There is an ad on Thai TV at the moment for a product that whitens your armpits. That's right. Your armpits. That's all; nothing else. You think I'm joking, but I'm not. It's an ad for a roll-on deodorant, but the main thing is not that you smell nice. Rather, your underarms will be white.
The first time I saw it I immediately sprinted to my downstairs bathroom, took off my shirt and examined myself before a full length mirror. Dispelling immediate thoughts of "My diet starts Monday", I lifted my arms to see if indeed I had black armpits, and whether or not they were unsightly.
Thank goodness there wasn't a TV crew from Candid Camera hiding in the corner. But it was one of those classic moments that ad agencies must be congratulated for - creating a brand new insecurity for me to spend my money trying to overcome.
The TV ad begins with a stick-thin Thai teenager in a terrible quandary. An allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy has walked past and noticed her armpits. He makes a face. The girl is perplexed; why should a man find her unattractive? She's skinny, Chinese-looking and clearly brainless - all the qualities a Thai guy looks for in a girl. Then she realises - her armpits - they're dark.
I could devote a whole column to young women who desire men who judge their self-worth by the colour of their armpits. Far be it from me to look down on a fetish; there was a time when I experimented with feet until I accidentally licked a bunion.
But in the ad, what is this woman to do? I guess that's what she gets for ignoring the recommendations of the Thai Ministry of Culture and choosing to wear a spaghetti-strap tank top on the BTS. If only she'd been wearing an ankle-length long-sleeved traditional Thai dance costume, the guy would never have noticed her shadowy, black-hole-of-Calcutta underarms.
Whatever. Her armpits are dark, that's all that matters. She may as well have buck teeth and a bung eye. But, thanks to some new roll-on deodorant, her armpits are now white and her life immediately changes for the better.
In which situation is a Thai going to show off her armpits? Remember this is the country where playing Spot The Thai On The Beach is no fun - she's the one dressed up to the nines in jeans and long-sleeved top complete with hat, scarf and overcoat as she gaily frolics in the waves. If there'd been a traditional Thai costume lying around the beach she'd have thrown that on as well.
In the ad the first situation is on the skytrain, where Rake Girl sullenly stands holding the plastic strap, thus revealing her swarthy armpit, as the cute guy throws her a disapproving scowl as if to say: "No sex with you tonight - you've got BLACK ARMPITS." Then, after she has used the product, we see her raging away at some concert by a Korean Ken Doll, throwing those arms about like there's no tomorrow, revealing now-lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be white and light to be beautiful in Thailand, even if it's just your armpits.
Forget the red shirt business. If ever there was evidence Thai society is degenerating into complete 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 body part to 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 a natural progression!
I do hope it wasn't western culture that instilled this belief. Or is it the desire to look Chinese? Why do Thais believe white skin is "good" and black skin is "bad"?
For every Thai who says "We are all Thais" there lurks feelings that people from the North-east, by far the more colourful and fun part of Thailand, are inferior to the rest because of their "black skin". Thai guys prefer Northern ladies because they have "white skin", armpits probably included. There is a universal confusion among Thais about why western men love 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 have a form of skin cancer, but hey, a small price to pay for being beautiful. We whities prefer darker skin. Meanwhile, the darker Thais apply over-priced skin creams to be light. Thais and farangs - we are both as crazy as each other.
I have to admit I received a bit of a shock about skin colour beliefs in this country when I first arrived. I guess the Thais were vocalising what so many bigoted westerners prefer not to reveal. The popular Thai word for a person of African American heritage used to be nigg-ro, which you still hear sometimes, an appalling amalgamation of a word which I still 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, one of the leading brands of toothpaste was DARKIE. And just in case you didn't get it, there was a picture of a smiling black face 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.
(Sometime in the early '90s the company must have discovered that this was not politically correct, and the name changed to DARLIE, as one can find in shops to this day - the smiling black dude remains on the packaging.)
We skip to more recent times and what is sunscreen overseas 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".
A dark-skinned pretty girl has a life of parental rape and brotherly incest - then along comes Ponds, or Revlon, or 12 Plus. The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are simply raging for white, while the black girls sit at home in their bedrooms with the lights off, drowning in Janis Ian depression.
If this is truly real life, and what we want our young to believe, then give me bunions any day.