U G L Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you UGLY, hey, hey, you UGLY! Bit of a reference there that only girls that grew up in the 90s are probably going to get. If you care to listen to a super annoying song that won’t get out of your head, watch the video below. Don’t do it.
U is for UGLY. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some self-depricating post fishing for compliments, boo hoo, me no beautiful! NO.
Most days as I walk around the high school in Thailand that I have the joy of teaching in Monday to Friday, it isn’t unusual to hear TEACHER SO BEAUTIFUL! being shouted down the corridoor. To begin with it was quite nice, until I realised that it is either a) one of the few things that the students can say in English or b) they consider me to be beautiful because I have white skin.
The concept of beauty in Thailand is different to that of the UK. Which is in itself different to many other countries around the globe.
In Thailand, the lighter your skin, the more beautiful you are. Young girls will often come up to me and lay their arm next to mine, comparing skin tone and cooing over how pale I am. It is unfortunately not unusual for the darkest student in a class to be pointed out, LOOK TEACHER, BLACK!
To have dark skin means that you don’t have the luxury to be able to while away your days indoors while the lesser people toil away in the hot sun outside. It is a similar outlook that I remember discussing in my history class at school – an outlook that to me is dated and almost archaeic.
Some Thai people will spend a lot of money pursuing this pale beauty. Many beauty products contain whitening agents (in some cases, harmful chemicals such as mercury) that will gradually lighten the skin. Talcom powder is plastered on to faces, necks and arms to cover up. Even when shopping for shower gel I have to read the small print (if I am lucky enough for it to be in English) or judge the packaging to avoid the whitening stuff.
In many Western cultures, to having a tan is considered beautiful. Gradual tanning products, fake tan and bronzng powders are applied to darken the skin. People lay in sun beds and solariums, exposing themselves to harmful UV rays and and an increased chance of contracting cancer (suddenly the thought of skin bleaching products doesn’t seem so barbaric, does it?). As soon as the sun comes out, the t-shirts come off, the bikinis are on and the tanning begins.
The situation couldn’t any more different in Thailand. Umbrellas are used not only for the torrential downpours but as a shield from the sun. Jumpers are zipped up, sleeves pulled down over hands, lest the sun’s rays touch bare skin. If we go away for the weekend and I spend some time topping up my tan, on my return to school I am told TEACHER, NO BEAUTIFUL!
The whitest faces are used for advertising, are the face of all the main brands, the superstars, actors and actresses, plastered across bill boards, television adverts and the front of magazines.
There have been some controvercial adverts recently. A Dunkin Donuts ad for their new ‘charcoal donut’ featured a woman in full black make up with the slogan ‘Break every rule of deliciousness’ – to me this suggests that perhaps the model breaks every rule of beauty also. Dunkin Donuts were slated for releasing the advert and had to remove it and issue an apology – read this article from The Guardian if you want to see what they had to say.
Over on the television, an advert for L-Gluta skin0whitening drink (yes, they exist) caused a lot of controversy earlier in the year. In the ad, a brown bear is in a doctors office consulting with a light skinned female doctor. She is telling the bear that unfortunately he will have to wait a long time to become a white bear by avoiding the sun, and that it is a shame that it wasn’t born a human as it could simply drink the whitening drink being advertised. The part that caused the most controversy is the end of the ad, where the girls’ father, a black man, enters the room and asks her if everything is OK, the camera panning to a family portrait where the girl is black (but awfully ‘blacked up’. According to different reports (here and here), the father speaks Thai but in a farang accent, suggesting that the family had originally moved from another country, moving to Thailand and being helped along by the miraculour skin-whitening properties of this most wonderful product.
Here is the video, it’s in Thai but you can see the general message in the advert.
Around the world, beauty is dependant on individual and societal influences. It may be in the eye of the beholder, but where is the beholder getting their idea of beauty from?