Skin Deep?

We visit the Thai concept of beauty through the ages and now

In Thailand, the topic of physical beauty - whether yours, ours or a stranger's - has become a huge part of our culture. Like a personal bowel movement, appearance is a casual topic that can be brought up in any conversation. After all, friends and acquaintances comment on weight or skin colour often immediately after a sawasdee.

Applying whitening products, weight-loss treatments and trips to South Korea for cosmetic surgery are some of the extra lengths people go to in order to achieve the current ideal of what beauty is in Thailand.

But has it always been this way? This week, we uncover how the concept of "beauty" has changed over time, interesting beauty-related stats and controversies surrounding particular beautifications that will leave you questioning: have we gone overboard?


We explore what constitutes ideal beauty throughout Thai history.

K-pop hair wasn’t invented yet

84B.C. TheTripitaka (Buddhist scripture) lists five qualities of "elegant and beautiful" women - hair like a peacock’s tail, lips red as ripe ivy gourd fruit, white straight teeth, beautiful and even skin regardless of dark or light complexion, and youthful looks regardless of the number of children.

1500-1600s Ayutthayans (if that’s a word) witness the emergence of white face powder. Before that, yellow skin had been preferred and turmeric was applied on the face and body, until Chinese and Europeans wowed Siamese with their lighter skin.

1680s French adventurer Nicolas Gervaise writes in his Siam travel journal about men and women dyeing their teeth black with ashes of burnt coconut shells. According to him, they believe only ghosts and other spooky things have white teeth, and some consider white teeth unsightly (which was probably more yellow, considering it was the 1600s).

1700s Siamese men and women both sport the unisex dok krathum hairstyle - short hair, occasionally shaved on the sides, leaving the top longer and spread, resembling the krathum flowers. They style their hair with oil.

1897 King Rama V visits Europe for the first time. The King chews betel nuts, like every Thai person back then did, but he brushes his darkened teeth white in anticipation of the visit. Other members of the royal family and noblemen also start brushing their teeth.Wecan’t imagine what it would be like to greet each other with Siamese-stained smiles, can you?

Betel nuts are hot

1932 The first and only Thai-owned sunbathing club closes down. Prior to the Siamese Revolution, the club served as a safe space for members to sunbathe in their birthday suits as well as getting fit through exercise. At its peak, the club has almost 4,000 members and even published a guide to sunbathing. After the revolution, police start to spy on the club, suspecting some politicians met there to plot political stirs. The owner eventually decides to call it quits. Imagine what our Thai ancestors would say if they saw us sun-fearing creatures now!

1945 As WWII ends, the "American standard", aka the American ideal of beauty, explodes in Thai society. Hollywood influences of full breasts, light skin and curly hair become the desired image for Thai women.

1965 Thailand's Cosmetics Manufacturers Association is founded. Six prominent men in the cosmetics business decide it's time to collaborate and turn Thai cosmetics production into a real industry.

1979 Housewife-targeted Mae Ban magazine publishes an article listing exercises to achieve a "rounded, smooth, unblemished" body so you will "not be skinny like skewers or fat like hippos". The article also spends a great deal on improving mannerisms and postures, viewing them as an important aspect of appearing attractive.

1996 Originating in Indonesia, skincare brand Citra claims the title of Thailand's first "skin-whitening specialist".

2011 The deputy director of Thai Department of Mental Health claims the desire to be white is just a fad and soon will be replaced by another while he encourages people to focus more on inner beauty.

2012 Speaking of inner beauty, Lactacyd White Intimate vaginal wash is launched to lighten women's, erm, privates for all you ladies who desire fairer lady-bits within four weeks. Meanwhile, the skin-lightening market in Asia-Pacific, Thailand included, is also estimated to be $2 billion.

2013 Thai pop girl group Olives releases their new single "Suay Suay" (Pretty Pretty). The upbeat song is about girls who are in love and put effort and time into looking pretty for their men.

Let’s bring back sunbathing since we already have Sanam Luang


"The Body Project: Beauty, Brutality and Reasons Behind" (Through Sep 29) is a temporary exhibition at Museum Siam (Tue-Sun 10am-6pm, 4 Sanam Chai Road, 02-225-2777 ext 321) that explores the definition of beauty for Thai women (and men). The exhibition space is designed to replicate a mannequin factory (if you suffer pediophobia, take a deep breath).

Visitors explore the construction of Thai society's beauty standards from the traditional to the "Koreanised" attractiveness our society currently holds. The factory tour ends with a dark, mirrored room where visitors can take a long look at themselves while reading inspirational quotes, reminding them that beauty is skin-deep and nothing to lose sleep over.

We’re born different. Why try to look the same?


Check out these stats on the Thai attitude towards beauty.



We've all seen those ads for skin whitening products: a pale-skinned girl giggles and has the time of her life while men turn their head to see her and be wowed by her beauty. These ads seem to say that women with fairer skin fare better in life. However, there have been two ads that make the rest pale into insignificance and take the racist cake.

Reserved Seats

In Feb 2011, Matichon reported a passenger of the BTS raised issue over an ad for a bottled drink with various controversial messages on a BTS carriage via Pantip online forum. According to the upset passenger, the words " [People with] White skin and pinkish glow should get in this carriage" was placed on the outside of a carriage. And inside, "These seats are reserved for people with white skin," was placed above a seat row.

Many Pantip people were rightfully upset by the ad, saying it perpetuated misguided values in Thai society. Two days after, the ad was taken down.

Try to make your own shade all the time so you’ll have fair skin

Beary Racist

A few months ago, beauty supplement drink Verena L-Gluta Berry Plus ran a commercial featuring a pale-skinned woman "talking" to a brown bear that aspired to be a white polar bear. The ad then reveals the woman was once black and has parents with black skin (who look African), implying that the drink helped lighten her skin (and possibly change her race).

No animals were harmed in the making of this ad, but the feelings of many people were.

I may be dark, but at least I’m cute...


Here are four cases of the extra lengths people have gone to in order to look the fairest of them all. Even people with a high shock threshold may raise their eyebrows over these.

I'll Slap Ya

Beauty is pain and for some Thai women and men, they don't mind being slapped around for it. Khemmikka "Goong" Na Songkhla has taken the art of slapping to a whole other level. She's the owner of Ban Tob Nom (The House of Breast Slapping - what a cool name, btw) shop in Ram Intra Soi 65 and claims she can enlarge breast size simply by repeated slapping and manipulating. She can also alter face shapes and other body parts through the same method. Goong has received coverage of both local and foreign media for her controversial mode of beautification.

In many men’s view, Goong has the best job in the world

Face Off

What would a teenager do with his/her first wad of hard-earned money? Save it for university? Blow it on snacks and video games? Chiang Mai native Apirak Goti had a different idea. After earning enough from designing websites and fixing computers, he decided to fix his face when was only 15 with a nose job.

Two years and 16 cosmetic surgeries later, Apirak had spent over B250,000 in the process of changing his face, including fixing unsatisfactory past cosmetic surgeries, botox and glutathione injections.

If you ask us, we could have spent the same amount on a cool motorbike and ridden around school yelling "Suck it!" before going off into the sunset to find better friends. Or at least, he could have waited until his body was fully developed before going under the knife.

A lesson for us all

Golden Face

The facelift procedure has been updated. These days, Thais are reportedly seeking a facelift procedure called "gold thread lift" that involve inserting gold threads into their faces to tighten them and, thus, appear more youthful.

While using dissolvable threads to encourage collagen creation is nothing new, the use of golden threads instead is very controversial.

Doctors have said people with golden threads in their faces can't undergo MRI scans.

In a Kom Chad Leuk report earlier this year, a teacher warned that the procedure is irreversible and removing them results in dents.

Perhaps sewing and stitching should be saved for your clothes or big wounds, not faces that have nothing wrong with them in the first place.

Another unusual but (much welcomed) way to use gold threads

An Eye for An Eye

Big eye contact lenses are used to make you appear to have bigger eyes, achieving that ab baew look so many girls aspire to have. However, sheer laziness, frequency, unsupervised use of these lenses and low quality lenses can cause wearers their actual eyes, according to various doctors.

Thapanawong Tanguraiwan, an eye doctor from Phra Nangklao Hospital told Manager in Feb 2011 that he had four patients who sought his help because of visible wounds on their corneas. They revealed to him that they have been using big-eye contact lenses that aren't approved by Thai Food and Drug Administration. He said infection can destroy the eyes within one or two days, adding that those with serious infection must be admitted to the hospital. He also warned against wearing the lenses while sleeping.

Cheap lenses can cause you an eye

About the author

Writer: Pornchai Sereemongkonpol & Thanita Phuvanatnaranubala