To Each Her Own: Body Image Abroad

Featured, Spa & Beauty, Thailand — By on March 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm

After growing up in the states where tanned skin and toned bodies are the beauty ideals, Lost Girl Adrienne Supino discovered a whole new side to body image. In her travels through Thailand, she learned that beauty is all relative depending on what culture you’re raised in. Through lessons from her Thai friends and her own beauty aisle observations, Adrienne discovered that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder…

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by Adrienne Supino

The process of shopping for deodorant shouldn’t be hard.  Sure, there are definitely certain aspects that you look for in a perfect stick, like antiperspirant strength or scent, for example. Simple enough. But not in Thailand…never in a million years did I imagine that while I lived there, I’d have to scour the drugstore isles looking for deodorant that didn’t bleach my armpits.

As a girl with the skin color of a milk bottle, I found it tough to fathom why anyone would actually want to whiten any part of their body-nevermind their underarms.  But Thai people, I soon learned, strive for paleness.  They hide under umbrellas and palm trees at the beach, slather on sunscreen during the day, and stock the shelves of convenience stores with skin care products that lighten caramel complexions.  These people want snow-white skin like Americans want tans.

Though this skin-whitening craze was baffling at first, it began to make more and more sense when I considered the root of it all. Most Caucasian Westerners aren’t bronzing themselves by spending long hours laboring in the open fields during the harvest season.  Instead, to get our tans we hit the sand by the water or catch rays on a blow-up floaty in the pool.  For white Americans, sun-kissed skin is a sign of health and of having the time to relax and enjoy life. Darker skin for East Asian cultures, on the other hand, tends to be a sign of the strenuous outdoor labor performed by the lower classes.  Lighter complexions mark the higher class professions fortunate enough to work inside frigid, air conditioned offices.

Throughout time, female beauty preferences have reflected prosperity. For proof, just check out the women in the Renaissance paintings! Beauty was all curves. Women that Renaissance men considered attractive were voluptuous and curvy. They could afford the luxurious food and leisure time necessary to pack on the pounds. This logic is followed, even today, in countries such as Mauritania, Africa, where the women make as much an effort to fatten up as us westerners do to diet and exercise. While we invest our hard earned dollars in Vitamin E creams to reduce the appearance of stretch marks, these women relish theirs!

You might think that the “bigger is better” principle regarding weight holds true in Southeast Asia because let’s face it, picking rice under the beating sun burns some serious calories.  But, similarly to Western culture, big and bountiful doesn’t necessarily fly over there.  My close Thai friend, Noon, made this quite clear to me when she would comment on how, after perhaps indulging in too much sticky rice that week, my butt and thighs got really big (mind you, I am 5’8 and 130lbs) and then tell me that we should hit the gym.

Then again, weight training at the gym was out-of-the-question because muscular female bodies are a BIG no-no. In fact, muscle tone was so undesirable that my female co-teachers would ride their motor scooters 200 yards down the street to avoid large calves!

Fortunately, despite my larger-than-average calves, I wasn’t considered ugly, which I attribute to my fair skin and, strangely enough, my strong nose.  My nose was so well-liked that people would actually point at it and tell me that it was “soo-ai”.  When I eventually figured out that “soo-ai” means beautiful, I was a bit surprised (but mostly relieved that they weren’t calling me “big nose” or some other insulting name).  I then quickly discovered that though nose jobs are becoming more and more common in East Asian countries like Thailand and South Korea, these women don’t have the same nasal goals in mind as westerners.  While we are fixing our “deviated septum”, many women in these countries are making their bridges more prominent because, in their eyes, a more Romanesque nose is more beautiful.

It had never really occurred to me that somewhere in this world, some people would appreciate my strong nose but dislike strong calves.  It had also never occurred to me that they would bluntly voice their appearance likes and dislikes. In the US, we don’t voluntarily tell our friends that they are fat and that they’ll never fit into that dress.  My Thai, Korean, and Taiwanese friends, however, taught me that this is quite the norm in their countries.  So though it was tough at first, I eventually got to the point where I could laugh at Noon’s nickname for me: Gafe Doi Chang (literally translated as “Elephant Mountain Coffee”, which was meant to combine my love of coffee with the notion that I just had a “big body”).

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    3 Comments

  • Emma says:

    Great post; it’s always interesting to learn about beauty in other cultures. It was so long ago that even here we were striving to be pale.

  • Jonna says:

    Ahhh, sounds all too familiar to me! Well it should be, as I am from the Philippines. I guess Southeast Asian countries have similar preferences on what is “beautiful.” But I digress. I don’t want to conform to this norm, simply because I love my color, my muscles (I do Brazilian Jiujitsu, climb and run) and my body type. Too often I’ve been told how much I lost/gained weight, like it is a conversation starter. I used to get annoyed, but now I just brush the comments off.

    I hope you can come visit the Philippines some time!

  • you’re the best for posting this! Thanks buddy