In Thailand, the importance placed on appearance and the singular standard of beauty which defines that appearance is a demanding one which pushes many Thais to go to extraordinary lengths in order to live up to their peers’ expectations. While this is exemplified in numerous ways (false eyelashes and color contacts are the norm for women, while plastic surgery is common among both sexes for those who can afford it), the most exigent of these beauty standards, for both men and women, is the value placed on having fair skin. While Thailand is not alone in this (indeed, in most of Asia light skin is a prized quality), the social effects of this standard of beauty are more egregious here than elsewhere due largely to regional and ethnic differences that make already politically and economically disenfranchised groups further pushed to the margins of culture by a fair(er) skinned Bangkok elite. Add to this mix the white-skinned, economically dominant Chinese-Thai minority and the effects of the Thai obsession with light skin are only further exacerbated. In Thailand, the value placed on fair skin isn’t only burdening people with an unattainable standard of beauty, but this standard is also used to socially reinforce an economic and political power gap that already exists on ethnic and urban-rural lines. That is to say, we see a standard of beauty that validates the worth of the rich, the powerful, the urban, and pushes out the rural, the poor, the ethnic minority.
As mentioned above, Thailand is far from the only country in Asia to venerate the fair-skinned.For Vietnam and Cambodia a light complexion is now and always has been prized, but it’s only very recently that either country has developed a nascent middle class with enough walking-around money to have the luxury of giving much concern to the issue. Lately, however, a new skin-lightening industry is developing around Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City’s emergent middle class. Within these new, burgeoning SE Asian economies fair skin is not just prized as a virtue in itself, but the pursuit of it is a mark of a certain socio-economic status. To be light makes you beautiful, but to be making yourself lighter means you’re beautiful and have money.
This project is a series of portraits of young Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, people of all shades of white, tan and brown, with their skin painted artificially white – the cultural ideal pushed to such an extreme that it becomes a mockery of itself.
(click images to see hi-res version in lightbox)