When white vaginas are the topic of discussion it’s likely related to vaginal discharge, the back-end of an STD, or perhaps a yeast infection, the itchy nuisance that most men and women get at some point in life and would much rather blame ‘the heat and humidity’ than the one night stand that began somewhere in a dark car park and ended in a much too bright chemist.
But that’s not the kind of white vagina I have in mind. I’m thinking about something more ominous, the beauty products on the Thai market available right now (here’s the slightly pornographic TV ad), products that have come under a barrage of criticism lately – including a chastising from The Guardian and a follow up piece on becoming a dedicated follower of fanny fashion by Thai social critic Kaewmala in the Asian Correspondent.
In the TV ad for the vagina whitening and cleaning solution a bouncy looking woman struts into a room where her friends are sitting. She’s evidently a ‘Lactacyd White Intimate’ lotion user, and on seeing the outline of her remarkable vagina pressed against her skin-tight shorts the woman’s three friends look at each other awed by what they have seen and offer a muted exclamatory ‘wow’ for us to see. Her groin (the soft imprint of the labia majora, aka ‘camel toe’ – is that politically correct?) is now a thing of admiration, and perhaps – subtextual – envy.
However odd it might seem, I wonder how many adult(-ish) females have looked down when naked and thought ‘Is it white enough?’, now that hue has become a matter of doubt.
It seems that the Mongoloid look is not in vogue in this massive consumer base of South East Asia, where unfortunately the Mongoloid masses live. This is a problem, as much as it would be if black were out in Africa, or white weren’t alright in Dundee. Unfortunately our response to ourselves, our bodies, is often one of rejection, which is tragic given our proximity with it all of our lives. Why is this?
Is beauty always relative to the historical climate and culture? There have been philosophical conceptions of pure beauty. Kant wrote about a kind of thing-in-itself aesthetic that was a-cultural, he thought things could be sublime, picturesque or beautiful, regardless of the eyes of the beholder or the part of history they existed in. Then there’s the socio-biological, psychological interpretation of beauty, i.e. faces with perfect symmetry are supposed to be beautiful; voluptuous breasts offer sustenance and so they are attractive; confident, muscular men make strong babies often with the best survival potential, etc. But beauty as we know it now is unarguably cultural, as much as it perceptual. We are programmed from birth, the media in its myriads forms acts as medium for the most part, and are suckered into a belief in standard beauty as we are counter-punched by numerous other threads teaching us about things such as ugly, cool, sophisticated.
In this day and age beauty is Eurocentric as it has been for a while. Although women with bright red teeth and skin-heads were the vogue in Thailand in the 19th century the standard of modern beauty here has gone through a metamorphosis. Like most of the world, Thailand is hooked on the whims of a highly addictive fashion industry whose epicenter is far from Bangkok. Beauty is also sometimes idiosyncratic, and while the majority of babes in Thailand and abroad want big shapely boobs like the outlaw Nong Nat Kesarin, the white vagina is more a Thai cultural thing related to status. The necessities of beauty, in any country, are often related to status, station, wealth. While boobs are mainly sexual signifiers of beauty, white vaginas are sold as a status symbol. If indeed there is any such a thing as a white vagina…
The paint-on fake tans we saw in overcast Essex in the 70s and 80s were a consequence of the tan being symbolic of wealth. Tan=money to travel to exotic countries. Or Benidorm. It’s conceivable that back then tanned fanny products could have made it into high-street stores.
Just as the Tudors of England from the Middle Ages up to the Victorians painted their faces, not only to hide wrinkles, but because like the modern-age peeps of Thailand today, the upper class with enough cash to stay out of the fields (paddies) and in the manor (office), had white clocks due to hardly ever having to face the elements outside as peasants and farmers did/do. And similar to umpteen percent of young Thai lasses right now who’d kill themselves to be beautiful, the Tudors painted on rosy red cheeks because that represented good health. Perhaps in Thailand it represents good health but also helps to – along with the nose, lip and eye job – fool themselves, and others, that their genetic make-up bears a slight hint of farang. Since the Thai nobility went on their hols to Europe with King Chulalongkorn, European style civilization has been much sought after, and as well as a system of law the King and his team came back with new ideas about beauty, too, so I’ve read. To some extent a national insecurity has been present in Thailand since the great hunt for siwilai began, the Asians are forever playing catch-up to the dominant race which has for quite a while been east of the pacific.
Screenshot from the Lactacyd ad, the money shot
This new product goes beyond social status as it’s not social, vaginas are not public things. They keep themselves to themselves. Perhaps when the Lactacyd girls look in the mirror and stare at their whiter vulva they derive some sense of gratification and a feeling of an ascending self-confidence that is completely internal, or maybe they become more man-jai after their sweetheart says, ‘oh ti rak, it’s so white’. I just don’t see it (many lovers literally don’t see it as arguably a lot of women prefer dimmed or darkened sexual liaisons). Not even the most white-obsessed – I’ve met plenty – women I’ve known I don’t think would feel compelled to whiten their little flower. Maybe this product line has gone too far, as they say in TV, maybe Lactacyd has jumped the shark.
Or maybe for every piggy that stays home one little pink sucker will end up in the market looking for Lactacyd. Create the need, sell the cure. Never mind how far-fetched your story is, if you tell it well enough, people will believe it. It’s economic exploitation, at the root of it is always a problem that you, I, or we have, and the solution is firstly money, and secondary it is the product.
But I’m not the one thrilled and frightened when flicking through glossy magazines, those tainted, dangerous booklets of photoshopped beauty, 100 pages of anguish for seemingly imperfect women. I guess I’m not the target, the exploited, though I am certainly a consumer of beauty in another way. Do men consume the consumed? I can understand why women, pregnant with the fear of imperfection, would break their nose, slash their eyes, scour their nipples and add a kilo of silicone to their chest to carry around for the rest of their life. It’s not easy to step-out of the market.
Perfect is an oasis, and when you think you’ve got it, it’s never there. And so it’s a never-ending process, chasing beauty, following the demands of the ever-transforming, updating, back-peddling market that you’re stuck in.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Nietzsche, in my mother’s words, would have had a field day with vagina whitening products. It was the focus of his work, consumerism, herd mentality, whether we buy into white vaginas or religious rhetoric. He believed it took a strong will to be different, but evolution, progression as a species, depends on it. We have this incredible gift of autonomy, yet we are still the drunken mass, drones, the giddy rabble, easily swayed, buying, spending, believing in what we are told by business machines who intensely study our stupidity.
The vagina whitening crowds might be ushered like sheep into the pen of mediocrity, but imagine being the stray sheep, what an ordeal that would be. How do we remain vigilant and protect ourselves from being exploited, and at the same time not alienate ourselves from our friends, from society, and so become “frightened” or “lonely”, which is how the merchants would hope we will feel without their products.
James Austin Farrell