A country of contradictions: body image in Thailand

Shopping for clothes in Thailand is a much different experience than it is in Canada. (Evo Flash/Flickr Commons)

Shopping for clothes in Thailand is a much different experience than it is in Canada. (Evo Flash/Flickr Commons)

No matter where in the world you go, there are always unrealistic standards of beauty. Growing up in Canada, I rarely felt anxiety about living up to these standards. When I went to Thailand I realized that not everyone is so lucky.

The first thing I noticed were the ads for skin whitening products, which were advertised as moisturizers that gave you “pinkish fairness.” In the West we strive for tanner skin. In Thailand where most people are naturally tan, they want to be pale.

These advertisements were shocking to me, because, as I pointed out to one of my friends, the girls in the ads were made to look whiter than any Caucasian person I’d ever met. Often they looked unnaturally pink, as well. Trying to find body wash that didn’t claim to have any whitening qualities took serious effort.

There is a conscious effort in Thailand to emulate the Caucasian look. Tinted contacts are very popular, as well as stickers that simulate a folded eyelid.
Shopping for clothing in Thailand is often a gamble, especially for someone who doesn’t know Thai sizing. Even in major malls, most stores don’t have changing rooms. Instead, you have the option to try things on over your clothing.

This makes shopping slightly nerve-wracking, as you can’t tell for sure if an item will fit you well, if at all. I suspect that this subconsciously contributes to the problem. I know firsthand the momentary anxiety over wondering if an item will fit, but not wanting to try to pull it on over what you’re already wearing.

The sizing is another matter. In North American sizing I wear a medium shirt, but the shirt for my Thai school uniform was XXL. I was prepared for this, knowing that in the grand scheme of things I am by no means extra-extra large, but I can’t help but wonder how it would feel for a Thai girl my size, who is constantly told by her clothing that she is bigger than the norm. Many shoe stores as well will sell only up to an American size 7 or 8 if you’re lucky. Often, larger sizes will cost more than smaller ones.

Thailand has people of all sizes, but it is true that some of the girls I saw there are the smallest I’ve ever seen. On the skytrain I saw a girl whose thigh was barely bigger than my forearm. My friend on exchange from Brunei whispered to me, “Do you think I’m as skinny as her?” to which I replied, “No one is as skinny as her.”

The most intriguing part of Thailand’s projected body image is the incredible tolerance for crossing gender boundaries. I consider Canada a tolerant place, but compared to Thailand, we have a long way to go. You’ve probably heard of Thailand’s famous Ladyboys, but androgynous looks are just as popular. While discussing dating with one of my Thai friends, she jokingly remarked that it was sometimes difficult to tell if the guys she is interested in are real boys. On the flipside, gay jokes are still very present, and there is discrimination against gay and trans people, which contradicts their pervasiveness. For example, gay marriage is not legal in Thailand. This country seems to be full of contradictions.

Having lived in Bangkok for barely a month, two of my new friends mentioned that they had had problems with eating disorders. While I don’t expect them to be an accurate reflection of the general population, it was still shocking that two of the first people I had met had both dealt with this. Since then, several of my Thai friends have said they also know someone who has an eating disorder.

My friend Plubploy is an active, enthusiastic girl, but she wasn’t always this bubbly. She started restricting her eating and exercising excessively.

“I did that for almost a year and lost a significant amount of weight in a short time. I also had a bulimic friend before I had that lifestyle. We were besties,” Plubploy told me. She and her friend fed (or starved) off of each other.

Luckily, her love for singing broke her out of it. The binging and purging were wrecking her throat, and her vocal ability was in the crossfire. She started eating more regularly, and managed to find the control she craved by being a healthy vegetarian.

I asked if she thought the pressure of being the “ideal Thai girl” contributed to her disorder, and while she said it didn’t, she did say that other people’s comments did.

“When you go to university you would hear everywhere along the hallway, restrooms, classrooms, everywhere, you would hear ‘Oh my god I gained so much weight, I need to lose weight, oh my god I shouldn’t have had that food, did you see she has put on so much weight, I need to lose weight.’ Fat and skinny words are all over the place,” she said.

Plubploy’s friend Pakmilan is still in the grips of bulimia. She weighs barely 100 pounds. “About five years ago, vomit became a part of my life – like a routine,” she said.

Every country has its own unattainable standard of beauty, but the struggle to be thin seems amplified in Thailand, and it is enforced through the beauty market and attitudes shared by many.