By Andrew Biggs
There is an ad on Thai TV at the moment for a skin product that whitens your armpits.
That’s right. Your armpits. It’s an add for a roll-on deodorant but the main thing is not that you smell nice. Rather, your armpits will be white.
The first time I saw this ad, I immediately took off my shirt and examined myself before a full length mirror. Dispelling immediate thoughts of starting a diet on Monday, I lifted my arms to see if indeed I had black armpits, and whether they were unsightly.
Thank goodness there wasn’t a camera in the bathroom. But it was one of those moments that ad agencies should be congratulated for – they have created a brand new insecurity for me to spend my money on.
The TV ad begins with a stick-thin but beautiful Thai teenager in a terrible quandary. An allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy has walked past and noticed her armpits are … dark.
That’s what she gets for ignoring the recommendations of the Thai Ministry of Culture and choosing to wear a spaghetti-strap tank top. If only she’d been wearing an ankle-length long-sleeved traditional Thai dance outfit on the skytrain that day, the guy would never have noticed.
Whatever. Her armpits are dark, that’s all that matters on the TV ad. She may as well have buck teeth and a bung eye. But thanks to some revolutionary new roll-on deodorant, her armpits are now white and her life immediately changes for the better.
I’d like you to pause for a moment and look to the ceiling as you ponder exactly in which situation is a Thai going to show off her armpit.
If I hadn’t seen the ad I’d be hard-pressed trying to work out when exactly a young Thai gets into situations where she has to raise her arms above her head, revealing the terrible secret under her arms.
You are doubtless smarter than I am and thought of the two situations the ad shows us – one is on the skytrain, where Rake Girl sullenly holds the plastic strap, thus revealing her cursed armpit, as the cute guy with the light armpit fetish wanders past with a disapproving scowl.
You can see it in his face: “No sex with her tonight … she’s got BLACK ARMPITS.” Then, after se has used the product, we see her raging away at some concert by a Korean Ken Doll, and she’s throwing those arms about, revealing lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be white and light underneath your arms to be beautiful in Thailand.
If ever there was evidence Thai society is degenerating into madness, then here is your proof.
How did we get here? When was it that skin care company executives held a meeting and discussed the next part of the body where they could exploit our insecurities? Between the legs? No, that may go against Thai culture, which forbids acknowledging the existence of procreation. What about the armpits? Now there’s an idea!
It has always been a personal mission of mine when teaching English to explain that the oft-used “black” and “white” skin should in fact be “light” and “dark”, and while we’re at it, how about laying off this belief that light skin is good and black skin is bad? We in the West have gone through that and believe me, the results aren’t pretty.
There’s a big black hole in the Thai education system that avoids the subject of discrimination, or at least the notion that skin colour should not be a factor in determining who is beautiful and who is not – or, as it seems to be the case here, who is good and who is bad.
For every Thai who says “We are all Thais” there lurks feelings that people from the North-east, by far the more colorful and fun part of Thailand, are inferior to the rest because of their “black skin”. The North, however, is different. Thai men prefer Northern ladies because they have “white skin”. There is a universal confusion among Thais about how strange it is that western men love the Isan girls … how could they? Their skin is black!
The answer lies at Surfers Paradise, of all places, where I grew up.
It was there, back in the 1970s when we were more interested in KC & The Sunshine Band than melanomas, we stupid white folk stretched out on the beach for hours in the vain attempt to get a suntan, or as the Thais would put it, black skin. Because of this, one in three Queenslanders get a form of skin cancer but hey, a small price to pay for being beautiful.
And so, over in Australia, fat white Aussies are trying to go dark, while darker-skinned Thais long to be light. What’s the difference?
The difference, I suppose, is that we are taught that skin colour should not be a factor in determining one’s worth. Now whether we decide to follow that or not is up to us, but at least there is that attempt to educate. I don’t see that anywhere here in Thailand.
I have to admit I got a bit of a shock about skin color beliefs in this country when I first arrived. The popular Thai word for a person of African American heritage used to be nigg-ro which you still here sometimes, an appalling amalgamation of a word which I correct whenever I hear it, whether it be from the mouth of a tuk-tuk driver or a khunying.
Back in 1989 when I first arrived here, the leading toothpaste of the day was … DARKIE. And just in case you didn’t get the meaning, there was a picture of a smiling black African straight out of the Black And White Minstrel Show. I was so flabbergasted I immediately snapped up a dozen and sent ‘em home as Christmas presents.
We skip to more recent times and what is suncream in Australia is touted as skin whitener or lightener in Thailand, despite being the same product. Ads for these products bombard Thai TV sets with the clear message that it’s good to be “white”.
The ads are akin to the slimming centers’ Before and After shots. Dark-skinned pretty girl has a life of parental rape and brotherly incest – why else would she have that sullen look on her face? Thank goodness for Ponds! Praise you, Revlon! The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are simply raging for white.
The black girls are at home in their bedrooms with the lights off, modern-day Janis Ians, cheating themselves at Solitaire.
Let the youngsters have their fun. If white armpits is the fashion of the day, then good luck to them. And at least that girl in the ad got her guy. She can look forward to a long, happy life in a relationship with a guy who gets off on armpits. Be careful what you wish you, nong.