Being pale has never really worked in my favour.
The harsh Australian sun burns my skin with a vengeance within 30 minutes during the middle of the day. As a result during Summer I either lather on sunscreen before even thinking of leaving the house for an extended period of time or spend the next week doing my best Elmo impersonation.
After being so covered up during Winter, I am always particularly reflective when my legs and arms reappear from beneath the layers. Not one to fake tan (I’ve only done a very light one once, which thankfully did not leave me looking like I should be working for Willy Wonka), I tend to gradually expose myself to sunlight until my skin becomes an acceptable shade of off-white, so not to attract too much attention.
Coming to the hot climate of Vietnam straight out of a cold Winter, I did consider putting on a fake tan before I came so that my heavily exposed snow white body would not look too ridiculous.
I am so glad that I didn’t.
Not long after I arrived I noticed that even in 30+ degree Celsius heat, women everywhere were covered from head to toe in jumpers, jeans, socks, hats and even face masks. As conservative as the Vietnamese are, I knew that there had to be something more to it than just being conservative, considering that the jeans were skin tight and the girls indoors and older women would happily walk around in short sleeve tops. And that’s when the comments started.
As soon as I would enter a shop, the women would look me up and down in an awe-like state (I am not even exaggerating) and say, “Oh, your skin is so beautiful,” whilst pointing to their heavily clothed bodies. “See, I wear this so I have fair skin like you.” When I asked them if they were hot, they all just shrug. For them, the cost for a small bottle of sunscreen is about the same price as a whole day’s work. Wearing jumpers is a cheaper, more sustainable option. They say that beauty is pain. It definitely pained me to hear this.
In a bizarre cultural twist, suddenly it was my skin I was trying to expose to as much sunlight as possible that these beautiful women were coveting.
Being tall, pale and slim, wearing flowing dresses, shorts and singlets for the majority of the time, I have stood out like a glowing neon sign.
Since then I have had women stop me on the streets, people asking me to take photos with them in hotels and women in shops and tailors literally stroke my arms.
I have always felt blessed by my height, but I know people my height who hate it. I am one of the few people I know who has all of their natural hair colour. I complain about having extremely large hands and long fingers, yet I know pianist who would love to be able to reach just those few extra notes.
Our standards of what it mean to be beautiful and what we want to look like are so dependent of the time and culture we live in. Just check out this video of beauty ideals across time. It really puts it into perspective.
Amongst the countless number of other things that being in Vietnam has taught me, it has really made me aware of how blessed we each are to be us in our uniqueness.
Audrey Hepburn said;
For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you will never walk alone.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, love will make you the fairest of them all.