A few weeks ago I posted an entry on Thai modesty and the issue of bare chests (on men) within and outside of the camp, titled “Of Modesty and Men -Thai Manners In and Out of Camp”. In short, it is considered impolite for men to go bare-chested in public but it is completely acceptable (and encouraged) to be shirtless in the gym. Some men at the camp bend the limits and go shirtless into a convenience store that shares a driveway with the gym, but this is considered (by my eye-witness and personal understanding of Thai manners) out of line by the young women who work at that store.
I also know that male bare-chestedness is not considered impolite in all areas of Thailand. An iconic image of men in Isaan, the North-Eastern area of Thailand, is shirtless with a cloth draped over one shoulder. I also know that women traditionally wore shoulderless wraps (exposed shoulders don’t fly so well in Chiang Mai, a conservative area of Thailand) or, depending how traditional and how far back you look, women were shirtless also. So, the modesty of modernity is the issue I’m discussing the blog post mentioned above.
Recently a contestant on Thai TV’s “Thailand’s Got Talant” freaked everyone out by painting with her breasts, a stunt which required her to be topless on national TV. It created quite a stir which then echoed into a drawn out uproar by government and cultural officials who claimed that Thai culture and decency had been offended and Thailand’s international image damaged.
A blog I follow, written by a Thai woman about Thai sexuality, gender, politics, etc., called “A Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics and Love” covered the topless painting episode in three parts. In part II the author addresses the officials prudishness, as well as pointing out the extent of the Thai media’s aversion to bare chests with the illustrative examples of imported children’s animated shows being blurred to protect the young viewers. Of great note is the example in which a male character from Dragon Ball Z’s bare chest is blurred:
Was Ms. Duangjai’s premeditated toplessness an act of violence against the Thai public eye, an attack on Thai morality and sensibilities? It must be, according to Thai officials. If it needs any more convincing, let me present some more evidence in the following pictures.
The female character Shizuka (far left) in children’s cartoon show Doraemon, with her chest blurred on Thai TV. Source: cmprice.com
Close-up shot of Shizuka with her chest blurred in a two-piece swimsuit. Source: http://news.mthai.com/hot-news/155157.html
Female lead character in another TV cartoon, Sailormoon, with her chest blurred. Source: http://picpost.postjung.com/m/179692.html
Thai authorities strongly believe that female breasts, even tiny pre-teen breasts of Shizuka in Doraemon, are harmful to the delicate morality and innocence of the young Thai public. So much so that even when they are inside swimsuits or tight outfits they still need to be blurred. It goes to show how very protective Thai society is of our young.
What’s more, there has been new found official awareness about equality between the sexes. The notion of gender equality has been inculcated to Thai children watching Saturday morning cartoon on TV. For example, as seen below, blatant images of male bare breasts are considerately blurred.
I clicked through on some of her links to other articles, leading me to an episode during Songkran (a huge annual festival/new year celebration which includes a nation-wide, multi-day water fight) in which three teenaged girls danced topless in Bangkok at one celebration and offended the people who get offended by these things. The girls were, by US law, underage for such exposure, but that deals mainly with fines and the limitation of any footage or photographs of the incident being disseminated. I’m not sure what the Thai laws are for such things, but the girls were fined after turning themselves in. But the point is that this kind of outrage and the youth acting out against Thai social norms of decency is, of course, relevant and meaningful, but the author explores the history of female toplessness in Thai culture (going back to Siamese culture) and demonstrates that modern modesty concepts are only about 70 years old. That doesn’t make them illegitimate by any means, but it is interesting to note that conservatism is often associated with old-fashioned and in this case, well, it’s not the case.
You can see her whole article (and I really encourage you to read the whole thing) on Toplessness in Thai Culture – The Mammory Truth.