These questions/statements were drilled into my mind before I ended up wearing dental braces mainly for aesthetic purposes. Peer pressure and demanding beauty standards brought orthodontics to my attention. It was such a painful three-year period wearing braces along with eight tooth extractions and speech and eating difficulties. Afterwards, apart from my heightened self-confidence to smile and speak, my facial appearance also improved. However, I still need to wear a removable retainer for the long term. I asked my mother why my father does not need to get his teeth fixed despite his short chin. She responded that females, unlike males, are hugely judged for their looks. As Gill (2007) writes, in comparison to men, women are incited to monitor and alter themselves more significantly.
Being deemed a symbol of high social status in Thailand, wearing dental braces has come into prominence among Thai people. Its average cost is around £1,000. Different from cosmetic surgery, orthodontics is considered hardly controversial in the country. After wearing braces for 2-3 years, most patients have to wear removable retainers for a few years or even forever. Like mine, orthodontic cases involving tooth extraction(s), which are common in Thailand, usually result in a decrease in face sizes. According to Pongsupot and Sunthornlohanakul (2019), over half of southern Thais express a great desire for orthodontics, with the majority being female. Crucially, many teenagers and young adults are internally motivated to seek these treatments: for them, beauty norms outweigh referrals from parents or dentists (Pongsupot and Sunthornlohanakul, 2019).
The prevalence of orthodontics in Thailand may be surprising for some non-Thais, because the country has Buddhist images. Tomalin (2007) stresses that Buddhism guides individuals not to heavily crave for material goods to pursue happiness. Yet, since the rise of capitalism, the investment in consumer culture to boost social status in line with the feudal system has been obvious in Thailand (Suwanlaong, 2006; Chintanalert, 2018). As Elliott (2008, p. 8) puts it, “today savvy consumers are not only focused on the purchase of select goods or services, but they also compulsively purchase the improvement of the self through the buying of enhanced body parts”. Accordingly, Thailand has been the most popular country in the Southeast Asian region regarding more extreme practices, i.e. cosmetic surgery (Tonglert, 2016; Jaisuekul and Teerasu, 2017). Many Thai women have undergone nose jobs, double eyelid surgeries, and breast augmentations. Some even flew to South Korea, the capital of cosmetic surgery, primarily for facial surgical procedures.
Turning back to my orthodontic experience, after engaging in feminist literature, I realised that I had unavoidably subscribed to the ever-narrower patriarchal aesthetic standards that both empower and oppress women. From my perspective, empowerment refers to how women falsely represent themselves as freely choosing to achieve certain goals. To be sure, women’s beautiful looks are equated with a positive sense of self (Widdows, 2018), high trustworthiness (Langlois et al., 2000), and large income (Hamermesh and Biddle, 1994). In Thailand, the mainstream media highlight that physical attractiveness is of vital importance for women’s success in both their personal and professional lives (Singhakowinta, 2014). As mentioned, this experience gave my self-confidence a boost.
However, from the feminist viewpoint, even though languages around unequal gendered power relations have sometimes been ignored in recent years (Gill, 2019), aesthetics still puts more pressure on women than on men. As a feminist researcher, whenever I use Instagram, a photo-oriented platform highly prevalent in Thailand, I feel that my appearance is flawed. The reason is that most Thai female Instagrammers share glamorous images of themselves. This is consistent with the conclusions Riley and Scharff (2012) draw from their research participants who declared themselves as feminist but fail to stop engaging in body work in pursuit of unrealistic beauty ideals. The ideals are strengthened by the widespread presence of digitally altered photos on the media. These feminists think they would feel socially isolated unless they beautified themselves (Riley and Scharff, 2012). Furthermore, as Stuart and Donaghue (2011) discover, some females choose toperform certain practices outside accepted standards of beauty, not wearing make-up for instance. They are, nonetheless, socially compelled todo other things, such as hair removal, in the quest for such beauty ideals mainly to compete with other females (Stuart and Donaghue, 2011). Both of these studies resonate with Widdows’s (2018) claim that completely avoiding doing aesthetic practices will be regarded as letting oneself go, “as appearance becomes more prominent, as culture becomes increasingly visual and virtual, … as technological fixes become accessible and affordable and as the beauty ideal functions as an ethical ideal” (Widdows, 2018, p. 211). Although males are incited to be nice-looking and muscular, they are universally less oppressed by aesthetic standards and therefore undergo cosmetic surgery to a lesser extent (International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 2018). As noted earlier, Thai women greatly aspire to have orthodontics for aesthetic purposes compared to men.
Hence, I claim that there is no such thing as absolute freedom in respect of women’s beauty, because their lives are bound up with unattainable patriarchal aesthetic ideals. That said, my ultimate hope is to see the Thai society in which people more seriously take into account the ubiquity of the so-called lookism, in order that women are far less judged for performances of body work.
Atisook, P. and Chuacharoen, R. (2014) ‘The Relationship between Demand and Need for Orthodontic Treatment in High School Students in Bangkok’, Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 97 (7), pp. 758-766.
Pongsupot, S. and Sunthornlohanakul, S. (2019) ‘Relationship between Type of Patient Motivation and Severity of Orthodontic Treatment Need: A Study in Hat Yai, Songkhla, Thailand’, Journal of the Dental Association of Thailand, 69 (4), pp. 410-416.
Riley, S.C.E. and Scharff, C. (2012) ‘Feminism versus femininity? Exploring feminist dilemmas through cooperative inquiry research’, Feminism and Psychology, 23 (2), pp. 207-223.
Singhakowinta, J. (2014) ‘Media Valorization of Feminine Beauty in Thai Public Discourse’, Kasetsart Journal (Social Science), 35, pp. 337-345.
Stuart, A. and Donaghue, N. (2011) ‘Choosing to conform: The discursive complexities of choice in relation to feminine beauty practices’, Feminism and Psychology, 22 (1), pp. 98-121.
Suwanlaong, S. (2006) Historical Development of Consumerism in Thai Society. PhD Thesis. Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität. Available at: https://d-nb.info/990673138/34 (Accessed: 3 May 2020).
Tomalin, E. (2007) ‘Buddhism and Development: a Background Paper’, Religions and Development Working Series. Available at: http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/1499/1/Tomalin_2007_Buddhism.pdf (Accessed: 22 June 2020).
Tonglert, B. (2016) Online Media Affecting Aesthetic Facial Surgery of Female Bangkok Metropolitan. MA Thesis. Maejo University. Available at: http://webpac.library.mju.ac.th/thesis/2561/bussayamart_tonglert/fulltext.pdf (Accessed: 20 May 2020).
Widdows, H. (2018) Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.