White Obsession

Billion Dollar Lotion Industry Fuels Insecurities

Photo Erin Sparks

BANGKOK, THAILAND—Westerners on vacation in Thailand usually get stoked on laying out in the sand at tropical island beaches and getting a sexy tan.

But Thai people avoid the sun like a kiss of ray is going to sabotage their life. And it just might.

In Thai culture, skin colour is an indication of which class one belongs to. Having pale, white skin is considered a physical trait of superiority.

To Bangkokians, having tanned, dark skin insinuates that the person is of a lower class which has to do manual labour outside to make a living.

Usually, most of this “lower class” are from Northern Thailand or Laos, and are referred to as Isaan.
Men and women of all economic backgrounds carry umbrellas with them to protect their skin from garnering any colour. Some even go through extreme lengths to protect their face from browning by wearing full masks and long sleeves. This can be a discomfort when the average temperature is 30 degrees and sunny.

“Originally, [Thais] preferred yellow skin to white skin,” said professor Anucha Thirakanont to Philip Cornwel-Smith, editor of Time Out Bangkok.

Anucha added that during the Ayutthaya period, Chinese and Western traders influenced traditional Thai beauty.
“They were always pale so [that is when] Thais started putting white powder on their face and body.”

Before, yellow-white skin was preferred.

White face make-up—so much that it makes one’s face look like a porcelain doll’s—is essential for women when dressing up for lavish High Society parties. Men splotch prickly heat powder all over their face and body to keep cool and protect themselves from tanning.

According to a collection of essays called Very Thai, about $1.7 billion baht—or $56 million CAD—is spent annually on skin whitening creams that have not been proven to add extra whiteness to one’s natural skin colour, but only to merely restore it. These creams are often poisonous.

Though the Thai demographic demands a product that willgive them a fairer complexion, is it ethical for companies to
market something that is perpetuating classism in South East Asia?

Brands like Nivea, owned by Beiesdorf Group, who promise “desirable white skin” upon use of their cream, are international companies.

Their unique International reach, spending power and pool of talented marketers gives them the chance to alle-viate this blatant problem in Thailand.

Of course it would be dumb for a company to ignore the societal buying trend, but would it kill profits that much to launch the same marketing campaign in Western countries where a product like that would be intolerable? In Canada, Nivea’s slogan is, “your everyday partner for normal to mixed skin.”

The perk of being a consumer is choice, so why not let them have it?

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 18, published January 11, 2011.