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Friday, 5 October 2012

The (Thai) Beauty Myth

   Why do so many Thai women fall for the whitening cream scam?
We all know that the world is full of scams, scammers and the scammed. It’s a fact of life like knowing you’re going to fall down the first time you ride a bike, or that your first swig of beer will taste disgusting. The most famous of these scams is the Nigerian scam which is apparently so successful that it actually affects Nigeria’s GDP figures. As a man, it never ceases to amaze me how easily women are fooled into believing the obvious scam that certain creams on the market will make their skin whiter. It’s so obviously a scam yet there are so many women who fail to be deterred and go out and buy the products. Men are increasingly doing the same. On a kind day we might call it simply gullible; - what the Thais call hoo bow ("light ear"); on another we might want to call it the “Michael Jackson” syndrome. But let’s be honest - we can’t blame anyone for this because all advertising works on the same premise. Like Hitler’s henchman, Joseph Goebbels, said, “If you tell a lie often enough, sooner or later, people will start to believe it”.

   A whiter shade of pale?
It cannot have escaped many people’s attention in the last few weeks this Thai preoccupation with whitening creams and various other toiletry accessories that purportedly make you look whiter than white or, as the song goes, a “whiter shade of pale”. Thai TV serves up a less than healthy dose of advertisements on a daily basis: creams that have a variety of applications e.g. to cure pimples and black spots, to enrich your skin with vitamins, to give nourishment to your face, to bleach your vagina and, most important of all, to make your skin look whiter. Indeed if you read any of the ads for these Chinese made products, you’ll laugh so hard the blood will drain from your face and produce the desired effect without you having to shell out one baht.
Apparently, according to OEM Whitening Cream, if you use one of these products, your face will be “withened charmingly”. Umm…can’t wait to try it. In another ad for Pearl Whitening Cream, we are informed of the following effects: “The glucosamine clear white compount, the coordinate nanometer pearl pure whitening strength may a depth of the skin most in level…causes the flesh shining white to be exquisite, high resilience, brilliance according to human.” There you have it – as clear as a baby’s talc splattered bottom. The only question now is how many do you require?

  Passing fad or deeper cultural malaise?
               But, joking aside, it’s tempting to see this as just a passing fad: something that will go away in the same way that the Rubix Cube and Pogo Stick did. After all, most people like to change their skin colour from time to time. Westerners from colder European climates will lie on a sun bed or sunbathe in order to get a tan. It’s not healthy, but it’s understood why people do it. Thai youngsters and Thais in general are keen to look good, too. They are also very advertisement savvy and always want the latest gadget or new thing on the market, so it could be that using whitening creams is just another extension of wanting what’s “hot off the press” like a new I-phone or a new hairstyle and, when the next “new thing” comes along, vagina and other skin creams will all be forgotten.
Clearly the authorities are unfazed by this. Deputy permanent secretary for the Mental Health Department, Dr. Thawee Tangseree, said the following on 24 September 2012,

“This white skin business is just a fad that comes and goes. Soon it’ll be replaced by other fads. Now it’s not just women who pay attention to white, shining skin. The men are also starting to adopt the same value and want the Korean-style white skin as well…”

He’s right too as Thai men, never too far behind the fairer sex, are getting in on the metrosexual look with products for whitening deodorants and products that whiten the armpits. Only yesterday, in a branch of Carrefour in Riyadh, I spotted, side by side, both men and women’s whitening cream (see photo below) so it’s clear that advertisers are not only targeting Thai men, but men of other races and cultures as well.

When enough is enough
Along with these whitening creams there has recently arrived a cream that will apparently make your vagina whiter, too so there appears no place where the body is sacred nor any end to the production line of products entering the Asian beauty market. But is this indicative of a nation where the power of advertisers is too high, or are the advertisers merely responding to demand? Louis-Sebastien Ohl of Public is Thailand, the company responsible for creating the advert for vagina whitening cream had this to say
“Now an intimate toiletry also offers a whitening benefit, because research evidenced that … women [are] keen to have such a product.”
 But is it really true that women are keen to have such a product, or is it something of a chicken and egg conundrum? Is the demand for these products out there because advertisers have bombarded young impressionable Thais with them, or is it just a logical extension of areas previously catered to: armpits, skin, body, face? In other words, is the vagina the last untouched area hitherto free from the advertisers’ clutches?
Critics of the trend for skin whitening, such as Bangkok Post journalist Kultida Samabuddhi, have argued in “Feminine white wash goes too far” that such products have changed the country's value system.
“When a feminine cleansing product was first introduced in Thailand several years ago, a debate took place on whether such a product was necessary. Doctors concluded that it was not necessary and that mild soap, or even pure water, is enough to clean a woman's intimate parts. However, manufacturers and advertising agencies have worked tirelessly to convince consumers that the intimate wash product is a must-have.”
Kultida is adamant that it is the advertisers themselves who have shifted the beauty debate to ensure that women feel the need for their products:
“As the definition of beauty has been changed by the cosmetic industry, Thai women who fail to meet the beauty standards set by cosmetic producers and ad agencies have to struggle very hard to maintain their self-esteem," she told the Guardian.” This chimes with Naomi Klein’s view in her book, The Beauty Myth, that as women have gained increased social power and prominence in society, they are expected to adhere to ever increasing standards of physical beauty.
In other words, translated into a Thai context, young aspiring Thai women who want to climb the corporate ladder are held to a different set of standards. While men are judged primarily on intelligence, leadership and management skills, young Thai women are judged almost exclusively on their looks. Anyone who doubts this need look no further than any one of the multitudes of office buildings in Bangkok any given lunch time or at 5pm closing time to see the office girls or “pretties” that throng the stairways and elevators.

Doesn’t matter if you’re black or white…
Clearly this has stirred up a debate about why Thais, other than as I said, for career reasons, want so much to be white. Kate Hodal wrote the Guardian article which is largely responsible for starting this debate off. She reminds us about the ways in which colour has been portrayed in Thai language. 
In many countries across south-east Asia, fairer skin is equated with higher class as it suggests a life not spent toiling in rice paddies under the sun. The Thai language is peppered with expressions that denigrate dark skin, such as the insult dam mhuen e-ga – "black like a crow". These days, rice farmers wear long sleeves, trousers, wide-brimmed hats and gloves. According to DRAFTFCB, the agency behind many of Nivea's skin-lightening ads in Thailand, such labourers make up much of the Thai market for Nivea's face- and body-lightening products.Thailand’s Vaginal Whitening Wash
Kaewmala, a Thai researcher and writer, shows how deeply ingrained this notion of colour is in Thai culture and depicted in art and drama.
Thai classical literature is full of heroes and heroines who are beautiful and have ‘golden’ skin (though not always literally), and bad guys and gals who are ugly and ‘black’ (dark). Black skin and black heart vs. Golden skin and good heart. The good guys and gals have bright auras. Their skin ‘glows’, exuding beauty and goodness, so on and so forth. These days on Thai television, in film, or on stage, you are hard pressed to find any dark-skinned heroes and heroines. In fact, even the bad guys and gals are now fair-skinned. Heck, now that everyone has access to skin whitening products, we don’t get the color-coded cue in the story anymore!” Thailand’s skin whitening craze: How low will it go?
Having lived in Thailand for most of the last 15 years, I can say that one of the first things I noticed when I arrived was the inherent racism that expresses itself in the coffee shops and bars from Sukumvit Road to Silom and back. I’ve seen it in my classrooms as well posing as lively banter but almost always expressing a firmly held belief that the darker your skin, the less value you are to society. References almost always go hand in hand with allusions to kwai (buffalo), denoting stupidity, and suggestions that person must come from Laos, again denoting stupidity and dark skin. This raises a serious question – where do these youngsters get such negative ideas about colour and race?
I remember once seeing an advertisement on TV in Thailand for a white soap where the two main characters were a small, very white skinned, young Chinese-Thai looking girl who refused her mother’s request to wash her face, and a big black African guy who could’ve passed for the imprisoned black man in The Green Mile (played by the recently deceased, Michael Clarke Duncan). The message was clear in how the mother berated the young child telling her that she’d end up like the African guy if she didn’t use the white soap. This kind of overt racism is endemic in Thailand and, in more developed countries, such an advertisement would not even be allowed to be aired. But in Thailand it is indicative of the power of the advertisers and the way in which they can set the standards for the rest to follow.
What this also tells you about Thailand is that because advertisers enjoy such power, they do, as journalist Kultida Samabuddhi suggests, change the rules about beauty or at least have a very strong influence on the kinds of beauty products that both Thai men and women buy. Whether regular whitening cream or vaginal cream are fads or here to stay in the long run, is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure: such creams do no more than change the surface look of your skin using a bleach-like chemical substance and, as such, they are only temporary, not permanent. Therefore, whatever colour Mother Nature made you, is the one you’ll take to your grave, and that’s something not even the advertisers, as powerful and convincing as they are, can change.

Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and websites including: The Guardian Weekly, the EL Gazette,, The Bangkok Post, and You can order his book, Watching the Thais, here

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