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Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?


I am hot. I am smelly. I am sunburned . I am in Thailand.

Call me dedicated, but I have taken time out of my school trip to Thailand to write an article just for your reading pleasure.

So here I sit, in an Internet cafe searching my mind for something to write about Thailand. Of course, the issue is not about scraping together content for an article because there are so many differences between the Thai and American way of life, but rather which subject matter to choose. I have seen whole cow heads in markets, eaten fruits I never knew existed, taken showers from a bucket and have sweated more than I ever knew was humanly possible.

Thailand is a country of vast beauties, as well as darkness, but, in the midst of all of this bustle around me, something caught my eye: the perception of beauty. OK sure, we've all heard the catchy saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," but come on, what does that actually mean?

As a child, I noticed, as most children do, that the pretty ones are consistently talked to more, treated better and sought after. And, as a result, I secretly longed to be prettier because, if what I observed held true, I would be liked better and maybe even become more popular. I know I'm not alone in hoping to become what I wasn't to gain what I didn't have. Maybe your secret desire is money, influence, intelligence, individuality or simply being admired by others. But I digress.

In Thailand, the group of kids from our school quickly found that the saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is more true than we ever thought. As a general standard, beauty in America is perceived as tall and thin with beautiful skin. And don't let me forget to mention that Americans spend millions of dollars each year trying to make themselves tanner. In contrast, the Thai hold the opinion that shape is desireable, as well as defined noses, eyes and cheekbones. And they, in turn, spend a huge amount of money on creams and powders in an attempt to make themselves paler than they are.

When my schoolmates and I talk with Thai kids, they will often smile and shyly say "consuyi" (please don't quote my spelling), meaning "you're beautiful." They point at our pale skin and tell us in broken English they wish they had the same. And we stare at their beautiful golden skin and tell them the same. When my team and I teach at a local school, we are stared and pointed and smiled at. Our friend, who lives in Thailand and speaks fluent Thai, tells us they are admiring us. I remember stepping into a store to buy badmitton rackets and being told by a young Thai girl before I left the store that I was beautiful.

In the past, I've always thought that I had just about average looks. I'm shorter than normal, with pale skin (and when I say pale, I mean verging on translucent) and the common traits of brown hair and eyes. So, when I am told on a daily basis that I am beautiful, especially coming from so many people I would consider more than beautiful, it comes as a bit of a shock. It's just so strange that the Thai desire traits that Americans try to erase and vice-versa.

And then it occurred to me, as it probably by now has to you, that people are unhappy with themselves no matter where they are, be it in North America or Asia. The grass really does seem greener on the other side, but when one gets to the other side, they find that the grass is wishing to be just as green as the grass you just left.

I'm just beginning to realize that perhaps I am my own worst critic and others are suffering the same. Self image is not just America's issue, as I had always thought, but humanity's issue. And I believe this comes from a lack of value in self and a whole lot of pride with self. For example, it is easy to think, "I am proud of what I've accomplished, but I could improve who I am." How would our mindset change if the two were flipped? "I am proud of who I am, but could improve what I accomplish."

Just some food for thought, and, as this is my last article, I wish you all farewell. Happy summer, and sawa-dee-kah.

Madeleine Brewster just graduated from Westside Christian High School and wrote a monthly column for the Lake Oswego Review this school year.