There are an innumerable amount of things that confuse, yet still intrigue me about Thailand. Only a couple of days into my new journey, I discovered the fad of skin whitening, where people deliberately bleach their skin using mercury-containing lotions, laser treatment procedures, and even chemical injections. My mouth fell agape when I first saw a woman with an off-white face that contrasted her much darker neck and body. I had thousands of questions, the main one being, “WHY?” I truthfully couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that people would purposefully apply harmful chemicals to their bodies in order to appear as someone they naturally are not. Everywhere I went, whether it be down the street to get dinner, or across campus to my next class, it felt as if I were in an alternate universe where people and ghosts mate together and make little ghost-human babies. It was weird. And I was concerned.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the fad for a while until I was at the drugstore buying some body lotion. A friend stopped me as I went to pick up a bottle and told me to be careful of the ingredients because most creams, for both men and women, contained chemicals that promised to make skin “pearl-white” in just three weeks. I was appalled. So once I got back to my room, I grabbed my laptop and began to do some research. The first link I found brought me to an article on Asian Correspondent’s website written by a Thai woman named Kaewmala. Here, she addresses Thailand’s skin whitening craze and the fascination with the fair-skinned idea of beauty.
In Asian society, as Kaewmala explains, there is a blatant obsession with the “white-pretty” idealistic look. Pale skin is associated with wealth, while dark skin is associated with poverty and manual labor. To a Westerner reading this, it’s especially confusing seeing as though the opposite holds true in the United States. For the most part, tanned skin is associated with wealth and goes along with the idea that if your skin is golden and bronze, its commonly assumed that you have the money to travel to beaches and vacation more freely than the average American with fairer skin. When summer rolls around, most people are typically itching to throw on a swimsuit and hit the beach, spending most of their time outdoors. The majority of Westerners love the sun. We embrace it. So coming to a country where women abhor the sun and will do everything in their power to advert it, seems a little backwards.
Reading more into Kaewmala’s article, I learned that the fad goes deeper than a mere desire to have fairer skin—it controls women’s lives and potential ability to get jobs. Young women often look for work as “pretties,” which means that they are paid to look a certain way and promote products that showcase their beauty, despite being cosmetically altered. And the scariest part of all this, is that these women who go ahead with plastic surgery to enhance their breasts, narrow their chins, and slim their waists, all know that society is telling them to do so. They're fully aware that these beauty standards are in place and that if they want to be successful and seen as beautiful in their country, they will most likely need to consider these procedures and at the very least, commit to bleaching their skin.
I had to sit back after learning the reason for many Thai women’s skin whitening. It kind of hurt me. Not in a personal way, I wasn’t necessarily offended; rather, I was sad. I’ve seen many of these “pretties” out at nightclubs and truthfully, none of them looked genuinely happy. They mirrored dolls, with little to no emotion behind a ghost-white face, big contact lens-enhanced eyes, and extremely tiny bodies with unnaturally large breasts. I honestly felt bad for them, I did. I wanted to kindly tell them that they didn’t need to impress anyone by putting their bodies at such a risk. I was overwhelmed with emotions, until I realized that I really had no say in their choices. I was an outsider looking in—this is my opinion, and they obviously have theirs. Beauty standards differ across the world, that’s a fact. And nonetheless, it still confuses me somewhat. But like most things I don’t understand in Asia, I have learned to accept it for what it is, and go on with my everyday life.