Ramyana runs back in the house to get her scarf to cover her face. We are going out to do home visits in a tuck-tuck . I wait with another translator; a young, Khmer woman with deep, lovely dark skin. Ramyana rushes to catch up with us. “ I don’t want to get black”
The darker of the two translators sighs, “ I am already dark and there is nothing I can do about it. “ she explains sadly.
“You are beautiful.” I assure her.
Ramyana says, “ Cambodians like light skin, not brown skin.” The brown skinned girl shakes her head sadly. Neither is married and both have professional goals for themselves as well as ones of love and family.
I tell them that every baby girl is born beautiful, just the way they were. I can see they think I cannot possibly understand.
I tell them that there will never be peace or democracy in Cambodia or the world unless we believe this with all our hearts. I show them the pictures of the many shades of my children and grandchildren and great grandchild. I tell her that they are all beautiful and they can see that but say, “not in Cambodia.”
I argue, “But the Khmer people are dark.” They say, “Yes, but men want to marry light skinned Chinese girls.”
I think of how society’s sense of female beauty has hurt women and continues to hurt. When my daughter was little and played outside all day long, if an Asian adult saw her they told me with a shake of the head, “She is turning black.” She looked at their disapproving gaze.
I tell my new young friend, Ramyana, that in the United States young woman go to tanning booths to get darker. I tell her that they are hurting themselves and getting skin cancer. I say perhaps everyone should accept the color of skin they are born with and see it as beautiful. She is intelligent and kind. She believes me but also believes she is getting older and no one will marry a dark skinned woman.
Large numbers of women all over the world lighten their skin with products that contain dangerous chemicals. Some of these products are illegal but, as often is the case, the poorest countries are exposed to chemicals and harmful products long after the developed countries have stopped using them.
Skin whiteners are harmful, in pregnancy. Some are full of mercury, which causes nerve damage, retinoid can cause the fetus to be paralyzed and hychroquinone can cause long-term cancers and damage to mother and baby. Despite how harmful they are to mother and baby, over 40% of women in Asia use them regularly.
I am told, women do not want to have a vaginal birth or breastfed so they can stay beautiful. They must bleach their skin. The dangers of being beautiful so great.
A father calls his daughter, “sry mao” or “black.” I put my arm around her shoulder and tell him she is beautiful and perfect.
The women, in my country hurt each other and themselves by focusing on weight, skin color and fashion. Women gain positions of power based on sexual appeal aimed at supervisors and people in power. Some women tan and some use lighter in a crazy battle for ideal beauty.
When we go to the beach, the women stay under the cover of the shelter and rest in hammocks. No one swims or wants to even walk in the waves. “We will get black.” So I walk out into the beautiful water of the South Thailand Sea, getting wrinkled and brown; washed in seaweed and warm salty water.
I tell Ramayna every baby girl is born with just the right skin color- and this week when I talk with the doctors and midwives at The Russian Hospital in Phnom Penh, I will talk too about this. I will tell them that embracing all skin colors as beautiful will save a million lives. We will stop wars based on skin color, discrimination, abuse and the harmful use of chemicals and tanning beds on the bodies of women and unborn babies.