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Spotlight on Lao beauty

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

From the very beginning during our stay in Laos, we have been faced with the subject of beauty and Lao beauty ideals. One of the very first sentences we heard from our tandem teachers – after they had asked us for our names – was a compliment on our appearance. “You’re beautiful” or “I love your skin” were compliments we did not only hear once. I wanted to understand better whether these statements about us were just a polite way of speaking to other females of the same age, or whether Westerners still simply stick out in a Lao village with their exotic appearance, or whether we happened to match a particular (Laotian?) concept of beauty. If there was one, how would it manifest itself?

The word beauty is a very broad term. There seem to be as many different definitions and perceptions as there are cultures, epochs, and people.1 In our intercultural context, what interested me was the idea of beauty regarding human beings in the context of Lao aesthetics, culture, and society. During my internship at a Lao secondary school, I was able to examine the understanding or cultural appreciation of beauty on the basis of my personal observations, experiences, and some interviews with my Lao tandem-teachers. We discussed the beauty ideal(s) in Laos and how they might have been shaped, and also how these are manifest in daily life. Questions about the role of women in Lao society inevitably followed.

First thing in the morning, one experiences the daily beauty routines just by entering the teachers’ room at Ban Phang Heng lower secondary school: Before school starts, the hair is done, the make-up is put on, and the traditional skirts, the sinhs, are cheerfully presented and praised. The male teachers meanwhile keep talking with their colleagues about their own subjects. One first glance at the female teachers already gives some insight into what is considered to be beautiful. The women all wear a traditional sinh, which is regarded to be particularly well-dressed and noble. It is also a unique piece of clothing which sets them apart from other cultures in Asia. The weaving designs and patterns of the sinhs vary by ethnic group and by occasion, so you can recognize and “place” a Lao woman by her sinh. Wearing a sinh is therefore also a cultural expression of group-identity, similar to wearing a uniform or special sports clothes.

The sinh is a long waist-high skirt that reaches over the knees. It is not only worn in schools or offices or for work generally, but also on special occasions such as weddings or birthdays. The sinh is the Laotian woman’s suit or business dress. It is made of colourful cotton or silk material, with traditinal ornaments woven in. As soon as we German volunteers appear in our first own sinh for the first time, the joy on the part of the Laotians is always great: This is not only regarded as a sign of respectful adaptation to their culture, but also as a step towards their ideal of beauty.

The next striking thing in the teachers’ room every morning is the perfect hairstyles of the teachers, which seem delicate and almost artistic. Mostly the hair is braided or pinned up to a bun. In some cases, and if time permits, the hair is straightened before braiding. The hairstyles are finally adorned with pearls, bows, or the traditional champa flower, a symbol of Lao culture.

These were my first personal impressions. To deepen my understanding, my tandem-teachers  were kind enough to answer further questions. In three interviews – with Ms Donekeo Keosiththivong, Ms Souksakhone Sindavan, and Ms Saysamone Singhalath – I was told what matters to them beauty-wise. It is the face that is most important, ideally light-skinned, almost white, with pink cheeks and dark eyes. (We are reminded of the stylistic elements of  mangas here. Especially the characteristics attributed to the female characters in mangas like childlike features, pale skin, large eyes, and red lips are striking.) Lao women often paint their lips with a strong pink or, on special occasions, in red. The eyes are highlighted with black eyeliner. Also the eyebrows are markedly redrawn and set in scene.

After listing their beauty ideals for the face, my interviewees answered my question about possible Thai influences. They explained that they only watch Thai television because there is nothing else – so they are therefore confronted with the Thai cult of beauty on a daily basis, both in- and outside their homes. Due to the daily media filter of Thai culture, a cultural double-influence arises, because Thai culture is itself influenced by South Korean and ultimately American ideals of beauty as transported in the consciousness-industry of TV soaps and commercials. The unconscious reception of these cultural and economic filters should be viewed critically and offers food for thought for yet another interesting discussion on questions of identity and neocolonialism in Southeast Asia.

It is amazing how different ideals of beauty can be. While most of the new volunteers come to Laos with the desire of returning tanned, the Laotians adore our white pale skin marked by winter.2 Some female Lao teachers work on a lighter skin on their faces and bodies with a bleaching or whitening cream. In Europe, you would buy tanning lotions. As soon as the desired skin tone has been achieved, they try to maintain this paler skin colour, for example by wearing long clothes to protect themselves from the sun or by carrying an umbrella. When we went on a weekend trip to a deer farm together once, by moped, our teacher-friends wore long trousers, socks that separated each toe (tip-toe socks) in flip-flops, and gloves, in addition to a long jacket. (Wearing socks in sandals is commonplace in Laos and could possibly be related to the ubiquitous dust on the roads.)

Another difference reveals itself on the subject of noses. While the Laotians consider the long noses of the volunteers as perfect, those same noses may be perceived as not dainty enough by the nose-owners themselves…

In general, it is noticeable how very well-groomed the teachers are. In the following weeks we could see how important it is for them. In the restrooms you can find shampoos and body gels, as the teachers shower during breaks (body odours are considered unpleasant and unhygienic in Laos). Deodorants and scents are also part of the daily care routine. This is probably due to the extreme heat in Laos and the long working days of the teachers. However, we also remarked that our tandem-teachers appear relatively unaffected by the weather conditions, while we Europeans break into sweats more or less constantly. 

While conducting my interviews about Lao ideals of beauty, one point became clear to me. My interviewees answered questions about their morning beauty routines, but when it came to the question of what they find most beautiful about a person, their answers were all related to the inner values of a person. Statements like “a human being is beautiful when (s)he has a pure heart and is friendly” were not the answers I would have expected, or might get in Germany. Looking back, however, I can see that this answer is in full harmony with my experience and perception of the Laotians as a people. They are open, friendly, unbelievably good-natured, and the most helpful people I have ever met.  They attach great importance to treating each other with respect, and as a volunteer at a Laotian secondary school I have so far experienced nothing but helpfulness and friendliness.

In our first meeting, the Laotians may have lavished compliments on us, but what they actually paid attention to in the following weeks was our character and how we treated our tandem-teachers. This made the Laotians even dearer to me.

Beauty is part of everyday life in Laotian culture and may involve the desire for white skin and trimmed hair, but the most cherished, beautiful and attractive feature of a person is his or her personality, or beautiful soul.

Text by I. Kaemmer, notes by I. Martin

Photos by I. Kaemmer

 

Notes
1 In both academic and popular literature we find many controversial discussions on beauty, often interconnected with feminist, anti-feminist, or “net-feminist” concerns. It is also interesting to follow changes over time (historic perspective), or studies on the beauty of animals or objects. Aesthetics is studied in the context of psychology and philosophy.

2 Pale skin was a sign of nobility in earlier centuries in Europe as well, as brown skin revealed the necessity of physical labour outside. Today, the “beauty” of the (very) long fingernail on Lao men’s little fingers fulfils the same function, while Western tourist “s.nobs” (Lat. sine nobilitatis) indicate status by getting tanned in winter.

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