Beauty is only skin-shallow
We are receiving entries for our contest from all over the globe, and I am delighted to introduce you to Fulbright scholar and world traveler, American Anna Munter. I have discovered we have much in common, both having an affinity for at least two other countries that, for a time, we each called home: Malaysia and Germany. We each have taught writing to younger members of the planet, and, in that capacity, she discovered why Bitcoin might be a more prudent investment than tanning salons in Southeast Asia. And apparently we each prefer the English spelling for “grey.”
Miss, Why Are All the Girls Grey?
By: Anna Munter
“Miss, why are all the girls grey?”
This was the question that a 17-year old male Malay student asked one of my colleagues during break time at the public Malaysian school where we both taught. I wasn’t there when he actually asked her this, but she told me about it afterwards and she thought it was absolutely hysterical. “Obviously,” she said laughing, “this is because of the whitening powder that the young girls use on their faces. However, since they are brown, apparently, it just makes them look grey.”
On the one hand, a teenage boys’ innocent mystification about why teenage girls do whatever it is that they do is kind of funny. Mostly because as a grown woman I cannot help to think of some of the decisions I made as a teenage girl and roll my eyes at the misled worldview I held back then.
On the other hand, this question was asked in the fall of 2015 and it still seems to haunt me as much now, as it did back then. In Malaysia, as in much of Southeast Asia, whitening creams and pills are commonly sold in drugstores and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t benefit from this. This is what white privilege looks like at its most overt. For the first time in my life, someone other than my grandmother was calling me “beautiful” because of my white, white skin. Random people would smile at me on the street and ask if they could take their pictures with me. I once got out of a parking ticket for being so “pretty.” Suddenly, the vocabulary used to describe me changed from “pasty” and “tired” to “beautiful” and “gorgeous.” I felt like a Victoria’s Secret model, but oddly, I still had my clothes on. In movies, this is the kind of attention the “hot girl” gets, so A++ to me because in Malaysia, I am officially a “hot girl”. Woohoo. Except not.
Because what this came with was my 13-year-old female students coming up to me after class and asking me with bated breath and wide eyes if I would please, please tell them what kind of whitening cream I used because, they too, want to be “white like me.” I tried to tell them that I didn’t use any and that they didn’t need to either because they were beautiful just they way they were. They nodded and turned away, not believing me. How was it that this white privilege of mine, which had given me so many advantages in life up until then, was the very same thing that was, at that moment, breaking my heart? How was I supposed to convince a teenage girl that she’s beautiful, if she (with the help of the beauty counter) has already convinced herself that she’s not? As I teacher, I felt like I knew a lot stuff, but I still don’t really know how to explain why all the girls were grey.
Editor’s note: (that would be me) When I lived in Singapore, which is at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, the city-state experienced the upheaval of having Darkie Toothpaste transform itself into Darlie Toothpaste. There is soooo much I could say about this…but why should I interfere with your own thoughts?
And please share your own thoughts in the comment box, on Facebook, and by entering our contest here: https://awordwithyoupress.com/2017/11/10/the-drinking-fountain-healing-history/