Furthering the topic of the Khmer culture in regards to their attitude regarding the human body, I want to explore the reasoning behind Cambodian’s frequent and seemingly blunt commentary on the physical appearance of their and other people’s bodies.
Throughout our month-long stay in Cambodia, one frequently occurring comment that Cambodians make in regards to others is: “Wow! (insert person here) is so fat!” One time this happened, our tour guide Mot was commenting on an (admittedly humongous) baby. The baby’s parents, the restaurant owners, smiled and laughed, even when Mot noted that the baby must take after his slightly chubby father. Commenting on a baby’s weight is a common occurrance in America; parents and family celebrate when the child is gaining weight, as it is a sign of health. So, I did not think much of the comment, although I perceived the second comment as a bit “rude”.
Another time I saw a Khmer man comment on a body was in Sianhoukeville, when our friend Chen said, in extremely close proximity to an obese Frenchman, “WOW! He is SO FAT! Do you see how fat he is?!” To which Amy and I both tried to shush Chen.
Why do Cambodians respond so strongly to obesity? One obvious explanation is that obese, or even slightly overweight Cambodians are an extremely rare sight to see. For example, according to this website (http://www.globalhealthfacts.org/data/topic/map.aspx?ind=50), 0% (that’s right, ZERO, or at least less than 1) percent of Cambodian females in 2010 have a BMI greater than 30. Overweight people are rare because poverty is rampant. Cambodians cannot afford to gorge themselves on food like Americans can. Eating, from what I observed, is an enjoyable, celebrated ritual, to be sure. However, buying more food than your family needs to survive is a waste of what hard-earned, little money a family has.
The second reason that Cambodians are vocal about obesity and physical appearance is that it is simply not seen as a rude thing to do. The amount of fat one has on his body is obviously visible to the public– why NOT comment on it? Because of someone’s hurt self esteem?
Self esteem is something Cambodians seem to have little of. This is not to say they are not intelligent, smart, and beautiful (they SO are!), however, the Khmer people seem to think less of themselves than Americans do. You hear the message every day in US media– “Big is Beautiful! Don’t judge a book by it’s cover! It’s the inside, not outside, that counts!” In Khmer culture, one’s worth is not based on outward appearance, therefore, it is seen as fine to call yourself ugly. After all, what’s it to you? You have more important things to do than look in the mirror all day!
(In regards to Khmer men’s “self esteem”, they seemed to “put themselves down” most often with the comment “I am so lazy!” It was seen as a very funny joke!)
Every Single Khmer Woman we ran into commented on how dark their skin was compared to ours. “So beautiful!” they would say, running their hands over our white skin, hair, or teeth. “My skin so dark! So ugly! Yours so beautiful!” Was this a means of complimenting a potential client in order for them to purchase more? Sometimes, sure. Other times, when no money exchange was involved, it was simply a comment: You are white. You are beautiful. I am dark. I am not. This wasn’t said with sadness by any Khmer woman. It was just an accepted “fact” to them, regardless of how true their white counterparts thought it was. No Khmer woman accepted a “No, YOU’RE beautiful!” rebuttal from us– they laughed and shook their heads.
In summary, it is my hypothesis that Cambodians do not have as strong of a connection between outer beauty/inner self-worth as Americans do, therefore, commenting on things such as skin color, obesity, teeth, and height are seen as appropriate topics of conversation.