I loved swimming ever since I could remember. My father took me to swimming classes every weekend, and I enjoyed the cold water as it is always scorching hot in Thailand. Slowly but surely I got a tan and it never really went away. I also loved wearing bright colours growing up, until the other kids made fun of me. Comparing me to a crow picking a chili (gaa-kaab-prik—a Thai analogy referring to dark-skinned people who like to wear bright colours, like red). I never saw anything wrong with myself until other people started pointing things out. And this was in elementary school, before I learned how to multiply and divide. I stopped swimming, and stopped wearing bright colours. Even so, my tan never went away. I was known as the girl with the dark skin throughout middle school, ai-dam, which literally translates as “black.” Among many other things, they compared me to a tadpole, for they are “black” and somehow “cute.” They knew I didn’t like it; and the more I showed my emotions, the more they taunted me.

My sister would always complain about how dark she was becoming even though she was (and still is) much more paler than I was. She started eating whitening pills, and I asked my mum if I could, too. My mother didn’t support this, but let me eat the pills anyway, because I wouldn’t stop whining about them. A month’s worth of pills at the local pharmacy cost about $40.00. They’d been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so they had to be safe, right? There are many of pills of this kind in the markets, and every one of them has glutathione extract in it. The label promised that if you consistently ate one pill every day then your skin would whiten. I was a very forgetful child, who was busy running around and playing with friends, so one day I forgot to take my pill. My mother scolded me: “Why did you ask me to buy them if you weren’t going to eat them? What a waste of money.” I didn’t know how to answer her.

It wasn’t only my peers who wouldn’t stop mentioning my skin, but also my family members and relatives. They said they didn’t care, but they would still make fun of me. In family reunions, the first thing my aunts would say to me was, “Did you get darker?” as if this was all they were aware of. I just wished to be pale so they would all stop noticing me just for my skin. I turned to caking on whitening cream and sunscreen; I was using Garnier and Vaseline for a while, because my sister was using them, too. When these international cosmetic companies sold their products in Thailand, they would use the whitening remedies as their slogan, whether Nivea, Ponds, or Olay. Their commercials promised that their products worked; they used attractive women for advertisements, too. They would show a before and after pictures. How pretty they all looked after using the products! all white and smooth and silky of skin. Like any other insecure fourteen-year old, I wanted to be beautiful and accepted by others. But that didn’t really work out; nothing happened instead.

I gave up. There was nothing I could do about it, since I remained dark. From middle school throughout high school, people would come up to me and compare their skin colour to mine, just so they could feel better about themselves. Sometimes, they would recommend products and skin care routine to whiten my skin, even though I didn’t ask for any help. The weird thing was, those people never explained to me why my skin colour was so bad and ugly.

There’s a faulty, classist belief that lighter skin suggests that you do not have to work in the fields, that you are rich and educated enough to come to the city and have an office job. Through popular culture in the media, Thai people became influenced by Japanese and Korean beauty standards. Their famous actresses and actors all had light skin. People desired their look, as they represented the height of beauty and popularity.

2137121aTake the case of Snail White, released by NAMU Life in 2013. This is a snail extract cream which claims to grant perfect pale skin (a small 50g package costs around $30). With Chompoo Araya, a famous Thai actress, as the brand ambassador, the product was a huge hit. There were advertisements everywhere; everyone was using it and talking about it.

These products target the Thai audience, and do not bring into consideration other races. Thai people are not familiar with other ethnicities, since it is a monoethnic country with little diversity. So some could be insensitive and borderline xenophobic; hence, it is looked down upon to be dark. Many Southeast Asian countries also share this beauty standard, and I find it to be very upsetting. People in this region tend to have darker skin colour, for we live close to the equator, and it protects us from the sun so we don’t get burnt easily. It’s natural selection, it’s genetics. Why is this deemed bad?

People are willing to do whatever it takes to go against the nature of their bodies. When people buy sunscreen they don’t think about the harmful UV rays, they just don’t want to get darker when they’re outside. When going to the beach, people would wear full body swimsuits to the avoid sun as much as possible. Products that left me dumbfounded were those used for whitening nipples and private areas. There were also extreme cases, where people died from taking glutathione injections—they wanted to become pale in a short period of time, but their bodies reacted in unexpected ways.

It is hard to escape this beauty standard. Essentially it is everywhere and has been enforced for a long time. Thai soap operas are a good demonstration of this mindset, as they are very popular among every class and gender. Those with fair skin play the protagonists, while the antagonists have dark skin.

But recently, Maeya Thongleng was crowned as Miss Thailand World 2014. Everyone didn’t expect that a girl with a dark complexion could be seen as beautiful; they were amazed, because the results of the contest contradicts Thai standards of beauty.

I wish people realized this sooner: how damaging and counterproductive their beauty standards are. I wish someone had told me before how wrong and harmful this way of thinking was, how it fed off self-loathing so that companies could sell their products successfully. I wish Thai people would appreciate their skin more. It’s our heritage, our identity; we should embrace who we are.

Fawn Piyanuch Savantrad was born in Thailand. She is a freshman majoring in Illustration.