definitely exists towards Africans and African Americans. Skin whitening creams are everywhere. Some salons offer bleaching treatments with powders they cannot name. When I asked a woman about it, she said it burns her face but the results are worth it!
A lot of tourists get Cambodian costume photos done during their stay. These are similar to the Cambodian wedding & family portraits. Even though these are great souvenirs, they also demonstrate the culture’s obsession with skin color. Everyone is lighter and no one looks like themselves. That is part of the charm for tourists, to see the transformation for themselves.
On Friday, I attended Phnom Penh Designers Week and was hoping the progressive modern group of designers would set the right example. But I was wrong. All of the designers only used light skinned Khmer models and one even used white cakey makeup to make the faces whiter. The venue was packed with Phnom Penh’s elite and the media and this would have been a great place to make a statement.