Within the last years a rise in nationalist views has been recorded and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how deep resentments towards ethnic groups can reach. The topic of Asian hate has made headlines internationally. But what about lingering biases within an ethnicity. Colorism as a topic is much less discussed in public. However, it is a prevailing challenge especially within Black and Asian communities. This blog discusses Thailand’s beauty politics and signs of colorism.
What is colorism?
Colorism is the discrimination of people based on skin-tone within the same ethnicity (Grant, 2020). This is sometimes connected to racism but can also be a factor of inequality within an ethnic group. It usually entails preferring lighter skin over darker skin and is often connected to a beauty ideal and class system.
In 2016 a Thai advertisement made international headline for its slogan: “Whiteness makes you win”. The company Seoul Secret became an overnight viral sensation with its skin-whitening product (Slutskiy and Hamilton, 2017). Similarly, to most non-white cultures the whiteness of your skin is considered a sign of beauty in Thailand. Such requirements for beauty are a social construct developed throughout history. Walking Thai streets or enjoying Thai media the possibility of hearing praises like “skin as radiantly light as the moon” is high. Popular insults also oftentimes revolve around skin-color, for example being “black like a crow”. Such phrases are traditionally a part of the Thai Language. It is a common Thai perception that people are ugly and less successful due to their darker skin-color.
But where does this idea of the superiority of lighter skin come from?
Lighter skin has been connected to the idea of higher class for centuries in Thailand (Bettache, 2020). Your skin complexion is viewed as a tell-tale sign of your occupation. Manual labours and famers have always had to spent a lot of time exposed to the sun. Their tanned skin is therefore a result of the hard work they do. However, the dream is to live an easy life surrounded by luxury as it is in most societies.
Oftentimes the problem of colorism gets connected to colonialism. This has of course also played a big role in south-east Asia. Asian people got exposed to a hierarchical structure for class, level of education and beauty. The colonizers were slowly connected with the idea of a higher culture and an ideal physical type. In India darker skinned men were emasculated while women became unattractive and less marriageable. In the Philippines interracial marriage was more common. Still, the lighter your skin the more social advantages you got. Throughout history south-east Asian economic and political elites have been of lighter skin with either European or Chinese appearances.
However, Thailand has never been colonized by the Europeans. While the country did cede overseas territory and influence to both British and French colonizers it became a buffer state in the region. However, both powers agreed on areas of influence although the topic of annexation was of the table. This resulted in a westernised royal family and aristocracy while Thai people adopted these views much slower. Therefore, colonialism is not the root for the beauty politics of today’s Thailand.
What other influences than colonialism shaped Thailand’s beauty ideal?
China has played a big role in Thailand’s view of beauty throughout history (Bettache, 2020). Trading relations between the countries reach back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350 to 1767). In the ancient past Chinese scholars praised women for alike to white jade and pearls. These ideals presented in classic Chinese poetry were brought to Thailand by traders. Additionally, the traders would have a high position within the urban environment of the Ayutthaya Kingdom as they brought exclusive products that were traded for high prices. This is still reflected in today’s urban elite which often has a Chinese-ethnic background and therefore a much lighter skin tone than Thailand’s countryside population. A result of this hierarchy was that that a person with dark complexion was seen as less capable, less intelligent and sometimes even unhygienic.
So, colorism in Thailand has developed from historical differences between the urban and rural areas. While colonization of European nations has played a rather small part in the country’s formation of beauty ideals Chinese influence was large. Even though Thailand consists of many minority groups people with Chinese backgrounds have dominated elite roles within economics and politics. In connection with the undesired manual labour mostly performed by people with darker skin an elitist thinking was developed. Today beauty ideals are often imported as Japanese, Chinese and Korean celebrities best represent the desired lightness. Current trends show that skin-whitening practises are not slowing down in Thailand as east-Asian beauty trends gain influence.
But what role does beauty play in Thai society?
Thailand is a collectivist society (Chaipraditkul, 2013). Inequality is often viewed as acceptable under the pretence of protecting and guiding those inferior. Additionally, the concept of keeping face and loss of face are deeply engrained in Thai culture. This concept is also linked with morality and beauty. Buddhism, the main religion practised in Thailand has influenced this ideal a lot. A woman of great virtue is seen as a beauty. To be charming is to be good and dutiful. Consequently, the religion seeks for inner beauty.
However, Thai Buddhism also beliefs women to be inferior to men, a lesser incarnation. Furthermore, an image and reputation of innocence should be upheld by women to not loose face. Conforming to such social images of beauty and femininity is a woman’s expression of power. Therefore, it is not surprising that conformity and aspiration to colorist ideals is more openly seen in women. In a survey around 80% of 300 Thai said they had used whitening products before. They described their hope of better job opportunities and connected lighter complexion with trendy and modern beauties. For them their looks serve as a type of societal and interpersonal acceptance. Therefore, patriarchal and collectivist ideals partially based in Buddhism form crutch of colorism especially for women.
Percentage of Thai women using skin lighteners
Who is affected by colorism in Thailand?
Women are not the only Thai people negatively influenced by this practise (Canotal Espejo, 2009; Ruiz-Canela and Bunyamethi, 2020). The idea of the connection between skin-color and class also exists within the gay community. Again, lighter skin is associated with a new and modern image of upper middle class. Additionally, this ideal formed within Thai society is exasperated by the international view of Thai people. Foreigners seeking relationships in Thailand often prefer darker skin tones as they are perceived as more exotic. This has led to both women and gay men with a darker complexion to be connected with prostitution and sexual ambiguity. In contrast, fair-skinned people are stereotyped as middle class and sexually subtle.
The beauty queen looks like an African monkey.
Is she really a beauty queen? I thought she was a Ngo-Pa barbarian (derogatory term for an ethnic group from southern Thailand).
What are the beauty politics in Thailand?
The cosmetic industry is a frequent user and abuser of this image(). It capitalizes on people´s existing insecurities and perpetuates unrealistic standards. Their commercials create a need for their skin-lightening products by creating a story of pain and sadness for darker tones. Stories of having an unfulfilling life, unrequited love and an unsuccessful career are common in such videos all over the world. Additionally, the products get advertised by pale models showing of pills, supplements and cosmetics that help brighten your complexion. Magazines in Thailand show off stars with fair skin tones in connection with lightening, brightening and boosting your complexion. Often slogans include ideas of self-realization and self-betterment. “Show off your aura” and “Get to know the miracle of white skin” being just two out of many examples.
What is the basis of products?
A person’s skin-color is determined by the concentration of melanin within their skin. A higher concentration results in a darker taint. This concentration is determined by our DNA. Additionally, environmental factors such as diet and sunlight can cause changes. Supplementary skin products are able to produce differences in one’s taint. However, they can contain harmful ingredients to the body. Such beauty products are known to improve self-image. The majority of Thai female university students reported on wanting a lighter skin tone (Haigh, 2017). Similar to the 80% earlier a large number also stated to be using products to fulfil this desire. However, even though they felt their beauty was lacking most showed normal to high self-esteem. Cosmetics seemingly gave them a boost in confidence. Therefore, the beauty industry both perpetuates and solves issues of low self-esteem related to skin complexion.
I used to buy all kinds of whitening skin-care products, but now I realize that this is my skin and I should be more proud of myself. I am perfect.
What can be concluded for the future?
Views on controversial advertisements seem to change slowly but surely. The level of acceptance of these commercials changes from country to country. Nowadays the messages of white-skin supremacy are mostly viewed negatively by the public. This is due to the increasing awareness regarding the topics of racism and equality.
However, fair skin continues to be a symbol of health, youthfulness and wealth in Thailand. Globalization and commercialization encourage colorist norms of beauty. Additionally, traditional beliefs and values shape ideals. Thailand continues to be affected by colorism in form of beautification practises. In conclusion, beauty politics and cultural background form the backbone of skin-tone based inequalities within Thai society. This problem is being addressed by women such as Pacharaporn “Nam” Chantarapadit and Candy Kulchaya. The fight for a renewed view on beauty continues.
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