Matt Smith

White or wrong?

The strange fixation that Thai people have with white skin.

This month, I wanted to talk about the fixation Thai people have with white skin. Why is it, I mean, that when we search through Thailand’s cultural products – that is, when we look at how beauty is represented in the media, in literature, in people’s popular perceptions and so forth – that we so overwhelmingly see that white skin is thought of as more beautiful? In fact, there can be no understating just how much better white skin is thought to be – the preference for white skin is such that we can quite fairly say that people who are of a darker skin cast suffer a certain stigma in Thai society, or are generally thought less of and enjoy fewer opportunities in life than their lighter counterparts. You’ve all seen it, I mean – advertising banners with slogans like ‘White or Wrong’ only achieve their impetus when in the common mindset there is sufficient direct experience of the disadvantages of being dark-skinned to validate the claim. Or, that is to say, are only so prominently shown around the place – and we all know Thailand is awash with these types of advertising sentiments – when there is sufficient common agreement with them to make them commercially viable.

So firstly, then, is there a scientific basis for this idea that white is better? And the answer to that is, as we have been scientifically sure of for sufficiently long enough now to see that we’re faced with a serious problem in terms of people’s widespread inability to see this, ‘NO’. At the end of the 19th century, while looking for the facial characteristics of criminals, the notorious racist Francis Galton made a very serendipitous discovery – he discovered, by overlapping pictures of people, that when you put them on top of one another the image became progressively more beautiful. Thus showing, of course, seeing as the same holds true today, that what the brain finds naturally beautiful are the average set of features it detects amongst the people it primarily encounters. Furthermore, there are some scientists who suggest now that what the brain finds beautiful are features that are easily processed by our facial recognition software – it’s geared towards the average, and in addition I find this idea appealing because I have met many people who at first I didn’t find attractive, but who as I grew to knew them increasingly became more beautiful in my eyes. In fact the whole Asian population are like this – when I was first turfed out of white Australia as a kid and came to Thailand, I couldn’t imagine having an Asian girlfriend as they all looked really strange. Suddenly, after about six months, I completely changed my mind about this, and as you know I am married to an Asian (Korean) woman today. Ring a bell for anyone?

The point being, anyway, that what we should naturally prefer, in a world that wasn’t tilted by the power of human manufactured information and if we were completely bereft of the power to make conscious decisions about these things, is the average skin colour that we see about us. Which, for Thai people as a whole, is most definitely not snow white. I think we can fairly throw in the argument too, whilst we’re talking about natural phenomenon, that one would imagine that humans would be inclined to think that healthy is beautiful – and, of course, we know that in a tropical environment, a darker cast of skin is more advantageous. If you don’t believe this, by the way, you need to have a look at a chart of human skin colour distribution around the world today – higher rates of mobility have taken away from the effect of late just a little, but you can still clearly see that when populations were less mobile skin colour went from black to white moving away from the equator. Why? Well obviously, because this was what nature preferred. And of course what nature prefers, because otherwise this would have long since meant the end of us, at least in these types of cases, is better.

One would imagine, in other words, if we’re going to blame this one on nature, that Thai people would in fact think that a darker cast of skin is better. But they don’t, completely contrary to what logic dictates they covet a fair complexion. So you can see culture at play – we must say that there are reasons that popular perception diverges so greatly from what we should expect, and of course when we do that we see there are a number of cultural inputs we can blame. First and foremost, I would suggest, there is the fact that traditionally, the rulers of tropical Asia have swept in from the north, where power has accumulated, quite likely in many cases to take over the helm of darker indigenous populations – you can see in my country, Australia, that European settlers didn’t say ‘wow, these Aboriginals people’s skin is well suited to the sunlight here, they look great’, they said ‘oh, they look different to us, we’re certainly the most beautiful, and these guys look dirty, black and ugly’. In fact, there was a great degree of inevitability to this – conquerors don’t feel as good about killing, subordinating and/or enslaving people they have a positive perception of, and are generally not as unfettered publicly to do this, as they do people who are seen negatively, and so bolstering what conquering people have made of the sudden difference in the average features with which they are surrounded when they enter a cross-cultural continuum there has always been this element that gives the outcome this particular flavour…if you know what I mean, I’m just saying that one of the seminal principles of cultural theory is that social convenience inclines colonisers to look down on their subject races. Over time, of course, because elites often have moved in from the north, you can see where this kind of momentum could most definitely have lent to the perception around these parts that white skin is better.

Closely following which point, we then need to imagine the differences in personal beauty between people who lived a courtly life in the past and peasants, and the correlation between this and skin colour – if you were a court woman, I mean, well fed, parading around all day under a parasol, and never lifting a finger to do any hard work, on average we might imagine that your beauty could firstly be better decorated (more time and money were available to do this), and secondly better preserved, than a woman who lived a hard agricultural life – this much, I mean, is obvious. And, considering that the same agricultural life that would precipitate a greater degree of wear and tear on the female body also would make peasant women get much darker skin than court women, you can see how in people’s eyes white would come to be thought of as more beautiful. Acting on this dynamic, in fact, is that white skin would become thought of as a symbol of social status, and would thus become socially desirable – everyone who stood the slightest chance of doing so would want to look beautiful and rich, and being white in colour would form a fundamental part of achieving this aspiration. Never mind, of course, that there is a huge degree of injustice associated with the fact that the same grossly unequal conditions that made one woman wear out more quickly than another further cast the victims of this social situation in a negative light – this becomes overlooked in the very one-sided position that people are encouraged to, through the machinations of cultural power, adopt in these matters.

And finally, of course, we should never underestimate the power of Western media in bolstering these perceptions. The fact is, there are millions of people who buy beauty products in Asia, and if a Western company can sell some, because the profit margin for clothing, accessories and cosmetics is so high (I used to work, for example, at a place that manufactured creams, and what costs a dollar fifty to make out of recycled oil from fast food deep-fryers and a few ‘essential’ oils can, if people are sufficiently enamoured of the brand, be sold for a hundred times that), there are huge fortunes to be gained. If, however, one is to develop a range of products to suit a non-Western style of beauty, it’s going to be much more expensive to manufacture, market and sell than if you could just sell everyone the same thing – the West’s access to and power over the global mass media is such that it is in fact easier and more profitable to go with nature, and to change people’s perceptions with constant informational bombardment, than it is to worry about entering into any degree of specialisation. In other words, it is very easy to, through the mass media, get everyone to aspire to Western beauty norms, one of which is white skin (actually, in the case of the Thais, to play on their cultural affinities for white skin in the first place) – then, the same products that are sold in the West can just as easily be sold in the East.

Now I could quite naturally go on to say that people who aspire to the ways of Western culture, in developing Asia have often profited personally and considerably from this move, and that again not only do they choose to look like Western people they acquire the power to (overcome obvious criticism and) say their ways are best in doing so – I think, though, that when you look back you will find I have covered this point in general already. The main thrust of what I want to say here, of course, as I am constantly trying to tell my students, who tragically rub skin-whitening cream on for all they’re worth, is when you think about it there is no good reason why Thai people should, in the modern day, be of the opinion that white is better – if the things I’ve covered here form the foundations of the perception, I’d say that Thai people should definitely be inclined to re-examine it. It casts a negative light on the Western media (again) too – basically, the finger we should point here is that they are encouraging very dubious ideas, or ideas that are scientifically unsound and obviously very damaging in social terms, for the purposes of profit. Maybe you, too, like me, take exception to this idea, that black skin colour should be so undesirable that one has to anoint oneself, or even chemically treat oneself, with dangerous potions on a daily basis – if you do, and you think you can add to the picture, why don’t you drop me a line?


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