Vaseline’s Face/Off For Men

Skin whitening products are booming here in Thailand, especially for men.

I took this photo at my local grocery store here in Bangkok. For months I’d walked right past it because I’m used to such ads by now but something on this day stopped me in my tracks. There was a certain grotesque violence here. The dark former-face being stretched out of proportion to reveal what looks to be a younger and certainly a happier face. Might that even be a tear in the former-face’s left eye? My goodness.

It’s common knowledge that when a country begins to develop so too does its people’s sense of how they look, or, rather, of how “bad” they look. Some call it the “fashion stage.” Companies know it well and they have workers who are dedicated to gauging when, say, Bangladesh is about to boom, because as soon as it happens they want to be there first with their nail polishes and their 17-blade shaving razors and, yes, their color-changing products. Bangkok is well beyond this boom. Sometimes it can simultaneously feel like one of the world’s most modern cities and like a complete cesspool. It’s got character and I love it for that. And although I’m not one to purchase too many grooming products, when I do it’s actually tough to find some that are not whitening. Most of the deodorants have a whitening component and I recently saw here on The Guardian that even vaginal whitening washes are gaining popularity. Most of the commercials here either feature “fair-skinned” Thais or are about how Thais can whiten up.

This is a place where the young men are obsessed with grooming. At the gym I’ve seen dudes sitting together on the bench press filing their nails and, I kid you not, I’ve watched in awe on more than one occasion as guys carried around their hair spray along with their water bottle. And mirrors, sheesh, they are like magnets here. Whether it’s at a muay Thai gym or alongside a mall escalator, if there’s a mirror you will find the men right there grooming alongside the women. They’ll be plucking something on their chin or combing their hair.

I posted the photo of the dude above on my Facebook Page and received a ton of good insights. Some pointed out how white people use tanning sprays and beds to darken their skin and many people said how they’ve noticed similar whitening trends in South America. I’ve definitely stayed out in the sun before because I believed I looked better when darker. Which leads me to this: will we ever get used to the skin we’re in? What are the causes (personal, societal, etc.) for wanting to change?

Here is a typical commercial:

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. damn that ad posted is disturbing, the way he beams at having now lighter skin. it has made me look at women beaming in western makeup, or age-rejuvenating ads in a new light

  2. At least how the whitening thing’s been explained to me is this:

    In Thailand (or Korea, in my case), development was recent enough that the collective memory of having a mostly farm-based society is still present. In other words, in the West we’re insulated from farming by almost a hundred years. For many other countries, it’s only been a couple decades.

    Consider this ad from the 1890s, when development was ongoing in the west.

    Basically, it comes down to this. The affluent who can afford to stay out of the sun, and work in an office or something are lighter-skinned. And those who can’t get indoor work get the rough, leathery dark skin that we all know. Light skin is a signifier of wealth in much of the world.

    • Cameron Conaway says:


      Terrific response here. The farming comment certainly makes sense and I’ve heard the same regarding outdoor/office work from many people and it definitely fits what I’ve experienced here. In Korea do most people walking outside try to shield themselves from the sun with parasols or newspaper or whatever they’re holding?


      • Yeah like yr article it was an informative read. I remember a documentary (couldnt find the name on a search. UK channel4 around1999, male middle aged presenter)saying that in one roman time period elite romans would tan themselves. The presenter said it was to differentiate themselves from the paler workers, as eventually many roman workers worked indoors.
        Which is similar to what happened in the West around 1920s. Tanned skin nolonger signified being of the labouring classes, but instead that you were of the leisured classes, who had time free to lounge in the sun while the now pale masses toiled indoors

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