We're all image obsessed. It's true. We all know it is. The truth of this was thrust into the spotlight last year when I was told by one of the administrators at my school that the beard I had been growing had concerned some of my colleagues and the parents of some of my students. For those who don't know, Thai schools often require their teachers to be completely clean-shaven and to have short hair. It's partially a legacy of having an education system designed by the military in the 1960s. The system they designed emphasized uniformity and conformity which is also partially why Thai students still wear uniforms and take part in long morning assemblies.
Needless to say my beard went against this longstanding culture of clean cutness. Even though I put little thought into growing my facial hair, shaving my beard bothered me immensely. It wasn't the act itself which was the most disconcerting. It was that, somehow, having hair on my face made me less capable as a teacher in the eyes of others.
I know other foreigners teaching in Thai schools have bumped up against these standards that to many outsiders seem ridiculous and somewhat archaic.
At our school for instance, female teachers have to wear skirts. At other schools I've heard of female teachers with an ethnic background that makes their hair curly being told to straighten their locks in order to make it look more like the hair people of East Asian descent possess. I've known of male coworkers with long hair who were told to cut it shorter and I myself have occasionally had Thai coworkers joking (though not really joking) that my hair is too long and I should cut it.
For an outsider, receiving this sort of attention and scrutiny on such superficial aspects of yourself can be both amusing, irritating and paradoxical. For a country that has a reputation for being a carefree vacation spot, Thailand can also be a bit constraining if you stay here long enough and work in a local institution. Like many Eastern cultures, there is an emphasis here on uniformity and outwardly conforming to a certain standard of action. Because of this, it's not unusual to find many Thais who, from a Western viewpoint, seem image obsessed. Like in other developing countries, there's a plethora of skin whitening products in markets and stores. I'm often amazed at how frequently I see female Thai teachers at my school straightening their hair and putting on make up.