There are a few words I generally learn very quickly when I am traveling for work, one is the word for foreigner (bule - BOO-lay - in Indonesian) and others are the words for white and pretty (putih - POO-tee, and cantik - chan-TEEK).
So first they call me a foreigner. People everywhere call out to me, people I know, people I don't know. Not in a mean way, just as though to point out to me that I am different. But then I talk a bit more, often with pre-teen and teenage girls, in rural and urban areas in a variety of countries. They like to touch the skin on my arms, they point to it and say "white", followed closely by "pretty". They are simultaneously amazed and disgusted when I show them how you can see the veins in my hands and arms, and tell them that the lines they see are blood. But then they often point to their own skin, and call it black or dark. They motion rubbing it off, they stick their tongues out, they say it's ugly.
When I was young, my parents tried their best to keep me away from Barbies and the like, until at some point I imagine it was inevitable with birthday parties and being surrounded by other children and mass media. I remember asking my mum about why Barbies weren't a good idea, and her telling me about how they create ideas of what we're supposed to look like that aren't real. Everyone has heard that various parts of Barbie's body are disproportionate to her height. In fact, her proportions have been changed since I was a kid, although her feet still point downward at that frightening angle... but if Barbies were bad because they give unrealistic and unnecessary expectations and can put irrational demands themselves and peers about womanhood, then what about girls who don't look even a little like Barbie. What about the girls who call their skin dirty, using endless whitening products and carrying umbrellas and wearing long sleeves in the rice paddies to keep their skin from getting "uglier and darker"?
What is it about girls that leads them to focus so intently on their looks at such a young age? Where do they learn that what they and other women look like is the first thing to be noticed, commented upon, and changed about themselves?
What about the 15 year old girl I met who was 8 months pregnant. She marveled at my nose, touching it then touching her own. She told me that she hoped her baby would be born with my nose instead of her ugly nose. She was beautiful. But all she saw was that her nose was different from mine and she didn't look like any of presentations of beauty she saw all around her on billboards and tv, where models are thin and rich and happy, and look just a little bit Asian, but not too much, and whose skin is impossibly white.
What about the man who told me that all the women in his Latin American country are ugly because they are short and their skin is dark? What about the way he scoffed when I told him that Western constructions aren't the only measure of beauty? What about the girls who giggled when I asked them why they wanted to marry Westerners? Answering that in part, they wanted their babies to be half white, because that was better than being fully of any local ethnicity. What about the girls who grow up believing the skin and noses and lips and legs will never be good enough or pretty enough because they aren't Western or Caucasian or white enough? What about when those girls turn into mothers? Can it be any wonder what they will tell their daughters?
When will we start teaching girls that they are more than their appearance? And when we do discuss their appearance, when will we stop telling them to look like someone else, and start telling them to be who they already are; to pursue something deeper than a small nose, more profound than straight hair, more lasting than smooth white skin. Imagine all the time, energy, effort, and pain that goes into these things; imagine what the world would be like if that energy and passion were redirected.
Lisa Bloom hits the nail on the head in How to Talk to Little Girls, if we call them smart instead of pretty, tell them they look like astronauts, engineers, authors, and artists instead of ballerinas and models, it just might be a step in the right direction.
(I've been wanting to write about this for quite a while, but organizing my thoughts and finding a way to say all this has been a bit confusing, so you'll have to excuse me if this comes across a bit muddled, I did my best, and as always, look forward to hear what you all have to say about it.)