Light or Dark: We Got Our Skin Sayin’

Chompoo Araya Hargate, a Thai super star, at Cannes Film Festival 2014.
Kim Kardashian on red carpet at the 2015’s Grammys

One of the prominent themes of fashion is its constant change in meaning and value. Skin tone, like style of clothing, is also subjected to the idea of change. The desirable skin tone for women has changed historically as well as geographically. In Black Hair/Style Politics, Kobena Mercer discusses how hair “is merely a raw material, constantly processed by cultural practices which thus invest it with meanings and value” (Mercer 34). Similar to hair, human’s skin tone is subjected to social “cultivation”, which is the transformation of raw material into social use and value (Mercer 38). Since skin is considered as something organic and natural, the disciplining of skin is sometimes invisible and absent from the social discourse. Still, social constructed codes of different skin tones remain prevalent, resulting females to discipline their skin as means of communication and social mobilization. By comparing practices in disciplining skin tone in the USA and Thailand, it is evident that societal force plays a vital role in disciplining people’s appearance. I argue that the different ideal skin tone of women in Thailand and USA explains how individual disciplines body by managing oneself in relation to societal norms to achieve reward or avoid punishment.

Kate Middleton in her bikinis on her private yacht

Skin tone and texture can be used to portray luxurious lifestyle due its organic trait. Mercer further discusses that “social mobility are therefore determined by one’s ranking on the ethnic scale and involve the negotiation not only of socio-economic factors … but also of less easily changeable elements of status symbolism” (Mercer 36). One of these less easily changeable elements is skin; American and Thai cultures essentially associate the desirable skin tone with luxury and leisure. In Theory of Leisure Class, Thornstein Veblen stated, leisure connotes the “nonproductive consumption of time…as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of adleness” (Veblen 28). In Thailand, agricultural work is historically tied to heavy labor and poor income. These outdoor agricultural jobs often darkens women’s skin tone. Hence, those who have lighter skin tone are thought to have the luxury to stay inside to consume time nonproductively. However, American women who have tanned skin are associated with their ability to go on vacation and expose themselves to sunlight. The media often feature snaps of celebrities sunbathing in their bikinis during vacation, creating a role model for women. Therefore, different connotations of bright and dark skin tone in two countries are results of how women consume nonproductive time differently, substantiating Veblen’s theory of conspicuous leisure.

More importantly, social discourse of disciplining one’s skin tone plays a significant role in the internalization of the ideal skin tone. In Conspicuous and Authentic, Alice Marwick mentions, consumption also “includes thinking about goods, talking about purchases, collecting objects, imagining fantasy purchases, and a diverse array of other activities, ideas and engagement with objects” (Marwick 2). These discussions disciplines individuals to desire the right skin tone by indoctrinating rewards and punishments. One of the most significant institutions that inform and reinforce the rewarding and punishing messages is the media. By comparing fashion magazines, such as Vogue, in Thailand and America, it is apparent that the magazine from different countries features models and celebrities with different skin tones. As a consequence of ubiquitous representation of one skin tone, men and women learned to aspire for one shade of skin.

Kate Upton on the cover of US Vogue in June 2013.
Yaya Urassaya Sperbund, Thailand's famous actress, was featured in Vogue Thailand in June 2014. Her lightened skin tone exemplifies Thai culture's obsession with light skin tone. (Source: http://women.kapook.com/view100464.html)
Yaya Urassaya Sperbund, Thailand’s famous actress, was featured in Vogue Thailand in June 2014. Her lightened skin tone exemplifies Thai culture’s obsession with light skin tone. (Source: http://women.kapook.com/view100464.html)

Moreover, compliments and criticisms are introduced to reinforce rewards and punishments in the society. Phrases are introduced in both cultures to associate specific types of skin tone with positive or negative attributes. In Thailand, there is a phrase “ee-dum-tub-ped”,which literally translates to “black like duck liver”. The phrase is often used to condemn females who have darker skin tone. For instance, Maeya Nonthawan Thongleng, 2014’s Miss Thailand World, was the first dark-skin Thai woman to receive the crown. In one talk show, she explained how she was hurt by comments from her friends and even tried to use detergent to wash off the darkness on her skin. On the other hand, tanned skin tone is often associated to positivity in America. An example of this is the phrase “summer glow”, which is used to describe a tan skin that result from exposure to the sun. This summer glow is associated with beauty as well as financial resources that allow an individual to go on vacation.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 10.35.52 PM
Maeya Nonthawan Thongleng during “Wooody Talk Show” talks about being bullied because of her dark skin tone , and how she had grown to love her skin tone. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xhRsuiCqZ4)

After internalizing the ideal skin tone, American and Thai women discipline their skin tone in various ways. First is the consumption of skin products and cosmetics. While skin whitening lotions flood shelves of Thai drug stores, skin-tanning lotions gain their place in the United States. In Becoming Women to the Backbone, Christian Jantzen discusses, “inter- and intra-psychological identity can be experienced and managed by buying and using products generally not visible in public” (Jantzen 182). This indicates that the discipline of women skin tone is not always for the sake of public display. Although skin products do not provide significant results in altering individual’s skin tone, the very act of consumption privately disciplines a woman’s skin tone and identity. In contrast, the consumption of cosmetics to discipline skin tone substantiates the idea of conspicuous consumption. The ability to use cosmetics to naturally modify skin tone reflects individual’s financial capital because this requires an individual to consume multiple products. Furthermore, Thai women sometimes consume whitening pills that consist of “gluta” or glutathione to lighten their skin tone while American women visit tanning salons to darken their skin.

These cosmetics were featured on Elle’s article, “How to Get that Perfect Summer Glow”

Nevertheless, women’s skin tone is not the only factor that connotes their social standing. To make sense of an individual’s social standing, skin tone has to be read with other cultural cues. According to Veblen, “as wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in function and structure, and there arises a differentiation within the class” (Veblen 48). The differentiation within the class of skin tone can be made through engaging in activities that demonstrates individual’s cultural capital. In Thai culture, females with smooth dark skin tone can be seen as a member of the upper class. Still, these women communicate their high social standing with luxurious activities such as eating at high-end restaurants and carrying brand-named handbags. In the United States, these cultural cues also include ethnicity due to the distinction between tanned and brown skin tone. While Caucasian females who have darker skin tone are often associated with high social status, African-American females who have darker skin tone are not. This conveys that connotations of skin tone are tied to individual’s ethnicity in America. Thus, an individual’s skin tone has to be read with other cultural contexts such as expensive fashion items and social activities to identify social status.

An Instagram post of a tanned-skin upper class Thai female in her party outfit.
An Instagram post of a tanned-skin upper class Thai female in her party outfit. (Source: https://instagram.com/p/17wi14m0k-/?taken-by=janetira)

To conclude, the comparison of American and Thai women’s ideal skin tone demonstrates how individuals discipline themselves according to social expectations. More importantly, disciplining women’s skin tone is a mechanism to keep women socially inferior. In Dress Reform and the Bloomer, Jennifer Lad Nelson claimed, “by assigning women characteristics and roles that precluded their participation in men’s activities, society ensured that women would not pose any challenge to men’s position or authority.” (Nelson 22). If women are still continuously pressured to look and act certain ways even in different cultures, they are restricted from the freedom to be an individual. Media and other social institutions need to realize the significant influence that they have upon how men and women make sense of themselves.

Work Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge. (1984): N. pag. Print.

Jantzen, Christian. “Becoming a Woman to the Backbone”. Journal of Consumer Culture. n.d, (2006): 177-202. Print.

Marwick, Alice. “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption.” International Communication Association annual conference, Boston, MA, 2011. Print.

Mercer, Kobena. “Black hair/style politics.” New Formations, No. 3. Winter. 33-54. Print.

Nelson, Jennifer Lad. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer”. Journal of American & Comparative Culture 23,1. (2000): 21-25. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-42. Print.

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