Cultural or spiritual beauty - how do we define ourselves?
Who decides who is beautiful?
“Su-ai, su-ai maak”: “Beautiful, very beautiful.”
Right behind “Have you eaten?” and “Today is very hot,” the word for beautiful is probably one of the most said in the Thai language.
With reason. Thailand is a beautiful country with bright green rice fields as far as you can see in the northeast, mountains in the north, and pure blue water on the beaches in the south. The people are equally beautiful inside and out. Although shy, Thais are known for their kind smiles and generous hearts.
As one of only a handful foreign women in my city, most of whom are on my team, I am fortunate enough to be called beautiful nearly every day. Whether I’m walking through the halls at a school or riding my bike through a quiet street, I hear the words, either in Thai or English, as I pass by. Frustrating at first and funny after some time, it’s now simply normal. Strangers call me beautiful all the time. No big deal, right?
Sure, being called beautiful by strangers doesn’t have the same effect as it would from other people. But for as often as I’m told I’m beautiful, other women are being told they aren’t beautiful or that they are fat or have bad skin. There are so many women believing that they cannot be successful because they are not beautiful.
It hit me one day during a conversation with a friend. I asked her what job she would like to have during the school break. She said she was hoping to work in a hotel. Half jokingly, half hopefully, I suggested she apply to one expensive hotel in the city. Her English is very good, and she is a hard worker.
“No,” she said. “I cannot. They only hire beautiful girls who are slim and have white skin.”
During a youth camp a few weeks later, I found myself daily having a similar conversation with a small group of 14–year–old girls.
“Your skin is very white and very beautiful. My skin is very dark and not beautiful,” they would tell me. “Why do foreigners like dark skin?”
“Because your skin is beautiful. Because God created each one of us differently. We are all His beautiful creations,” I’d tell them, but they would still repeat the conversation the next day.
Maybe it’s easy for me to say; I have light skin and a smaller frame. No matter how many times I tell my friends how great they are on the inside and outside, there’s another advertisement for skin creams, another walk by the slimming center, and another superstar with a new, surgically–made face.
It’s a strange thing living outside of Western beauty standards for two years. The way I see myself or even judge my appearance has changed. At TeenStreet Malaysia last year, people kept asking me if I was related to my English field leader and his family.
“No, of course not, what makes everyone say that we look alike?” I thought. But then I realized, “Oh yeah, we do stand out. And I’m not at all Asian-looking!”
Writing this has made me consider what I am self–conscious about now versus before coming to Asia. No longer am I embarrassed to reveal pale–skinned legs after the winter, but at some point, I began to catch myself noticing how different my hair is. Wondering why my hair gets frizzy and wavy in the humidity while all the girls around me have incredibly thick, straight black hair.
While these young girls compare their skin to mine, I compare my hair and figure to theirs. I haven’t been listening to my own advice and encouragement. I pray that, together, myself and these girls can come to understand the value we have in the eyes of our Creator, just the way we are. And that these girls can begin to reveal this light, this truth to the women around them in their schools and communities. That it doesn’t stop these but continues to transform this city, country, and the world.
For years, Mallory dreamed of becoming an investigative journalist, famous for uncovering nasty, hidden truths from around the world. But since graduating from university, God has transformed her dreams to instead make known his truth to the world. Originally from small town, northern America, Mallory is currently serving in Thailand with the Asia Challenge Teams.