March 26, 2001

Wallets, newspapers, cellular phones, books, briefcases, grocery bags and small pieces of paper very often go whizzing by held up in one hand over the head and supported by a 45-degree-angle elbow in Thailand. It’s almost always a woman holding the object and the most amazing part is that with her vision partially obscured, she still manages to cross the street without getting plowed over. It is like a magic system of radar or something. The reason for all of this? Sun phobia. The object being held up is to block their face, even if it is just a tiny part of it, from the evils of tanning.

In Thailand light skin is a sign of beauty. Even Thai men don’t like to be exposed to the sun much. If you think back in Western culture, there was a time when women wouldn’t go anywhere without an umbrella and gloves on. Why? Sun phobia. Having dark skin meant, and still means to some, that you have the misfortune of possessing a crappy job that requires manual labour in those wicked sunbeams.260301k1.jpg This outdoor job also indicates a low income. Having a nice pale face in Thailand is a symbol of social status and attractiveness. This is the reason many people walk around all bundled up in the sweltering sun.

If I were not aware of Thai sun phobia, I might just think that I’m surrounded by stick-up artists half of the time. I once saw a group of people riding jet skis on the Chao Phraya River. Everyone was wearing a ski mask. It looked like something straight out of a James Bond movie. Masked bandits sit in the back of pickup trucks and ski-mask-wearing gardeners rake leaves. Garbage collectors sit high up on their trucks fully covered except for the necessary eyeholes. It must be incredibly hot under there. But you know what they say: beauty has its price.

One need only go look in a drug store or department store to see what I am talking about. Whitening creams, whitening agents, whitening deodorant and whitening soap pack the shelves. There are a lot of cosmetic260301k2.jpg companies out their making a fat buck of this desire for paleness, that’s for sure. Some of the billboard advertisements in Bangkok show Thais that are so extremely pale I do a double take thinking it’s a fair skinned foreigner who has never seen the light of day in the advertisement. In my opinion, the Thai women who do manage to achieve that extremely pale look they long for end up looking sickly and strange.

Any kind of dark skin blotch is bad news. There are almost as many laser surgery businesses as there are dentists. Any mole or dark fleck is destined to go. I have a beauty mark on my left cheek. No problem until I moved here. Thai people have a different definition of being polite, so pointing to me and saying “Fat!” or pointing to my beauty mark and saying, “Ugly!” is just fine in their book. Beauty mark to ugly mark, just like that!

Despite these major cosmetic flaws on my part, I have amazingly pale skin. Imagine the distress I cause when I choose to sit in260301k3.jpg the sun and bake myself to a nice dark brown! Despite warnings about skin cancer, it is still hip to be tan in the West. Thai people fight off sunbeams with all their might while tourists bask in it and usually end up catching their return flights with nice crispy red skin. This is certainly bewildering to the Thais. Why would someone wish to return after a nice vacation looking like a poor manual labourer?

I once went on an elephant and rafting trip on the border of Burma. It was one of the brightest and hottest days of the year, at least 40 degrees Celsius. This very gentle looking young man had brought his fashionable girlfriend with him. Everyone rode on the elephants with delight while she hid under a canopy of shirts. He steered the bamboo raft all by himself while she tucked herself under a pile of clothing in a vampire-like fear of the light. Her gloved hand clutched a bottle of 45-protection sunscreen at all times.

My friends and I observed this whole show for the entire day. She was miserable. The consensus among our group? That boyfriend of hers was going to be in even bigger trouble when they got home. Probably he would not even be her boyfriend anymore.

Different strokes for different folks. Despite all of the free advice I have received on getting that ugly beauty mark removed, it’s still there. While I cook in the sun others, hide in the shade. While I wash my hands in the bathroom, a row of Thai women stand armed with talcum powder and puff it all over their face. If it puts more strut in their step, why not?

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