Anorexia, Racism, and Defining Beauty (Imago Dei, Part 1 of 2)

by Elizabeth

In this series, I will be discussing the way Cambodian culture and beliefs have affected me. It has been very difficult for me to write (and has taken me several months), because words feel so inadequate to convey my emotions about these things. We are told in Romans that the Spirit will intercede for us with “groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” I can only pray that the Spirit will intercede for me, and that somewhere in the space between my words and your hearts, He will translate for me.

I am also well aware that my understanding of this culture may be incorrect. It is gleaned from my own interactions with nationals, as well as cultural insights from other missionaries, but I know that my limited understanding of this culture may not be representative of the culture at large. However, I am (as always) writing from my own (often painful) personal experiences, so please read these posts as such, and not as scholarly cultural commentary.

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When we moved to Cambodia, we packed our life into 15 checked bags and 3 carryons. But I didn’t just bring airline baggage to Asia. I also brought ideological baggage.

Ideological baggage like Imago Dei: the belief that our Creator made us in His image, and that we have inherent value and worth. Regardless of our gender or skin color, regardless of our wealth or poverty, regardless of our abilities or disabilities, regardless of what we have done or what has been done to us. Regardless of all of those things, it is my deeply-held belief that every single human being matters to God, and is loved by Him. It’s part of my baggage.

It is not part of everyone’s baggage.

For some, value is dictated by physical appearances. When our neighbors were preparing to attend a wedding recently, I talked with one lady about it, about getting dressed up in pretty wedding dresses, and about how fun it would be. Then the conversation turned ugly – literally. She told me, “Your daughters are so pretty.” Surprised at the sudden change of subject, I replied, “Your daughter is pretty.” (She is. She’s beautiful.)

With her daughter standing right there beside her, she corrected me. “No she’s not, she’s ugly. She has dark skin. Dark skin is ugly. You are pretty; you have white skin.” I tried to convince her: “No, no, she is beautiful! Dark skin is beautiful. White skin is beautiful. God loves everyone with dark skin and with white skin.” She could not to be convinced. Because dark skin is ugly. This is a foundational belief in Cambodia.

On another day, I went out with a friend, and a Cambodian girl complimented me: “You have beautiful hair. You are very beautiful: your husband must love you!” I get quite uncomfortable at this kind of compliment, and its underlying reasoning. I don’t want people to think my husband loves me just because I am “beautiful” in their eyes.

But how should I reply to that, because my husband does love me. He is, in fact, madly in love with me – although not because I am beautiful.  I attempted to skirt the beauty issue and simply said, “Yes, my husband does love me. And I love him.” I added that last part because I want people to know we love each other very much.  Enduring, mutual love is not common here. (It’s not necessarily desirable, either, as the purpose of marriage is mainly women’s financial security and the production of children, with beautiful girls being far luckier in love. How very Jane Austen of them, do you not agree??) In this environment, our marriage becomes one way to model our faith.

That same day, a second woman told us that her husband has another wife now. She told us that she has two kids and is no longer beautiful but ugly, implying the connection between those facts.  My friend, whose Khmer is much better than mine, told her that she WAS beautiful, but that her husband has bad character.

These women’s statements betray their beliefs about love and beauty. Love is equated with physical beauty: even in the Khmer language, the word for love is tied to the concept of physical attraction. Only the physically beautiful are worthy of love. And only the light-skinned among us can be considered beautiful (leading to an excess of “skin-whitening” products in this country).

A person’s worth, measured by their exterior.

I didn’t naturally reject this way of measuring a (female) person’s worth, simply because I was born in America, home of many equal rights activists. I didn’t automatically believe in Imago Dei, just because I was a born-again Christian. No, my staunch belief in the intrinsic value of all people, regardless of appearances, comes from walking through the dark places of an eating disorder.

In the eyes of my eating disorder, I didn’t think anyone could possibly love me, or even like me, unless I weighed 90 pounds. And when the doctor instructed me to gain weight, I didn’t want to live anymore, because that meant living in a larger body. For years – yes, years – I judged other people’s bodies just as harshly as I judged my own. And I did not live as though all people (including me) are intrinsically valuable, independent of their physical appearance.

It has been many years since I judged myself and others by those standards. So when I say I see beauty in each and every person I meet, I am not exaggerating. When I say I love people for who they are on the inside, I am not joking. And when I say I believe in the idea of Imago Dei, I am not merely giving lip service to the idea. I truly believe it.

I oftentimes feel alone in that belief.

I can say a thousands times, “you are created in the image of God and you are beautiful!! God made everyone, dark, light, small, large, and He values us all! He loves every color and shape and age.” But my shouting won’t change their worldview.  Only the Spirit of God can do that.

And until He does, I will live in their world, I will love my neighbors, and I will pray.

(You can read Part 2 here.)

(You can read more of my anorexia story here.)

12 thoughts on “Anorexia, Racism, and Defining Beauty (Imago Dei, Part 1 of 2)

  1. Awesome story and a very important story. Even in America, people look at each other through different filters. The person who says “we’re just common people, yet has all new cars and lives in a home 2-3 times your value leaves the same feeling with you as you might leave with the person who feels inferior because of darker skin, social customs or other beliefs. What is awesome here is that these folks are comfortable enough around you that they tell and explain their whole story. You are right, these are tough truths that must be understood (they must truly be felt to be understood). Thank You!

  2. Interesting that in our country many $$ are spent trying to make our skin darker, tanning beds, tanning sprays, tanning lotions. When will we be content with how God made us? Thank you for sharing your story, Elizabeth. Thought provoking indeed! Imago Dei!

    • That’s so true Shannon! When we tell Cambodians that Americans desire (and try to get) darker skin, they laugh at us in disbelief. They can’t possibly fathom anyone doing/wanting that.

  3. Elizabeth, I just saw this for the first time, What amazing insight and clarity you have conveyed in this beautiful message. We witness and hear the same kinds of feelings from the women here in India. I by no means have a figure or the looks I once had when I was 30 years younger, but I am told often how beautiful I am. How lovely is my face (always meaning the color of my skin, my green eyes, etc.) and how blessed and fortunate I am to be an American. Yes I am blessed but not for what I look like or where I come from but because with the past I had, my self worth was nothing. By His Grace and Love I am everything on the inside and I value the inside of a person far more than the outside. Here, Women are merely possessions and in many cases, eye candy for the Indian Man. She knows her place, does not speak her mind, often discouraged, and is to serve her husband and family in that order. Baby girls are devalued and littered all over India. Some get rescued and placed in orphanages or the like, but many are killed or left for dead. These women and young girls are targets for abuse, molestation, rape, suicide and murder. It is a tragic scenario played out daily in the news. Thank you for standing up and saying what is truly going on around you, it most definitely helps the rest of us with our walk as well. God Bless you and all you personally have and are dealing with.

    • Oh, Bobbi, the situation in India makes me so mad! It’s hard to live among that kind of brokenness. . . I am sure you cry a lot about what you witness there. I believe it hurts God’s heart too, and I try to hold on to that comfort when I cry over these things. And I hold on to the hope that Some Day, God will make everything right. . . . I have never before longed for Heaven like I long for it since moving to Cambodia.

  4. Thanks for sharing your insights. Recently, Jocelyn and I discussed similar beliefs. We are unsure why around the world, people with darker skin are unacceptable. We wondered when and how this belief originated. Where does the Bible address such issues? Yet, we realize that depravity within humanity plays a large role. People differentiate over sizes and shapes of anything and everything (i.e. ears, noses, lips, teeth, feet, heights, and weights – all physical, social, and spiritual parameters are possible). Prideful attitudes cause people to strive for superiority, really idolatry (i.e. self glorification). Yet, according to God, integrity (inner beauty) really matters – everything else is temporal and superficial. It will be interesting to learn how and why these Cambodians embraced these beliefs. These values are innate, but taught, similar to preferences in the U.S. Fortunately, as some people mature, especially in Christ, some prejudices and suppositions disappear. This is part of the sanctification process by the Spirit.

    GOD bless you for your honesty in discussing such a generational, cultural issue. I cannot wait until your book is out!

    • I don’t understand why or where these ideas came from, either, Charles. We can only pray that as the Cambodian church (and the Church worldwide) matures, prejudice and racial hatred will dissipate from the minds and hearts of believers, and that we will love others as we are loved by God.

  5. Elizabeth, what an interesting cultural view of beauty. It drives home the ideology that we have in this country is just as sad! Thank you for sharing from the heart! I learned alot from your words! Love you and your family for your service to Gods people!

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