24 Mar 2009

I Want to Be White

One strange thing in Thailand is that everybody wants to be white. Thais are generally a proud people and wouldn't want to be anything other than Thai – except perhaps for being a white Thai!

Adverts are filled with whitening creams and lotions, whitening soaps, a variety of talcum powders, UV blockers and so on. It is often difficult to find facial or body products without some whitening agent. The Thais in the adverts are also chosen to have the fairest possible skin, with no doubt some digital enhancement to make them even paler. So where does this come from?

I've asked a number of Thais as to why they are so obsessed with being white: nobody really knows! They just know it looks cool, it looks sexy, it's what they all want to look like. Now, this is great for white expatriates as it dawns on them that Thais love fair skin, however ugly they might be in their own country. But it would be a grave mistake to then assume that Thais want to be white because they want to be white westerners! But as this trait seems to have been so thoroughly enculturated that nobody can give a conscious reason why they do it, one has to look a bit deeper.

One theory is that this is all about class. The situation was identical in England a century ago. Being pale was a sign of being wealthy. There was no need to go out in the sun when you could bark orders to your peasants or be busy making money in a bank or stock exchange, or even be running the Empire from a cosy desk. In contrast, anybody who worked outside, whether as an agricultural labourer or builder or market trader, was bound to become darker skinned as a consequence of being out in the sun. Sure, sunshine may be a rare sight in the UK but cloud cover doesn't stop all that UV coming through.

But suddenly, in the 1960s that whole class distinction flipped completely around. As agricultural work diminished the new drones were office workers, and they were more likely to be irradiated by fluorescent lighting than sunshine. A suntan became the new status symbol, showing one was wealthy enough to lie around in the sun of Monte Carlo or Bora Bora. This is still the case today. In the past I tried to buy presents to take back to Thailand during my visits to London only to be struck by the fact that one can't buy whitening creams in the UK. Yes, they do exist in specialist cosmetics shops for Asians but not in general stores. Looks like the same company will produce identical products for different parts of the world and in some of them add whitening agents and in others tanning agents!

So, back to Thailand! Most people here are slightly tanned in colour. It is pretty easy to tell the difference between the natural skin colour of, say, an office worker, compared to the much darker hue of a farmer. It is also easy to see how much whitening has been applied in a desperate attempt to become even whiter. So is it all a class thing like Victorian England? Possibly.

However, whilst casually reading some old Thai poetry – as one does – I came across a scene in which a Thai princess was applying whitening powder to make herself more beautiful. Being a princess she also had some ludicrously expensive powder mixed with real gold so that she would be both fair and glowing! Now, this goes back some 300 years and hence I suspect has nothing to do with trying to be a white westerner. But a quick look at a map of this region of the world would show that there just aren't any fair-skinned races nearby... apart from in China.

Historians have shown that the peoples in this part of Indo-China migrated here from deeper inside the Chinese mainland. Although Thailand does not share a border with China, it is only a very thin stretch of Myanmar that separates the two countries. Indeed, the northern city of Chiang Mai is closer to this Chinese border than it is to Bangkok! Trade between Thailand and China goes back many centuries and many wealthy families here have Chinese-Thai roots.

So, perhaps the Thai obsession with being white is just a class thing, or perhaps it is an unconscious desire to emulate the Chinese, or even both rolled into one. Whatever the true origins of this, Thais will continue to buy skin whitening products in the hope that they too will become the fairest of princesses.

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