Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh


Over my lunchtime tea in the tea stall today, I discovered that the tea stall owner used to be a monk. He was a monk for 15 years until he saw his future bride across the room at a friend’s wedding. He then disrobed (the actual term for leaving monkhood, which I also find childishly amusing due to the strong mental image attached to it) and the rest is history. I found the telling of the story very sweet until the guy translating the story for me said (and I’m paraphrasing here, but just a bit) that the monk’s future wife looked beautiful from across the room, but up close turned out to be quite ugly. Ja, so a case of ‘nice from far, but far from nice’. In most situations I would find that a not-nice thing to say but given that the wife was involved in the conversation, I found it particularly not-nice thing to say. But somehow the wife wasn’t too fazed with it all. Not even when her husband confirmed it…

Discussing people’s beauty, or lack there of, is a strange beast here. After I was told that the wife is nice from far but far from nice, I was told that I am beautiful; both from far and from up close. Now this doesn’t actually mean that I’m beautiful, it most instances it just means that I am white. White is big here. I’d have to go a looooong way before I, as a white, would be considered not beautiful*. And believe me, my appearance here in Bangladesh is appaling. Besides showering daily and washing my hair when required (ish), there is nothing I do regarding my appearance. Most days I don’t even brush my hair. What’s the point? Everyone thinks I’m beautiful regardless, right? Well, there was that once when I was not beautiful. When I came back from Bali, with a tan. Totally NOT beautiful. 10 out of 10 for not-beautiful. In fact, a few of the women here couldn’t quite hide their disgust until my skin turned back to it’s naturally milky/pasty white glow.

But my hideous appearance in Bangladesh aside, this white thing can get pretty weird. One of the hostel attendants here keeps telling me that her daughter is not beautiful, all because her skin is dark (ish). And she tells me this in front of her daughter. Constantly. Every time I see her, at some point in the conversation she’ll tell me that I am beautiful (because I am white) and that her daughter is not beautiful because she is not. She’s even shown me photos of when her daughter WAS beautiful, when she was younger and her skin was paler. But, alas, her skin has darkened and now she’s not beautiful. And she does this ALL the time, in front of her daughter. I never know what to say in these situations, except telling the mother to shut up and telling the daughter that she IS beautiful. Imagine being the girl growing up listening to your mother telling you, every day, that you’re not beautiful.

Why is there so much emphasis on paleness of skin in some countries? Is it a colonial hangover, or is it a class thing? Rich women do not have work out in the sun and their skin would therefore remain pale? Poor women have to work in the sun, and therefore their skin will be darker? I think that was actually a thing of British yester-year, but that has totally been replaced by the urgent need for a tan. To the extent that women wear bikinis in the park. In. The. Park. As a South African it is something I have never done, and could never do. It’s not right. Unless you’re planning on diving into either a) a pool or b) the sea there is no reason to be a a bikini. Ever.

So why are people on both sides of the scale unhappy with the skin they were given? And I include myself in this too. I think I look better with a tan. In fact, I KNOW I look better at least some skin colour. Except in Bangladesh, where I look my very best as deathly pale as possible.

* Not beautiful: No one uses the term ugly here, it’s always not beautiful.


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