Note: This is the first essay that I got 100/100 for Women’s and Gender Studies course in this Spring semester.
At the very beginning of the instruction for this essay, I am asked to “Start with a “DESCRIPTION”” of my physical body. At first, I thought that it should not be too difficult to find words to describe my own body but I struggled as I began to type. I am a 27-year-old Cambodian woman. My ethnicity is Asian. I have a flat face, flat nose, puffy lips, and deformed eyebrows. My eyes are small and brown, my eyelashes are long, and I have dimples on both cheeks. I also have scars and black dots on my forehead, cheeks, and nose. In America and in Europe, my skin color is considered “brown.” In my home country, Cambodia, my skin color is considered “black.” I have two strong arms and two strong legs. I am very grateful to be born physically healthy.
I have strong muscles in my shoulders and my arms from all the trainings I did in the circus. I am very strong to the point that I can stand on my hands and shoot a balloon with my feet. My body is trained to be flexible, which means that I can roll across a stage with my hands holding on to my feet. However, not all tricks that my body is able to do came naturally. These skills required self-discipline, commitment, and lots of practices. My sense of personal agency is a freeing of discovery when I, as a woman found that I could do more than what I was told to limit myself to.
My body influences how people think about me in so many different ways. Let begin with some of the rules my mother taught me when I was a young girl. Growing up in Cambodia, I followed a strict traditional norm, “Chbab Srey” in English means, “Women Code of Conduct” that calls for girls and women to be submissive and deferential to men (Univer’s Ellei, 2017). This code of conduct is taught in the form of a poem that describes how a woman should behave and it has a special focus on a woman’s attitude towards her husband. It has been passed down from one generation to the next, and of course, my mother passed it down to her daughters. When I was nine and during my teen years, my mother taught me about this code of conduct such as, “your skirt must not rustle while you walk,” “do not laugh out loud,” “do not bring the outside flame into the house and then burn it,” and “you must serve and respect your husband at all times and above all else.” There were so many other rules that I, as a girl could not do. Back then, I was too young to understand why I needed to follow all these rule and I did not even bother to ask. I thought that it was my destiny to be born with a woman body; therefore, I must follow the women’s rules and be a good daughter.
Then, I grew to my puberty age and I had my first period when I was fourteen year old. This was the time when my mother and my teachers told me to behave like a “proper woman,” especially on sexual matters. Sexual intercourse was a very rare and inappropriate topic to talk about. There is a Cambodian saying when translates it into English means, “having a daughter is like having a toilet in front of your house, having a son is like owning a golden ball.” This means that as a woman, I was forbidden to date, to kiss, and I must not have sex with a man before my wedding day. If I did and was discovered, my actions would bring a huge shame to my family. In contrast, it was acceptable for a son to sleep with a sex-worker in order to gain sexual experience before he got married. In addition to those rules, in my language, a medical or formal term to call a woman’s vagina literally means “golden door.” It sounds so valuable to the point that I was taught to value my virginity because it was very important to my future. I was taught to keep my “golden door” firmly closed until I found “the right man,” and then I would only open it on my wedding night. Looking back at all these women’ rules that I was taught and expected to follow, I realized that Cambodia is a patriarchal society that adopts an oppressive system towards girls and women. I was oppressed because of my gender and my physical body as a woman.
Besides the strict Women Code of Conduct that prevented me from fully discovering my best self, my skin color was also a burden that caused me to see myself as ugly as I grew from puberty to adulthood. A couple years after the death of my abusive father, at the age thirteen, I moved away from home to live at a Childcare Center at a local non-profit organization named, Phare Ponleu Selpak, the same place where I joined circus. There, I lived with other orphans, both boys and girls. They called me “Srey Kmoav,” which means “Black Girl.” Sometime, I was told, “you are pretty but you are too black.” At another time when I visited my family, an elderly woman predicted my future by looking at my face and my skin color, “you are black and your nose is flat. Your life would get better after you met your husband,’ she said. I was very often bullied and called “ugly,” “big nose,” and “a black orphan girl.” I used to hate my nose because I believed the bullies that it was big. I hated my dark skin and I wanted to be “white,” to have a lighter skin color so that I could be beautiful like others.
This part of my story connects to L. Ayu Sarawati’s article, “Cosmopolitan Whiteness: The Effects and Affects of Skin Whitening Advertisements in Transnational Indonesia.” In her article, Sarawati explained her research on “Skin whitening advertisements” that set an ideal beauty standard for women in Indonesia (Sarawati, 2010). Many skin whitening products were advertised by lighter skin actresses and celebrities in numerous magazines “published during the months of June, July, and August, 2006-2008” (Sarawati, 2010). In many parts of Indonesia, women were encouraged by these ads to use the products that would make their skin color become lighter and help them look more beautiful. In addition, the author also mentioned about the “ideal beauty standard” of what a woman should look like, which is mostly, white, light skin tone, including a slim body; and sometimes they have small noses with big eyes, like the American celebrities.
The ideal beauty standard, especially “Skin Whitening Advertisements,” is an issue that faces many women in Indonesia and is a major cause of a false ideal beauty standard in Cambodia. It has become a dominant issue of white or lighter skin color for many Cambodian people who have brown and darker skin, especially young girls. From my puberty to womanhood, I was confused about what was the ideal of a “beautiful woman.” For example, when I was between the age of sixteen and seventeen, I spent the little earnings that I made from the shows on whitening body lotion. I wanted to look “white” and beautiful like all the celebrities in the ads I saw on TV, music videos, and magazines. I did almost everything the sellers and my friends told me to do. I applied the whitening-body lotion on my body three times a day. I was young and I wanted to look attractive to boys. Many young boys my age at that time did not like me because of my dark skin. Back then, I did not know that I fell into colorism definition.
Another example was even worse. One time when I was allowed to visit home on a weekend, my sister mixed a chemical whitening product that she bought at the market and applied it all over my body. I wore nothing but an underwear and a bra. She then, wrapped my body with a clear tape; I meant my whole body except the places that I had the underwear and the bra on. I laid on the floor in a room what felt like 80F temperature inside. About two hours later, she unwrapped the tape and we spent hours peeling my dark skin out from my whole body. Since that day, I wore long sleeves, gloves, and a hat almost every day no matter how hot the weather was. I did it to protect my skin from the sunlight. I was convinced that I would have lighter skin if I kept using the products and following the instructions from the sellers.
My self-confidence level changed several years later after I joined the circus. This part of my life story is one of the proudest parts that I feel about myself. Similar to the story of Kimberly Dark, the author of “Big Yoga Student,” I shared struggles and successes as a female artist in the circus and in the performing arts field. In her article, Kimberly Dark writes, speaks, and performs about her work that focuses on gender, racialized body, body size, beauty ideals, and ability. She tells a reader about her experience of being a “fat yoga instructor” (Dark, 2012). She had had students who gave her awkward glances or simply left class after meeting her. Regardless of the odds, she proved them wrong. She trained herself to become a good Yoga instructor and she encouraged other “fat people” to persevere, and even become a Yoga instructor if this what he or she desired to do.
I personally find it difficult to relate to the author because I have never been overweight myself. However, I can relate to the feeling of being judged because of my strength, my gender, and the way I look. I also can feel the powerful feeling of achievements and the awesome sensation of self-reward when I proved my doubters wrong. As mentioned earlier in the essay, I joined the circus when I was thirteen to the age of twenty-five. Now keep in mind that I grew up in a patriarchal society with its traditional cultural norms that called girls and women to be submissive to men. When my father was alive, he never wanted his daughters to go to school. “Your husband will take care of you. Don’t waste time going to school,” he lectured my sisters and me. After he passed away, I moved to live at the Phare Childcare Center and joined the circus. In the circus, I had to stand up on my own and worked very hard to compete with other children, including the boys. People in my village came to see my shows and criticized me in front of my mother saying that I was not “a proper Cambodian woman” because I did splits, handstands, acrobatic acts, and especially because I physically touched the boys in the show. In addition, they thought that I exposed my body to the big crowds of audience and because I did so much sport that I would lose my ability to bear children.
Despite all the criticisms and all the strict cultural norms that I faced when I was growing as a girl and a female circus artist in Cambodia, I beat the odds. Through circus, I found my own strength. I realized that I could do as much and as well as any boys or men could do. All I needed was self-discipline, encouragement, and practice. Through performing on stage, I learned that many people applauded me for my talents and respected my hardworking attitude, and not because of my body size, gender, or the way I look. I have learned to love myself the way I am. I now know that my skin color, my flat face, and my flat nose do not define my destiny or define who I really am. I had the opportunity to experience a life of making my own choices and enjoyed my teenager freedom when I was sent to study abroad in Vietnam at the age of eighteen. I discovered that many people in the far away countries from my motherland, Cambodia, have abandoned the oppressive and outdated cultural norms that prevented girls and women to reach greater achievements in their future, when I went on performance tours to Europe, America and some other Asian countries. However, I also learned that many women across the globe have been fighting for equality for all genders, including the LQBTQ+ community.
Finally, now that I look back at my own story, I realize that, in my own way, I was different from many other Cambodian girls. As I grew up, I found that I was breaking many feminine taboos by deciding to leave home to study at a local school, wearing shorts instead of skirts, joining the circus as a contortionist, which involved heavily physical contact with boys, kissing and living with my boyfriend at the time. It was only when I came to study in the US that I learned about gender stereotypes and came to realize that I had been a feminist at heart, without knowing it.