Bigger Than Boxes: Beauty as a Cultural System In Thailand

Bigger Than Boxes presented by GAD (Gender and Development Committee)
Olivia Dawson, 129 YinD

Beauty ideals – how we navigate them, perform them, and express them – reflect everything from cultural ideologies and ingrained stereotypes to economic power systems. How Thai women navigate the beauty ideals they enforce, are subjected to, and uphold, in turn embodies cultural notions about regional differences, as well as bigger cultural institutions like Buddhism, gender dynamics, and the urban/rural divide.[1] With this starting point, we will come to understand part of what drives beauty standards in the communities we serve using a multidisciplinary framework. While researching this article, effort was made to access academic perspectives from Thai nationals; as such, emphasis will be given to their research and understanding to the beauty systems here in Thailand. While regional differences will be discussed, these do overlook Muslim communities and aspects of Southern culture concerning expressions of beauty. This caveat is necessary, because while regionalism is addressed here, each of us as volunteers navigate our own specific micro-culture and norms, which are different in each community.

Building off of last months’ article, the following paragraphs delve into the system of beauty Thai youth navigate and seek to give readers an understanding of that system so they can better address it. It is worth noting,  that addressing beauty standards effectively in daily conversation or through lessons is valuable, but doing it in a way that is sensitive to Thailand’s unique cultural system is necessary to further understand our communities and students.

Thailand operates within a globalised world, resulting in a “transnational racialised economy” where beauty (its consumption and expression) is intertwined with notions of whiteness, economic success, and modernity/development.[2] While Thailand has been able to gain global capital since the 1980s, there are wide disparities between those living in urban cities and rural villages. We as volunteers operate in the rural villages, whereas exponential numbers of young women move to urban cities to work in “export-oriented manufacturing and service industries.” [3] With this in mind, it is important to be aware that the system of beauty Thai women navigate is different based on class, region, age, and desire for mobility. Basically,  the young women in the communities we serve navigate this system differently than the youth in Bangkok might.

Furthermore, the communities of women we serve have a different way of accessing the wealth and opportunity associated with modernity through the sale and consumption of makeup. Makeup, for the last 40 years, has been an acceptable way for rural women to express themselves publicly. You may have seen many  younger women in your community selling beauty products either at the market or through social media outlets like Instagram and Facebook. Youthscapes: The Popular, The National and The Global, chapter on Thai young women’s transnational ideas of beauty, includes an ethnography on the door to door sale of products within a small Northern Thai Village. In this rural Northern context, young women selling beauty products translates to an expression of social, economic and moral status – the sale of these products is an acceptable way to gain expendable income, because it is much like the sale of wares at the market that their mothers and grandmothers before them participated in. It is also perceived as “moral,” since it is not associated with sex work. At its most essential, the sale of these beauty products equates a distancing from rural life, which gives young women financial savvy and opportunities to travel, resulting in the young women becoming closer to the global world: “Girls have created a way to bring ‘city life’ to the village through their quest to transform themselves into successful and desirable women” (86). For these women to gain access to the upward mobility that is moving to the city, they must align themselves to this system through the sale and consumption of makeup. While young women become active members in a booming international beauty economy, it is not without the cost of employing Westernized beauty standards and whiteness as synonymous with being both cosmopolitan and modern. (Please reference last month’s article for an in-depth discussion of the intersection of media and the consumption of whitening beauty products.)

For the young women we teach, the embodiment of beauty is also an expression of power via social acceptance, saving face concept, and Buddhist virtue. Whole books can be written about the interaction between beauty norms and Buddhist religious theory. This being said, the strain of Buddhism we see in our communities tends to leave women little access to make merit beyond tamboon and daily praying at the temple. In most parts of Thailand, women cannot become monks; therefore, being seen as virtuous is the embodiment of feminine Buddhist virtue. Fundamentally, being virtuous through being “beautiful” or conforming to beauty standards is one of the few ways women can participate and gain access to moral and religious life in the village. [4]

Thai femininity, however, “has been portrayed such that many dark-skinned Thai women are commonly stereotyped as being of low class, with a rural background and suspicion of possible involvement with prostitution, whereas fair-skinned women are stereotyped as being upper or middle class and sexually subtle.”[5] This also relates into a regional prejudice in beauty standards towards Issan women, because they are perceived as being un-urbanized and low-wage labourers. Issan women are stereotyped as having specific facial features that do not conform to what is considered beautiful (a larger jaw and wide nose) and skin tone. The result of this prejudice can be seen in statistics referenced in last months article; additionally, “according to a University of Khon Kaen poll of 500 respondents in 19 provinces in Northeastern Thailand, 75% wished to undergo the rhinoplastic surgery.”[6] The equating of light skin tone and specific facial features with more job opportunities predominate among Issan women further distances them from being able to access the job market and creates a further divide in regional access to income.[7] It puts more pressure on them to conform to unreasonable beauty practices, like skin lightening and plastic surgery. In this way, beauty standards are a form of gatekeeping, and the inability to conform to them means the young women unable to do so are less upwardly mobile.

So what does it mean that the consumption and sale of makeup, as well as the ability to embody beauty standards, is deeply linked to the economic wellbeing and social status of the young women in our communities? One source suggests that this link, as shown in the media:

“not only highlights women’s increasing economic independence, but also normalizes an individual’s decision to beautify oneself. To some extent, the emphasis on personal beautification is made commercially as a natural prerequisite for being successful in life […] can therefore be read as an attempt to reinstate a patriarchal vision of ideal femininity, emphasizing that beauty is obligatory for women’s accomplishments.”[8]

In other words, the embodiment of beauty and rigid feminine ideals is linked to our female students’ economic outcomes through its commodification as personal capital. The young women we teach navigate a world where they have increased economic independence, but they also see this independence as inextricably related to their outer appearance. Notions of what is successful and virtuous, modern and urban, rich and poor are tied to the feminine expression of beauty. Keeping these perspectives in mind, does this change how you plan to create opportunities for young women in your community? How does this information change how you will approach the almost daily conversations we as volunteers face about beauty?

Click here to find a classroom activity pertaining to this topic.


[2] Aren Z. Aizura (2009) Where Health and Beauty Meet: Femininity and Racialisation in Thai Cosmetic Surgery Clinics, Asian Studies Review, 33:3, 303-317, DOI: 10.1080/10357820903153707


[4] Chaipraditkul N (2013) Thailand: beauty and globalized self-identity through cosmetic therapy and skin lightening. Ethics Sci Environ Polit 13:27-37.

[5] Chaipraditkul N (2013) Thailand: beauty and globalized self-identity through cosmetic therapy and skin lightening. Ethics Sci Environ Polit 13:27-37.

[6] www. siamturakij. com/ home/ news/ display_ news. php? news_ id= 413339203

[7] Chaipraditkul N (2013) Thailand: beauty and globalized self-identity through cosmetic therapy and skin lightening. Ethics Sci Environ Polit 13:27-37.



1 reply »

  1. Wow. That is a powerful, well-written article. Thank you for bringing this all to light in such a thoughtful and intelligent way – it feels like a lot to tackle for young Thai women – your questions at the end are pertinent, yet I don’t think I have a good answer.


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