I wonder have you heard the English idiom “beauty is more than skin deep?’ Well it means that despite a persons looks it does not necessarily mean they are a nice person, in other words it says nothing of their inner beauty or personality. Now I mention this idiom in the context of why people seem to be obsessed with changing their appearance, take skin tone for example.
Having a white skin seems to be obsession for many people living in Asia, while a lot of us from the West appear to be obsessed with doing the exact opposite by darkening our skins through exposure to the sun. Two apparently opposing obsessions, but I wonder if the underlying reasoning behind them is the same.
Ask any Westerner why they like to get a sun tan on holiday and I would guess that they would probably say that it makes them feel good. If they were really candid they might even add that its somewhat of a status symbol, perhaps indicating that the tanned person is also affluent and well able to afford expensive holidays to the tropics in the dead of a Northern Hemisphere winter.
Now ask an Asian person why they want to whiten their skin and I fancy the answers will not be a hundred miles apart. However I might also add another thought here gained from my experience of living in Thailand. Let me explain.
I well remember when my home was being built here in Thailand, the workers many of whom were women where clad from head to foot in dark clothing including a hood with only slits for the eyes as they toiled away in the bright sunlight. Now I assumed that this was to protect the skin from sunlight and to minimise the risk of skin cancer. Since I reasoned that exposure to the tropical sun in this part of the world can be dangerous and a common sense approach certainly involves the use of sunscreen and sensible exposure times. So perhaps the Thai women working on the building site were just taking sensible precautions to avoid over exposure?
Well having lived here a few years now it has become obvious to me that the elaborate attempts at sun protection I continue to see are evidence not just of common sense but in fact they also demonstrate the importance of skin colour in the Thai culture.
Now despite my better understanding of Thai society I can’t even attempt to provide an answer as to why a white face seems more important than a dark one. However one possible answer that I have heard mentioned is that dark skin is indicative of an outdoor labouring background with a lower social standing, while a white skin or a whiter skin suggests a higher status.
Now given the almost God like status afforded some Thai TV soap stars, who inevitably have a fair skin, it might be that there is some credence in this argument. Given that in the same social dramas the hoi polloi, farmers, village people and servants are usually played by actor with a darker skin tone.
Whatever the reason behind this apparent Thai obsession for a whiter skin tone it is certainly big business for cosmetic companies. Take a look at the terrestrial Thai TV channels to see what I mean since every other advert seems to promote a product for lightening the skin.
A lot are marketed by international cosmetic companies with such compelling names as “White Perfect” or “White Radiance,” although there are many other from less reputable companies. Since a lot of these products are beyond the means of many working class Thais it is perhaps not surprising that back yard pharmacies have sprung up producing counterfeit or look alike products that can be quite harmful to the skin. Why, only last year I read an article in the Nation(Thai English language newspaper) about the use of a cancer drug for skin whitening. The drug was actually designed for treating Leukaemia and a side effect can be the lightening of the skin pigment.
“Khun Panya wanted to be beautiful – and that meant having white skin. To fulfil her dream she applied lightening creams, on her face, throat and arms. But the aggressive cosmetics ruined her skin and disfigured her face.”
“Khun Panya comes from a small town about a two-hour drive from Bangkok. Because she could not afford the expensive creams made by established cosmetics manufacturers, she bought her product at one of the local open-air markets…..”
Of course here in Thailand there are alternatives to using under the counter products, in fact many licensed and properly operated clinics offer treatments that are safe and effective at producing the desired results for those seeking a fairer, lighter skin tone. Unfortunately many of these establishments are also outside the means of the very people who would like to access their services.
As I said at the beginning of this article obsessions about skin colour are not limited to Asia and its the same with the white skin obsession, this is not confined to Thailand since it is wide spread in Asia. Take a look round in a country like the Philippines for example and you will see what I mean. Do a little research on the subject and you will also find plenty of other places on the Asian continent where the quest for a white skin is high on peoples list of priorities.
Which leads me to conclude that social status is the driving force behind these obsessions, be they in the West or in Asia. Perhaps now is a good time to remember what I said earlier i.e. that to many people beauty is more than skin deep.
Thailand Trivia File: Wish someone a Happy New Year in Thai.