Thai Beauty Ideals and Desire for ‘Fair Skin’

Thailand is an interesting case to study as far as beauty ideals are concerned. This is because Thailand, similar to Japan, has never been formally colonized by a European nation. However, the tendency can be observed that in particular Thai women generally strive for aesthetic ideals which can be considered Western. The most prominent beauty image is that of considering fair skin to be more desirable than dark skin.

Thus, it is not surprising that in many Thai advertisements and also in visual arts and paintings, women are generally depicted as light skinned. Perhaps you remember my recent article about traditional Thai make up? Well, the women in the pictures are all perfectly light skinned. Here is just one example:

Thai Beauty Ideals

Traditional Thai Make Up

Traditional Thai Make Up (photo credit: pantip.com)

Ad hoc we might say that this is because people generally desire things that they don’t have and which are not their own. For instance, people in Western countries want to be more tanned because the general conception is that one looks more healthy with sun-tanned than with pale skin. In Asian counties and also in Thailand it is exactly the opposite. Since most Asian people have medium to dark skin, they prefer a light complexion. They hold the opinion that fair skin looks cleaner and thus provides a better aura. Well, we might consider this as a trend that also has some dangerous consequences since some Thai people turn to the use of gluta injection to whiten their skin as the following video discusses.

Nonetheless, the roots of the Thai beauty ideal lies much deeper in history and cultural tradition. Hence, it is influenced by the Indian caste system. In accordance to the Indian thought system, the ideal of ‘whiteness’ was very important in Asia even before parts of the Southeast Asian subcontinent was colonized by European nations. Thus, this conception prevails in most parts of Asia that the lighter skin one has, the higher the future marriage partner’s social class might be.

Hence, the idea that fair skin offers social advantages is buried in the minds of Asian women. What is more, we can also argue that light skin stands for youth, health and wealth in Thailand. White skin is further considered as a symbol of high quality and modesty in women.

Ploy Chermarn Thai actress with fair skin (photo credit: baodoi.com)

Ploy Chermarn, Thai actress with fair skin, beauty ideals (photo credit: baodoi.com)

In addition, and this is a very interesting fact, the concept of ‘face’ is very important in Thailand. This means that on the one side, one should not lose one’s face by bad or immoral behaviour. One should rather maintain one’s reputation which is called ‘rak sa naa’ in Thai. On the other side, the ‘face’ (in the sense of reputation) is also determined by physical beauty. Hence, Thai people strive for ‘naa taa dii’ which means ‘good eyes and face’. Thus, ‘beauty’ is a matter of physical attractiveness and good behaviour and manners in Thailand. For this reason, we can also say that the pursuit of beauty by women and some men is a form of empowerment which lies in beauty in order to attain social acknowledgement.

In conclusion, I think we can say that Thai beauty images are mainly and generally about the desire for fair skin and a European look because this is connected with the idea of a ‘good face’ that also applies to the morals of the respective person. Hence, Thai beauty ideals seem to be a matter of colourism.  Nevertheless, we should mention that last year’s Miss Thailand partly shifted the country’s perception of beauty. Hence, Miss Thailand 2014, Nonthawan ‘Maeya’ Thongleng, has been celebrated and acknowledged as a ‘Dark Beauty’. In fact, she is considered as a walking advertisement against the need for whitening lotions.

Nonthawan 'Maeya' Thongleng, Miss Thailand 2014 (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Nonthawan ‘Maeya’ Thongleng, Miss Thailand 2014 (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

The following video sums up what beauty ideals are about in the West and in Asia. They take the example of China but I think the main points generally apply to Thailand as well.

Have fun watching, it’s kind of funny and not to be taken to seriously 😉

Yours, Sirinya

(A comphrehensive insight into the subject of beauty images in Thailand offers Napat Chaipraditkul: Thailand: Beauty and globalized self-identity through cosmetic therapy and skin lightening, Eubios Ethics Institute, Bangkok, Thailand)