The skin whitening craze has reached women’s pubic areas in Thailand. Officially. This new development has been widely recorded by international press. Kate Hodal of The Guardian reported on 23 September 2012:
A new product said to make women’s intimate areas ‘fairer within four weeks’ has revived the beauty debate in colour-conscious Thailand, where fair skin is associated with opportunity, success and status, and caused critics to question when, if ever, the skin-whitening craze will end.
Products promising to lighten the face, body and armpits are already available across the country, with skin-whitening pills and diet supplements claiming to pick up where the cosmetics leave off. But this is the first time that a vaginal whitening wash has hit the Thai market.
White vaginas. Who would have thought? But there are always crafty people who think of unthinkable things that will make them rich on the wallets of the rest of us. Enough people – women in this case – can always be counted on to buy their idea no matter how nonsensical. We are slaves of consumerism. Buy, buy, buy whatever on the market that makes us feel good about ourselves. Vagina whitening products will be sold to Thai women and convince many of my fellow country women to ‘feel good’ about their vaginas, even if most of us likely have never felt bad about them before. That’s the power of marketing.
Like most women I care about personal cleanliness and beauty. But it has never occurred to me that the coloring of my ‘little sister’ might be an issue. Luckily (?) I’m fair, but then again it seems a woman can never be too fair these days, at least in this part of the world where finding non-whitening products can be like going on a treasure hunt (a rare treasure that few seem to want).
Every time I ask for a non-whitening version of some whitening thing, there’s that funny look. In a country where a beautiful woman thinks of herself as not attractive enough because her skin is not ‘white’, not wanting to look whiter–even if you are already fair–makes you an odd one out.
Why do Thai women want to be so ‘white’?
Many Thai women shun sunlight like vampires and cover themselves with sun-blocking, whitening products, so much so that doctors complain about young Thai women’s vitamin D deficiency. They go to great length to make their skin lighter. Whitening lotion, whitening deodorant, whitening pills, whitening injection, whitening laser–all promised to make a woman’s skin ‘white’, bright and glowing. Many cosmetic products contain mercury and other harmful ingredients but that rarely stops Thai women wanting to be fair and ‘beautiful’.
Is this craze for ‘white’ skin a relatively recent trend in Thai society, or has it long been around? I think it’s fair to say that there has long been a decided preference for fair complexion especially in women. By long I mean ever since I can remember and have read in Thai literature dating back decades and a few centuries.
One of the Thai literary classics Sangthong features a hero with dark skin and curly hair who was shunned by all but his mother, a sea ogress, and the heroine who loved him. The heroine loved him and chose him as her husband against the whole kingdom’s outcry (she was a princess) because she could ‘see’ his inner golden self, literally, you will see. The hero had two identities. The first was Ngaw Pah. In this personality (which was most of the time he appeared in the story) he was modeled after a man from a forest-dwelling indigenous tribe called ‘Ngaw Pah Sa-gai’ in Thai.* In the second identity he was Sangthong, a royal prince born in a conch shell, who later dipped himself in gold (‘golden boy’ was never truer), though he kept his golden identity a secret.
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!
It’s not that dark skin was never admired. There were days when dark or even black was beautiful in Thai culture. The heroines’ shining black teeth (from chewing betel nuts) were often admired in Thai literature. Dark skin was not always shunned either. Why, most Thai women historically, especially of the Siamese stock, were brown skinned. Not that long ago Thai expressions admiring dark-skinned women were used, such as dam-kham (attractively dark), and dam-tap-ped (literally “dark like a duck liver” – i.e., very dark). The latter was used with sexy, very dark-skinned women. Unfortunately, in the new skin-whitening world these compliments have lost their prestige and would no longer support a Thai woman’s self-esteem. In fact, the latter is now sometimes used as an insult.
The new ‘pretty’ ideal
In the past decade or two, it’s khaaw suay (“white-pretty”) that carries the day for most Thai women. Lest anyone thinks Thai women want to look ‘white’ like Caucasian women, a Thai female ideal type of late is: khaaw-suay-muay-X (“white-pretty-Chinese looking-seXy”). In the last few years this type has been modified somewhat with more preference for the Japanese and now Korean type–with big, ‘innocent’ eyes (often made possible by oversized colored contact lenses), small chin, rosebud lips, and porcelain white skin.
Search Google images for ‘pretty Asian girls’ or ‘pretty Asian women’, you’d likely find only one or two dark-skinned girls/women in the first five pages. And you’ll see that the Korean-style ‘pretty’ pictured above (‘pretties’ are young women working as promoters or MCs of products, often on a freelance basis) represents a typical look. Try also ‘pretty Thai girls’ (a few more brown-skinned women there).
Sometimes the emulation of the pretty ideal can be carried a bit far. There are times when you may wonder if the Thai woman in front of you is a real person, a doll, or a life-size avatar jumping out of a Japanese anime or comic book. Look at the picture below and more of her here:
So how do naturally brown-skinned Southeast Asian women, like most Thai girls, manage to look like that? Let’s hear it from the horses’ mouths working as ‘pretties’. The following is an excerpt of an interview with a group of pretties by Matichon after the news broke about a pretty who went into a coma after a botched Botox filler injection.
Yim (Smile): Why do pretties have to be white? Nobody wants a dark-skinned pretty to show their products. They are not eye-catching. Some jobs give you a spec, such as “white, 170 cm. tall, 34+ inches bust.” Some jobs ask for “cutie face, high nose.” This is why we have to do it. It’s because society draws a line for us to walk. Like pretties for motor shows have to have a small and slender face in the same mould.…
Pla (Fish): Every [pretty] will do at least one thing. The nose. The rest is often Botox or filler [injection] in places where you want to look good.
Yim: Other than that we will take [supplements] orally or by injection, and apply Gluta [Glutathione, antioxidant supplement used with cancer patients] on the skin to create an aura, or have collagen injections. Rip-naa is shaping the face into a V-shape. Take vitamins and pills to make the arms small and slender. Breast augmentation.…
Pla: My message to every girl is that before you think of doing anything, give it a good thought. Do just enough. Stop once you’re white. And once the face is small, that should be enough.
But how ‘white’, how ‘small’, how ‘slender’ is enough? When is ‘enough’ really enough? Hard to say when someone’s sense of enough may not necessarily the same as the next person’s. I cringe when seeing a girl’s face float because her make-up base is a few shades lighter than her natural skin tone. To me that’s not ‘pretty’. But who am I to judge? Just checked out a cosmetic stand at the local hole in the wall frequented by local office girls this afternoon and found that all the shades of facial powder available ranged from fair to extremely fair. How does a girl with even light brown skin deal with that?
Is it really just a fad?
Dr. Thawee Tangseree, deputy permanent secretary of the Mental Health Department said on 24 September 2012 that the craze for “white and shining skin” among young Thai women was “just a fad.” That young Thai women spend their precious Bahts on products that will make their skin ‘white’, bright and shining in order to make them appealing to men or to gain social status is a “normal” social phenomenon. Matichon quoted him saying:
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…
The doctor would be right. If this advertisement of whitening deodorant for men is any indication, Thai men are also into bleaching their armpits. Like the advertisement of the vagina-whitening wash above, none of the characters in this armpit-whitening deodorant looks like an average Thai person you’ll see on the street. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s the business of selling beauty ideals. Ideals are to be aspired to and emulate, not what you can find walking on the street.
Is this craze for white skin just a Thai thing?
Certainly not. Skin Inc. reported in 2009 that the global skin whitening market was expected to reach $10 billion in this 2010 decade. In Asia-Pacific the market would grow to $2 billion by the end of 2012:
Japan dominates the global skin lighteners market with the lion’s share, as stated in the new market research report from Global Industry Analysts, Inc. (GIA). The market for skin lighteners in Asia-Pacific is projected to cross the $2 billion mark by 2012, driven by the fast growing markets of China and India. Apart from Asia, Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are emerging as potential markets for skin whitening products. The growing proportion of ethnic groups—Asians, Hispanics and African Americans—in these regions is a major contributor to the enhanced demand for skin lighteners.
If skin whitening is just a fad, it’s a fad that seems to be pervading all continents, growing increasingly extreme and intrusive, reaching into people’s private areas. A brand of whitening feminine wash was launched in India earlier this year and met with outrage. No such outrage in Thailand so far, though there was a small gentle cry in the Bangkok Post.
As far as commentaries go, Shakira Hussein from the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne made a fair point in her interview with Radio Australia.
BAHFEN: And most people outside of India and Thailand have reacted a little bit incredulously to the notion of skin whitening being expanded to a particular part of the female anatomy, and that is intimate skin washes. What was your reaction?
HUSSEIN: Well I was also incredulous and really taking the skin lightening obsession to a truly bizarre link. On the other hand, I don’t find it any less bizarre, but of course the tanning aspirations in the West, seeking to extend your tan to any part of your body that’s going to ever be visible for anybody, that does seem to be a market for that so I suppose it’s logical that the skin lightening market have a similar level of thoroughness.
White people want to look tanned to signify beauty, status and prestige, distinguishing themselves from the rest in their pale-skinned society, while the brown-skinned people want to look ‘white’ to achieve the same things: prestige, status, beauty and desirability. What is more ridiculous? Whitened vagina and armpits on a bleached body of a previously brown-skinned person? Or a tanned vagina and armpits on a tanned body of a previously pale person?
Where will this skin whitening craze end?
From where I stand it certainly looks set to go quite a distance before finding its final destination. “The male market is yet to be fully tapped,” Louis-Sebastien Ohl of Publicis Thailand told The Guardian. Who knows, the male equivalent of whitening feminine wash may hit the market soon. Perhaps balls whitening wash, gel or cream, with anti-wrinkle properties?
As for the ladies, once nothing more in the ultimate feminine parts can be made any whiter, the next step could be “glow-in-the-dark.”* No more fumbling for that flashlight in a dark night when the lights are out.
I am no futurist, but in about 10 years we could be talking about “natural light-emitting, self-navigation chips-embedded” masculine and “eco-friendly, feminine bright” products that are powered by the sun. Or maybe not, if ‘white’ skin is still in fashion. They could be powered by dark energy then. Like I said, I’m no futurist and I flunked Physics.
NOTE: *It was previously stated incorrectly that Ngaw Pah Sagai were the same as the Morgan (better known as the ‘sea gypsies’, an Austronesian ethnic group living along the Andaman coast and islands in the South of Thailand.) The Sagai people–known among Thais as “Ngaw Pah”, are, or used to be, forest dwellers (see some information about Sagai people here and here). Edited 31 October 2013.
This article was first published on Asian Correspondent on 27 September 2012.