Joy Doesn’t Have a Pricetag

Thailand’s idea of success and self-worth seems to be primarily, if not completely, all based on physical appearance. Are you skinny enough? White enough? Is your nose straight enough? If there is one thing I have learned while traveling, it’s (and I know this is a generalization) that nobody seems to be happy with what they were born with.

Think about it…people in America and Europe will willingly place themselves in a radiated heat box just buzzing with skin cancer potential simply to achieve what advertisers spoon feed us is the epitome of beauty- that “perfect tan”. While we westerners pack ourselves snugly into tanning beds and expose ourselves to harmful UV rays in the name of vanity, Thai’s are doing the polar opposite to avoid darker skin. There are countless skin products here with whitening agents, as well as whitening injections, and you will see Thai people wearing sweatshirts or sleeves in the middle of the blazing summer heat just to avoid the sun. I can’t help but laugh as my Thai friends throw their jackets over their heads and run for the shade as if they are Dracula and the sun will literally kill them. 🙂

It’s no laughing matter though, how deeply engrained in their culture it is to hate black skin. This is the start of a very popular story here in Issan:

Once upon a time, there was a boy named ‘Kam’. It means dark. He was very ugly and had very rough and dark skin. His appearance looked like a monkey. No one was interested in him because of his ugliness.”

If your jaw just hit the floor, don’t worry; mine did too when I first read it. This isn’t even a left-field story, it is a very. popular. story. Talk about the sickening effects of successful marketing; this story reflects the mindset of the people. Nearly every ad, every show, every movie has mixed race Thai’s, most if not all with paler skin. White is in. Having darker skin, the skin Asians are born with that we pale people such as myself are quite literally killing ourselves for, is not mildly unattractive but seemingly repulsive. And they are becoming unraveled over the fact they don’t have that same white skin we are scowling at in our mirrors every day.

My nose is apparently something to be revered in this country. I was shocked when the first person admired my nose, said it was so big, and asked if it was real or not. My hand shot up to my face as I thought oh my gosh is my nose really that big? Wait why wouldn’t it be real?  I apparently have a long, very straight nose, which is considered  beautiful here. So beautiful, in fact, that it is quite common for people to go and buy themselves a new nose. I was shocked by the amount of facial reconstructive surgery that happens in Thailand.

I was talking with a fellow Thai teacher at school and we took a picture together. He pointed out my wrinkles on my forehead and I asked if he could make them too, he replied with, “Not anymore.” I probed a bit and he said he had most of his face worked on. He showed me a picture of himself before all the surgery and said, “So ugly, na?” I looked from the picture to him and back again. “You weren’t ugly,” I exclaimed, “but you aren’t even the same person!” He told me he started surgeries when he was 14 years old. Shocked, I questioned him about legality and parental consent and he told me that yes, his parents allowed it and went with him to get work done. He pointed to the crowd of students and told me that some of them have probably already started.

Aghast, I looked at my students’ sweet, tiny little not yet even fully developed faces. I think a lot of people don’t get work done until they are probably eighteen or older but fourteen years old..that puts these kids in about 9th grade back in the States. Not even out of junior high yet and getting facial reconstruction surgery done. I wanted to cry. I wanted to slap their parents for promoting such a devastating self-image, for letting their child think that they were somehow damaged. I wanted to hug them and tell them they are perfect just the way they are.

I used to -and still do, we all do- look at pictures of myself and occasionally think UGH. Someone manages to capture a side profile shot and I’ll cringe because for some reason I just hate everything about it, every time. I’ll see how small my eyes get when I smile. I look at my appaling tan lines or shockingly stark white skin and think how much better I would look if I were just a little bit less ghost-like. I’ll inspect my face in the mirror and curse my mother for giving me those baggy eyes.

But then I’ll look again and realize just that; I see my mom staring back at me. I smile and my dad smiles back.

I can’t even imagine looking in the mirror and not seeing them, not seeing me. I don’t know how I would feel if I ran into family friends and they no longer proclaimed at first glance, “Yep, you are definitely a Hughes.” Your face is part of a beautifully crafted novel of who you are, where you come from, and where you’ve been. Every curve has meaning, every scar tells a story, and every wrinkle holds memories I never want to forget.

This is something that, until quite recently actually, I was never able to really comprehend. Even if someone had told me this at twenty I wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate it. I think this is the sort of wisdom that only comes with age. Rather than beat ourselves up over someone else’s definition of “beauty” I think we need to change the status quo- we need to find joy in who we are, in embracing our “flaws” instead of trying to abolish them. You can try to buy happiness, but true joy in life comes from accepting and appreciating who you ARE and not who you want to be. The more I’ve experienced, the more this becomes a reality for me, and I know no amount of money could pay for the joy you find in life once you stop believing happiness stems from physical perfection.

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2 thoughts on “Joy Doesn’t Have a Pricetag

  1. I was at a conference a month ago, and I remember having a similar thought.
    When I was in Thailand last I went out on a bike ride in the midday heat and our guide ‘Jane’ wore long sleeves like you said, because if you tan, you’re probably poor and working in the sun.
    I thought it funny actually that that had been part of English (1800s) culture. The aristocracy used to avoid the sun, and use makeup to appear whiter for the same reasons, though perhaps not the shades of blue some determined Thai girls achieve. But then travel brought tanning as a souvenir, and fashion changed.
    Maybe as Thais holiday more, attitudes might shift, who knows?
    But that’s not my point anyway. At the conference there were several speakers presenting the results on stress and deeper physchoses like PTSD and hearing voices, of self-compassion based therapies (which give a break from negative mental chatter, and give the users a chance to cut themselves some slack, ultimately to find some healing in acceptance of things outside their control). It’s another approach that’s being developed alongside others like CBT, and mindfulness. The irony being that they all borrow from a secular interpretation of Buddhism, which you’d imagine underpins Thai life and values.
    I guess striving is fundamentally human, wherever you go, and now at least I know I’m not the only one thinking my nose looks huge in profile!

    • Haha it’s shocking what we do to ourselves when what we already have is something loads of other people envy (this applies to people on every end of the spectrum)

      That conference sounds like it would be really interesting! I hope that approaches such as those take flight here in Thailand, I think the negative mental chatter here is fairly deafening at times.

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