The Thai word for beautiful, which you only use with women and things/scenes, is pronounced like sue-aye, with a rising tone (otherwise it means bad luck). I often hear this word muttered among venders as I stroll down the market alleyways and I like to turn and flash a smile. Really freaks (new) Thai people out when they realize I just understood them sizing me up. If I had a list of top ten words I hear in Thailand, this would be one of them.
What do Thais consider beautiful? For a female, she should be as pale as possible, thin/all around narrowness, big eyes, big nose, young-looking, or basically not too Asian looking. Many of these characteristics go for men as well, but mostly the being western part really works for them here. You could be old, fat, and hairy, but if you’re a white man, there’s a ginormous chance that you’ll be called handsome (law) and your marital status will be the talk of the town.
So, as a relatively attractive, pale-as-a-sheet (I never thought that would come in handy) westerner, Thai people comment almost daily on my immense beauty. This does nothing to deflate my already puffed up ego. Seriously, what am I going to do when I don’t have people remarking on my awesomeness and loveliness when I show up places or do things like, you know, my job.
One day I was working hard on a lesson plan for my kids in full concentration mode, tongue sticking out, hair in a hot mess, and eyes scrunched up when my principal came over to admire my work. Or so I thought. Actually he just wanted to say hello and reassure me of my beauty. You know, in case I forgot or something. It helps my schools’ image to have me there, not just as a farang, but as a pretty one. (I wanted to remind them that I graduated from University and can form independent thoughts in two languages, but instead just gave my patient Thai smile.) My coteacher also informed me that our principal was so happy when he met me. When I asked why, she answered me in a voice that you would think she was speaking to a small child that he said he would send me (the Volunteer the school received) back if I wasn’t A: a woman, B: a good-looking one at that. That’s job security if I’ve ever heard of it. Being young and attractive both helps and hurts having my work get taken seriously here.
Thai people, women especially, go to great lengths to protect their beauty and skin. I might have mentioned it’s kind of hot here. That doesn’t matter if you’re working out in the field, riding on your motorbike, or going to spend 0.5 seconds in the sun, there are a few popular methods to deal with it like: long sleeves and pants, umbrellas, or full ski masks to cover their faces except for a small slit for their eyes. My Thai peeps actually want me to bike the 8km uphill ride wearing long sleeves in 90 degree heat. Seriously? I’ll take the risk of a farmer’s tan. But if does happen, a little unnecessary tan that is, don’t worry, there are more skin whitening creams then varieties of soap in my local store.
To Thais, and many other Asian cultures like Korea, China, and Japan, it’s vital to protect your whiteness like you would your reputation. To distance yourself from the dark-skinned and lower status farmers, many Asians want to remain as white as they possibly can, even if that means bleaching their skin. The whiter you are, the more attractive you are perceived, opening the doors to the kind of jobs that let you remain inside and get paid for being just that, pale and beautiful. This also lets you meet other lighter skinned, (usually) better paid people, and maybe even the jack-pot, a western pale face! A Thai woman told me once that she wanted me to teach her English so that she could marry a farang man. When I asked her why she wanted to marry someone she would barely be able to communicate with, she answered me, my children will be whiter and cuter (worth-loving is the direct translation) if they are half and half.
So whiteness is important to being considered beautiful. Another thing that I chuckle about Thai perceptions of beauty is a little (well, not so little actually) thing I like to call the shnoz. Normal size noses are pretty good here, but if you have a shnoz, it will be worshipped in this country. Many Thai people, especially in the eastern area of Isaan, have very flat bridges on their noses. This is not considered a good thing by most Thai people (compounded by the fact Isaan is also the poorest part of the country, so flat nose + dark skin=poor looking). So the larger the bridge of your nose extends, the more awesome it is. I’m 23 years old and yet the older Thai ladies still love giving me a loving pinch on the nose. I think they want to make sure it’s actually attached.
In America, my hair color is boring, poop brown. In Thailand, it’s the rare shade of tawny brilliance. While my hair is normally wrapped up in a bun due to the heat, when I wear it down, my Thai peeps love to pet it and ask me if it’s my natural color. Dying the normal black to some shade of deep, dark magenta and/or burnt orange is very, very popular here. It’s weird to me, but now that I think about it, I’m probably an oddball in both the U.S. and Thailand for never dying my hair. Needless to say, Thai ladies, just like Westerners, love to mix up the hair color from black to anything else.
As in many cultures, remaining impossibly thin is also an unfortunate desirable trait. Most Thai women are tiny in both their waists and their heights. To say I tower over people here would be an understatement. I look like King Kong’s Godzilla. (So if King Kong was considered average, ha, then I would be Godzilla. Does that makes sense?) While I still get requests for a few centimeters of height, being petite is still vital to a woman’s beauty. There is not much in the form of exercise (mostly because it’s so freaking hot), so diets and ‘beauty’ supplements (aka laxatives and the like) are often taken to remain as slim as possible.
I had the nerve to be born with hips that stick out in the hour-glass shape and for the first time in my life, I’ve been called fat. I read this was likely going to happen before arriving in Thailand, but foolishly didn’t think it would apply to me. I’ll admit, my vanity took a pretty strong hit after that. Even though they called me beautiful, they thought I was fat and big? Luckily, Jeff Jackson, a fellow male Volunteer, came to my ego’s rescue and put things in perspective for me when he explained, Erin, your tallness is so different and unique in comparison to the normal Thai woman, it’s borderline incomprehensible to them. Phew, thanks man.
If you read nothing else in this blog, read this paragraph. But for a country in which most people look similar (dark-skinned, flat noses, slanted eyes, you get the picture), those that hold some uncommon characteristics set them apart from the atypical person and are considered more appealing. An imperative thing to note though is that while westerners are thought to be attractive, it’s their features, not their race, that make it that way. As foreigners and a minority, they only hold the unique facial quirks that many Asians value. Thai people don’t want to not be an Asian person, they only cherish the qualities in western faces because they are distinctly different from what they see everyday and therefore thought to be prettier.
The even more fascinating thing about Thais valuing the divergence in looks that a majority of people share is how much critical thought, the development of self, or encouraging individualism is not valued here. So you should try to not look like a farmer, despite it being the occupation of over a third of the population, but you shouldn’t take part of a lifestyle that deviates from the norm. What a conundrum. I love how much Thais don’t make sense. Perhaps it’s this uniqueness that endears them so much to me.
The last part I want to address is something that is relevant across the globe, but it really stands out to me here. The use of women’s sexuality has become engrained into Thai culture. This spans from the streets of Bangkok and Phuket filled with brothels/’massage’ parlors to high school girls dancing on the stage for a Monk ordination in the rural areas that Volunteers serve in. Thailand has become so well-known for it, when I told people about the strict standards of ‘riap roy’ dress as a teacher before I arrived in Thailand, they were surprised because they were thinking of the bar girls that populate the tourist areas.
It saddens me to think of young Thai girls equating beauty with being ‘sexy’ and that’s a good thing. Yes they have the word sex-eeeee in Thai. The first (and sometimes only) job teenage girls have is dancing half-naked on stage and think of it as a viable use of their ‘assets’ to lead to a steady and prosperous income. Even more sad is that part of it is true. For many women, especially from rural areas like Isaan, there is no feasible economic opportunity given their education levels (that they can’t raise because of the state of the education system there) as well as bearing the fiscal responsibilities they have at home.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in this country was a video recording of a young girl dancing provocatively, bumping and grinding making any stripper proud, in next to nothing on the bed of a truck. My friend’s two-year-old host sister was copying the moves. Her father was proud.
If I could give anything to Thai girls, it would be to help them understand that they’re beautiful already and can have a choice to do anything they want. They don’t have to choose to only be beautiful or go to university. If dancing in their underwear while drunk men jeer them on is what they truly want, go and work it! But they can choose something else if they want instead. I want them to know how powerful they are and can be. I hope I’m in Thailand for women’s liberation to come around. How does that translate into Thai?