‘If I was white, I would win’: My Experience of Culturally Dependent Beauty Perceptions.

“If I was white, I would win”

This quote from a Thai advertisement has recently sparked controversy in the Western media. The Thai actress, Cris Horwang, talks in the commercial about the advantage of having white fair skin, and although this commercial has now been taken down on YouTube and the actress has made a public apology, the stigma surrounding having darker skin, not just in Thailand but in Asia in general, is still a prime concern.

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As a foreigner who has lived in Thailand for many years, the abundance of whitening creams in cosmetic stores in Asia is, for me, no strange sight. In fact, it’s rare to find a moisturiser without any whitening in it. It seems absurd now, but growing up in Asia amongst these beauty normalities meant that it didn’t occur to me until recently how much the Western world sees this particular subject as an offence.

Likewise, when I first moved to Thailand at six years old, there were not that many Westerners living there and often people would stare at me. I am half British and half Chinese, hence my skin is a lot paler than the average Asian girl. Even in primary school, other kids my age would comment on the fairness of my skin, so from a young age I became engrossed in a world that was fixated on fair skin. Everywhere I turned I seemed to see advertisements for whitening creams and pills from pharmacies that claimed to make your skin paler.

“It’s not wrong to have a perception of what is beautiful per se, however, the problem is  that there is still a stigma about it”

One of the strangest memories I have about the obsession with ‘whiteness’ was on a family holiday in Thailand. Every day at the hotel my parents and I were staying at, the pool would be empty all through the day. We were the only one’s swimming in it, despite a whole array of other holidaymakers. Somewhat unsettled by the fact that we were the only ones in the swimming pool, I asked my Dad where everyone was. He simply replied, “they don’t want to get tanned.” Come late afternoon, around five o’clock, the pool was suddenly crowded as the sun went down. This wasn’t a one off. My time in Thailand is filled with memories of people peculiarly going out of their way to avoid the sun at the risk of getting tanned, or of losing their ‘whiteness’. When contrasted with the obsession, in Britain especially, that westerners have with tanning, this seems so bizarre.

Thailand is not alone in its perception of fair and pale skin as one of the highest attributions of beauty. South Korea too are known for selling high end whitening creams, and India’s Bollywood industry is perpetually looking for more and more fair skinned performers. Just about everywhere in Asia people adhere to this perception of beauty, labelling dark skin as an undesirable feature. To the extent that coming back from a holiday with a healthy tan would spark comments from some of my Thai friends that I was “too dark”.

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Westerns can be quick to consider this an issue of racism, or as an abnormal perception of beauty. However, the benefit of dual nationality allows me to see both sides of the story. Or at least the flip side of peculiar beauty aspirations. My holidays in England during the summer would instead mean I saw a bombardment of tanning products, sun beds, spray tans, pills, lotions, creams even sun cream would have tanning solution in it. I suddenly went from being “too dark” to now being “too pale”.

Both cultures have very different perceptions on the beauty of skin colour. Having been brought up in between the two, it can be quite confusing at times in terms of looking at which culture is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. Neither culture is really right or wrong in their perceptions. It’s not wrong to have a perception of what is beautiful per se, however, the problem is the fact that there is still a stigma about the paleness of skin in Western culture as well as the darkness of skin in Asian culture. Sometimes we have to take a step back from our own perceptions of beauty and consider whether what we believe to be beautiful really is so, or whether it is, to some degree, a socially engrained ideal.