Sunday, March 21, 2010

Price of Beauty: Thailand

So, I watched the first episode of Jessica Simpson's Price of Beauty the other night. See my predictions for the show here. I said before, I don't wish the show to fail. But, of course, it was mostly a failure.

Exoticism, check. Americans gagging while eating insects in the Bangkok market, check. Booty shorts with high heels, check.

The most frustrating aspect of the show was how little time was actually devoted to talking about beauty. There were many scenes of Jessica and friends being guided through a Bangkok market by a Thai supermodel (!), getting massages, riding elephant, "meditating," and just generally being tourists in Thailand.

The scene most promising for real analysis of Thai and global beauty standards was a conversation with a woman whose skin had been damaged by her use of skin bleaching products. This could have been a moment to explore the extent to which Thai women desire lighter skin (which the very pale Thai supermodel explained as an effort not to look like farmers). It also would have been a great time to bring up the fact that skin bleaching is a global phenomenon affecting women and men (have you seen Sammy Sosa lately?) from India to South Africa and even here in the US. Does Jessica bring this up? No. She marvels how different skin bleaching is from her own desire to be tan. She says something to the affect that American women always want to be tan. It didn't seem to occur to her that it is mostly white women going to tanning salons, and mostly women of color buying bleaching creams. And that women of color are Americans too.

Another opportunity lost was a visit to a village of Paduang or Karen women. This tribe is famous for the neck rings the women wear (see picture above). First, the Paduang aren't originally from Thailand, they are from Burma. This fact, and the reason they had to leave Burma, were left out of the show. The neck rings are certainly an example of the dangerous lengths women go to meet standards of beauty. The rings actually damage the collar bones of the women and restrict movement. This fact is briefly stated and then Jessica and friends try on the rings, dress up like the Paduang and go on and on about what a real experience they are having. Read an interesting article about tourism and the Paduang here.

I don't feel like I am left understanding anything about the pressures Thai women face to be beautiful - besides the skin-bleaching and the neck rings. I also feel there should be more comparison with US standards, to make the show less about othering foreign cultures and more about uniting us as women. Men are absolutely left out of the show. There is no discussion of any standards for men. The Lady Boys of Thailand were completely ignored, to my great disappointment. It seems the show is less about analyzing beauty and more about Jessica being a tourist and gawking at all that she deems weird.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Price of Beauty: Will They Get it Right?

I'm trying really hard not to let this blog become a wall of ranting against celebrities who go overseas - but there is just so much material!

Jesssica Simpson's new show "The Price of Beauty" is running along the same lines as my post about MTV's Exiled. While I'm excited that there will be a show for young people about different cultures...I'm not confident that Jessica is going to get it right. Pictured here with her stylist and country girlfriend, I have to ask, what can these three really tell us about the relative standards of beauty found around the world?

VHI's article says there will be shows where Jessica goes to Japan, Thailand, France, Brazil, Uganda, Morocco and India. In the preview I saw on another site (and yet cannot upload here!) there are scenes from Uganda in which, of course, they are talking about how fat is beautiful. We see the shocked look on Jessica's face as her Ugandan hostess tells her about the fat=beauty equation. Is this going to be a real discussion on how food insecurity leads to an obsession with flesh as a sign of health? And how in our own culture of abundance, to be thin is to be disciplined and wealthy enough to afford to eat well and go to the gym?

Is there going to be talk of how we always want to be what we are not?

Or is the show going to be a display of exoticism and bored iconic images?

Oh, Africans are so weird for wanting to be fat! Oh look, Geishas! Wow, Brazilian women can really shake it! Swear to God, the preview shows Geishas and Carnaval Queens - hardly everyday women. Is there going to be talk about how, for as much as Brazilian women seem to embrace a wider variety of body types...they still get more plastic surgery that anyone else in the world?

I haven't seen the show as it doesn't come out until March 15. But I will be watching online because, for all my doubts, I'm not wishing the show to fail. I don't have high expectations of intelligent anthropological discussions between Jessica Simpson and her hairdresser while they pretend to be Indians for a day - but you never know what could happen. It could be groundbreaking television, or it could be a recycled montage of international exotica trash. There will be an update soon.