It began like an intense high—temporarily numb, heightened cravings and no control. Corn flakes, chips, cakes, it didn’t matter, Rutchaporn “May” Korsuwan, 23, would eat until she felt sick.
“In that moment, it doesn’t matter what promises I’ve made to myself, how good my intentions are. Once I felt sick or my brain calculated the calories, that’s when the guilt hit me,” says May, who would then force herself to throw up. She’d become bulimic.
Western culture has made recent strides in promoting body diversity and positivity through social media trends and in entertainment, but in Thai society it’s still in the shadows. A report by Khaosod English
in 2017 highlighted just how few cases of bulimia go reported in Thailand, with both doctors and academics unable to point to any statistics on eating disorders among Thai women.
What is known is the intense societal pressure on women to be slim and white-skinned. Advertisements showing comical, dark-skinned chubby girls being transformed into slim white-skinned girls are a common trope in ads on TV and public transport, used for everything from coffee to corn chips.
International efforts to embrace different beauty standards have further highlighted local attitudes. When in 2018 Britain’s Cosmopolitan magazine put plus-size model Tess Holliday on the cover, the fashion editor for Thai Vogue described the model as “nasty” in social media posts that have since been deleted.
The dark side of “getting beautiful”
Before May became bulimic, she developed an unhealthy relationship with food and was afraid of it. She was over-exercising to burn off what she consumed. She tried many strict diets and when she managed to drop 20 kilograms in about four months, it altered her hormones. May didn’t get her period for a year, her hair fell out, her skin dried, her social life dwindled and she was depressed.
“That’s not me. I always smile. Where’s that May? How did it turn to this? How did it turn to eating until I feel sick?” says May. “It’s self-harm.”
When she reached rock bottom a few months ago, May sought out a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. She was prescribed the antidepressant Prozac but says it made her feel numb.
“If I’m happy, I’m not that happy. If I’m sad, I’m not that sad,” she says, adding that Thailand offers limited access to quality mental health care and that the subject is still taboo.
“You don’t have to be out of your mind to see a psychiatrist because we need someone to talk to that’s not your mom or family. We need professional opinions. If you want a good one, then you probably have to pay a lot because it’s not so common here.”
It’s not what it seems
All her life, May thought she could never fit the Bangkok beauty standard: petite, skinny, flat and light-skinned with large eyes—a similar look, she says, to Korean singers. May was taller than average, darker than usually seen on TV and she felt she was built differently than her peers.
Everywhere May turned, fat comments and harsh words about her appearance stabbed her in the stomach.
“You would want to go on a diet or do something so people would stop complaining and saying bad things,” says May, adding that Thai people have no filter when it comes to weight comments. “It’s rooted in my head that I could never be enough, even back then I was normal, I still was told I was fat and that I should look skinnier. I could never fit the norm. It’s an issue that all of us have been dealing with: how to feel confident in your body.”
Model and actor Taya Rogers, 33, has witnessed first-hand the manipulative techniques used to portray Thai women as light and white. When she was younger, the half-Thai, half-American model used to star in skin-whitening commercials.
“They put on lighter makeup and used a shit ton of lighting. It’s all smoke and mirrors when it comes to the ad agency. I don’t see why you would want to alter your natural beauty,” says Rogers, adding that she no longer accepts skin whitening jobs because she doesn’t personally use the product.
With her athletic build, bronze skin and full features, Rogers in many ways fits the Hollywood beauty standard more than the K-pop one, and wishes local ads would portray a more diverse array of people. “We are just not there yet. We will get further on accepting skin colors, physical features but weight will be hardest for Thailand to accept and break through.”
“Like any society that’s linked to modern technology, we are constantly looking to TV and fashion magazines to see what the standard of beauty is,” Rogers says. “The Thai standard has been really skinny, pale white skin and big doll eyes. These are things I think are starting to change in Thailand but it’s a slow change. For starters, you can see it with Ms. Universe and Thailand pageants.”
Benyapat “Worwear” Kruenakphan and Panita “Pani” Hummel Roth started Curve Battle Thailand
last year, a competitive reality show to find a spokesperson to represent plus-sized women in Thailand. Each episode set a different challenge, whether it be modeling, fashion, answering questions or dancing.
Patcharee “Goodnight” Intawong, 23, won the first season, which aired only on Youtube and ended last month.
Goodnight remembers back in high school when she gave a Valentine’s Day card to her crush. He ripped it up and everyone in class saw.
“At that time it really scarred me. Even now, rejection is one thing I am still trying to work with. At the time when he ripped up the card, he ripped my confidence as well,” says Goodnight. “I wanted to be this strong, independent woman and not let the past define me, so I decided to apply for Curve Battle.”
The show exposed Goodnight to a wide array of body types and, with the help of others involved with Curve Battle, Goodnight wants to create inspiring and empowering videos that go viral; the first of which would be about things people say larger women can’t do and can’t wear.
“We are trying to change that stigma of plus-size women,” says Goodnight. “Modeling in Thailand is still not that open to having a plus-size model in their agency. That’s one thing I’m really trying [to change]. In Thai media, plus-size actresses, we only get to be the funny ones. It’s going to be a long road for Thai media to embrace it.”
Not only does Goodnight want to be a voice for plus-sized women, she wants to help others break the cycle of mental abuse.
“We never really talk about ourselves bullying ourselves,” says Goodnight. “I think one way to heal that hurt is to listen and also to talk them through and show them you can grow out of the pain. You don’t have to play victim.”
Additional reporting by Choltanutkun Tun-atiruj