Saturday, November 8, 2014

Thoughts on Image Obsession

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.


But in the end, image obsession is not a uniquely Thai issue. True, this particular issue can seem more pronounced here, just like religious zealotry and ultra-nationalism are more pronounced in the Middle East but across the globe people are concerned with image and appearance.

It seems as if no matter where I've gone I've seen the same idealized, photoshopped images of lean, sinewy men and petite women on advertisements. Sure, the ethnicity and skin-tones of the models are different but the message is universal: This is what a successful, happy person looks like and you should look like this.

And sadly, many people believe it or at the very least feel demeaned by it. They see the image and think less of themselves because of a fantasy crafted by Adobe. A successful, happy person with meaning in their life looks thin and sinewy is as common an idea across the world as a successful teacher dresses a certain way and cuts their hair a certain way is in Thailand.

What's even sadder is that many of us already know that this message is wrong, that appearances are often deceiving and that beauty and success are often subjective. So many of the children's movies and programs we grew up with talked about it. Yet in our day to day lives we still make snap-judgments about someone based on how they look and follow standards handed down to us by society.

A friend of mine, a yoga instructor, told me recently about how a new student of hers surprised her. From outside appearances he seemed just an average person to her. Then he took off his shirt and revealed several tattoos depicting Hindu deities. It turned out he had lived in India for a while and was extremely knowledgeable about yoga.

Hearing this story made me realize, I've written off many people over the years based only on how they looked to me. It also made me realize how even introspective and intuitive people like my friend can make those assumptions.

Perhaps, it shows that we humans can never be rid of our compulsion to hold appearance in high regard. We can do our best to remember that a human being is never just a two dimensional image on a poster or movie screen. A human being is not just flesh but the blood, spirit and mind beneath it. Every time we see a person we don't know, a person we barley know or a person we've exchanged words with on multiple occasions, we can think what if, after the first thought we associate with them comes into our mind. I think, this is the very least we can do.

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