The Obsession with Complexion

It really doesn´t take long. Almost the moment you land you are confronted by it. You clear customs and immigration, grab a taxi, travel full-speed with blasting aircon on the toll highway toward your hotel and you eagerly try to understand the novel stimuli impinging upon you. You notice huge billboards. (Copyright, 2014, Upeka.net. All rights reserved). Condos, golf courses, private hospitals, and skin lightening treatments. Many of them. And then some more. Radiant beauties with pale skin and impeccable smiles advertize their wares and their smiles – and some of the products peddled may even seem a bit odd for Western tastes:

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The next morning you may take your first Thai massage. Your masseuse asks you where you from. You name your country. Silence. A few minutes later she points at her perfect honey-brown skin and proclaims: “piuw dam“ (dark skin) and then points at your skin, smiles and says: „phiu khao“ (white skin). You understand that she was giving you a compliment and you learned the lesson: complexion is important.

There are many historical reasons for this obsession with skin color, i.e. complexion. As in Western countries in years long gone, those performing manual labor and exposed to the elements, i.e. farming, had a lower place in society than that of the „higher“ urban middle class. In the West, the notion that tanned skin was attractive is not that old. One only needs to look at old movies and can decipher that the motivation for umbrellas protecting against the sun was to maintain a pale complexion. The old euphemism of referring to women as the „fair sex“ includes this construct. Similarly in Thailand today, this attribute is seen primarily relevant for women. The masculine ideal always included muscular bodies that withstood the elements, and having tanned or darker skin was more acceptable than for the „fair sex“. In Thailand, this rugged, dark masculine ideal is referred to as „law khem“.

In Thailand, about 15% of the population is of Chinese ethnicity that plays a leading role in business and politics and entertainment. More than half of all Prime Ministers in Thailand are of Chinese descent. While intermarriage is wide, the fair complexion of East Asians contrasts considerably from that of the rural Esan population of the Northeast. Complexion hence signifies background and social class. Another reason for skin complexion to attain such a prominent status issue may relate to the historical conflicts with its neighbors: both Khmer and Burmese have significantly darker complexion than urban Thais.

But before Western readers get excited that their Western complexion is the crave and they suddenly have moved up on the totem pole of attractiveness without any of their doing, it is not the Western complexion that is most highly valued. Rather, it is the creamy, „porcelain skin“ of Chinese and Koreans that is the rage and both Korean and Chinese stars are extremely popular in Thailand. However, the high nose-bridge of Westerners do represent the ideal and countless Thais undergo surgery to enhance their beauty. Similarly, big, Western eyes are sought after and eyelid surgery is also undergone. Luk-khrung (literally translated as child-half), i.e., children of mixed Thai-Western parentage are considered highly attractive, and are definitely overrepresented in Thai pop culture: Tata Young is a perfect example of a successful luk-krung pop icon.
Obviously, almost not one living being will naturally exhibit this hodge-podge of features. Hence, however tempting, one needs to be careful before jumping to conclusions and to simply perceive such prejudices as an expression of elitism or racism. While in the West, especially the US, reference to physical shape and racial origin are avoided whenever possible and the dangers of racism still permeates public awareness, in Southeast Asia, the same sensitivity is often lacking. What is considered as insensitive and immature in the West, namely „teasing“ others for their physical features and drawbacks is still common place and fair game. Calling others bald, short, dark, seems to be part of everyday discourse. Thus, while it is hard to deny that there is an element of elitism and racism in reference to skin complexion, the larger issue may be that of a lack of sensitivity in regards to the full range of physical features and the inordinate focus on physical appearance.

Almost needless to emphasize that the genetic makeup we inherit is a matter of coincidence and not merit, and as beautiful as we may perceive others to be, at the end of the day „time does indeed kill narcissism“, and those who derive self-esteem primarily on the basis of their „superior“ looks often despair when the sunset years approach and these distinctions lose relevancy. One can hope that a bit more compassion toward the diversity of human shapes and shades becomes part of public discourse, and until that day comes, for those who never master the local language this may indeed at times be a blessing in disguise.