Southeast Asia's Obsession with Paler (Whiter) Skin

A Brief Note on Southeast Asia’s Obsession with Paler (Whiter) Skin

In an article published online by CNN, we learn that Southeast Asia’s obsession with having paler skin is deeply rooted in the colonial era of the 18th and 19th century. The light skin of the colonizers (Europeans) became the superior color, and the darker skin of the locals became the inferior one.

Thanks to this mentality, whitening products have a huge market in the region, and the evidence is everywhere.

Different brands of whitening lotion line up the beauty section of supermakets. Injectable glutathione shots are more affordable than ever. Peeling creams and skin-lightening bars of soap can be bought in bulk for cheap online.

These products promise to brighten one’s complexion. Being light-skinned is considered prettier, and being fair-skinned is less prone to hurtful remarks.

There are health risks related to these products. Mercury poisoning is one, and transmission of infectious agents such as HIV is another.

Despite these risks, men and women are still buying and using these products.

In Cambodia, for example, a 23-year-old man from Phnom Penh was quoted as saying that he’s aware of the risks, but implies he won’t stop using creams because they make him look more handsome.

A similar trend has been observed in Malaysia and Myanmar.

RELATED: When in Myanmar, try thanaka

Apparently, this obsession won’t go away anytime soon.

In Thailand, Forbes.com reports that whitening creams account for half of the $320 million market for facial creams.

According to a Global Skin Lightening Cream Market report, the market is projected to grow on a massive scale by 2025, which means that despite efforts to embrace one’s skin color, millions of people still prefer paler, whiter skin.

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Thanaka Wood in Bagan Myanmar

Thanaka in Myanmar – Don’t Forget to Try This Face Mask!

At one point when we were navigating through the beautiful temples of Bagan on an e-bike, we stopped for a glass of sugar cane juice. It was so refreshing that we had one more. It certainly helped cool us off.

But you know what else helped with the heat? Thanaka.

Thanaka can mean two things – either the name of a Burmese tree; or a yellowish paste applied on your cheeks for beauty or sun-protection purposes.

Thanaka in Myanmar: From Wood to Paste

A Burmese lady who spotted us taking a picture of bundled thanaka wood came up to us and offered if we would like to give it a try.

“For free?” we asked.

When she said yes, of course we said yes. We took a seat, and the lady immediately started showing us how thanaka paste is made.

It’s not a complicated procedure.

In a circular motion, the wood is rubbed against a slab of stone, which produces thanaka powder. To make a paste, a little bit of water is carefully added. The final product is then applied on your cheeks. It doesn’t take long for the paste to dry.

What is thanaka in Myanmar used for?

Two purposes – as a face mask and as sunscreen.

Also read: Where’s the Best Place to Stay in Bagan, Myanmar?

Thanaka in Myanmar

VIDEO: Thanaka Face Mask

Watch us being made up in the video below.

Using the thanaka paste, this nice lady took her time to draw two leaves on our cheeks. Nice!

Usually, you quickly streak the paste on your face, and it works fine like that. But if you’re feeling a little bit creative, you can draw your own shapes.

At first, it felt weird riding around Bagan with it, but nobody cared.

Also read: Shwedagon Pagoda in August: Watch For the Rainwater Sweepers