BEAUTY, HYGIENE, HAIR AND TATTOOS IN MYANMAR

BEAUTY AND HYGIENE IN MYANMAR

Some women in Myanmar wear a comb in the back of their hair. It also a custom for women to wear flowers in their hair. Aung San Suu Kyi is among those that do this. Burma (Myanmar) last entered the Miss Universe pageant in 1961,

People in Myanmar—as elsewhere in Asia— and men especially let their mole hair and pinkie fingernails grow to a very long length. Hairs growing from a mole are considered good luck. One reader on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum wrote: “Moles have specific meanings, depending where they are located. Some are good, some are bad. Hairs growing out of a mole is considered very good luck. I think 3 hairs is really good luck. I've no idea why. My mother, beautiful woman that she is, when I was a teen, had a bumpy mole under her chin...and freekn 1-3 hairs started growing and she kept it because of the good luck. rolls eyes And by the by, any moles/beauty spots hear the eyes mean you cry a lot.

Some say the long fingernails are used for cleaning the ears and other orifices. A better explanation is the association of a long fingernail with the upper classes, with the reasoning being that one can not do manual labor if one has long fingernails. One reader on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum wrote: “Much face is put on being rich enough not to have to work in the fields/ factories etc. If one does have to labour you can't have long fingernails because they'd just break hence the long nails grown by others - it’s a statement like a piece of bling jewlery to say " hey look at me I'm wealthy enough to rise above the labouring class". Another wrote: A pinky that reaches past the last digit joint of the ring finger means wealth and intelligence... Plenty of people's pinkies aren't that long, so the men grow the pinky nails long to reach that goal.”

Many Burmese bathe twice a day: once in the morning before work and again after work. Bucket bats and mandis are the norm. Even when bathtubs are available they tend to be used to store water rather than for taking a bath. Because sources of water often are unreliable water is often stored in buckets and barrels.

Washing and Taking a Shower in Myanmar

Seat of Our Pants blog reported: “For those of us that are used to luxurious items, such as in-house showers, washing oneself in public seems like a kooky thing to do. Well, that’s not the case in Myanmar, where all washing seems to take place outside. Rivers are not only means of transport, they’re big, flowing bathtubs. Locals, who are always wrapped in their longyi (sarong-type wraps), scrub themselves clean mere feet away from oil-dripping barges and restaurant left-over dumping grounds. When a river isn’t available, there are street corner washing areas. You find groups of people, at any hour of the day, washing themselves, their clothing or their dishes there. [Source: Seat of Our Pants blog]

According to Wikipedia: In rural areas men are often seen with a folded paso on one shoulder either for use when bathing or for use as a cushion for a carrying pole on the shoulder or a heavy load on the back. Women, when they bathe, simply wear their longyi higher by tucking it just under the arms to cover their breasts before removing the blouse; they may be seen using the longyi as a buoy in the river by trapping some air in and secured underneath by the hands. They use a man's paso or another piece of long fabric, rolled and coiled as a cushion on top of their heads in order to carry water pots, firewood, baskets and trays; it is the street hawker's customary way of carrying her wares. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Changing is done simply by stepping into the new longyi and pulling it up, at the same time loosening and dropping the old one, or the new one can be pulled over from the head down. However, even when in private, women change without ever actually removing all their clothes. Instead, they will wear one longyi while changing into a new one. A woman may be seen pulling her longyi up bit by bit as she wades deeper and deeper into a river without getting it wet. It is merely a matter of lifting it up in the bathroom or in bed for that matter. Washing and ironing cannot be simpler as they are cylindrical pieces of cloth, easily hung, pressed, folded and stacked with a bare minimum use of wardrobe space. +

Toilets and Underwear in Myanmar

On the toilet situation in Myanmar, one blogger wrote in Tales of Asia: “Public facilities are virtually nonexistent. And like these same countries, most lodging will have western toilets except at the most basic level. I found butt sprayers available more often than not in the hotel rooms in which I stayed. The rules are much as in the other countries in that ducking behind a bush is always an acceptable course of action. Local restaurants will usually have a squat toilet in a shed somewhere. I traveled by air and by car so I can't speak for the bus and train stations. Facilities in the airports were usable, though not exactly modern. Floors can be wet and slippery. There is usually a water basin or pipe for washing. A coconut leave is used like a mop. In the country side outhouse toilets can be some distance from the house and a flashlight is required to reach them at night. [Source: tales of Asia]

Underwear can be a sensitive topic in Myanmar. Never raise your underwear above your head. This is considered very rude. Washing is often by hand. If you have some laundry done at a guesthouse, some people make take offense to washing you under garments. If you wash them yourself do so in a bucket, don’t do it in the sink. When drying underwear, do it in a discreet place and don’t hang it so it is head level or above as it is regarded as dirty and uncouth for part of the lower body to be higher than the head.

There is a superstition in Myanmar that contact with women’s garments, especially underwear, can sap men of their strength. It is widely believed in Myanmar that if a man comes in contact with a woman's panties or sarong they can rob him of his power. In 2007 one Thai-based group launched a global 'panties for peace' campaign, in which supporters were encouraged to send women's underwear to Burmese embassies, in the hope that contact with such garments would weaken the regime's hpoun, or spiritual power. The generals may indeed subscribe to this belief. It is widely rumoured that, before a foreign envoy visits Burma, an article of female underwear or a piece of a pregnant woman's sarong is hidden in the ceiling of the visitor's hotel suite, to weaken their hpoun and thus their negotiating position. [Source: Andrew Selth, a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, The Interpeter, October 22, 2009]

The Daily Mail reported: “Burma's iron-fisted - yet superstitious - military junta believe touching lady's underwear will "rob them of power", organisers say. And Lanna Action for Burma hope their "Panties for Peace" campaign will help oust the oppressive rulers who ruthlessly crushed recent democracy protests. The group's website explains: The Burma military regime is not only brutal but very superstitious. They believe that contact with a woman's panties or sarong can rob them of their power. So this is your chance to use your Panty Power to take away the power from them. Activist Liz Hilton added: "It's an extremely strong message in Burmese and in all Southeast Asian culture. [Source: Daily Mail]

Most toilets are Asian-style squat toilets or a hole in the ground. Upscale hotels and restaurants usually have Western-style toilets; sometimes the don't have seats. Bring along toilet paper or tissues. Many restrooms don't have toilet paper. Asian style toilets often have a small cement tank next to it with some water and a plastic scoop inside. The water is there to clean your butt and flush the toilet. Many Asian sewer systems can not handle toilet paper. You are expected to put used toilet paper and tissue in a wastebasket rather than in the toilet. Otherwise the paper might clog the pipes.

Thanakha

Many women and children wear white thanaka bark paste on their faces. Sometimes it looks like they have bandages on their cheeks. The powder used to make the paste is ground from the bark of thanaka tress, a kind of sandlewood, and the Burmese credit it with providing their women with excellent complexion and protecting their skin form the harsh sun and keep her skin looking young, fresh and alive. The bark is also worn by women in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Brigette and Robert wrote in their Brigette and Robert on Tour blog: “Wherever we go in Myanmar, we always see women and children with yellow spots (paintings) on their faces. At first we thought this could be a Buddhist custom, although the colors also look like some kind of facial warrior painting. But neither of the two is true. The paint is locally grown thanaka (sandal-wood), grounded into a yellowish paste. People use it as a sun block and skin moisturizer… or maybe it’s just “Myanmari fashion” as we read that thanaka is only used with a lot of imagination as a sun block. Still, it looks interesting; it gives their faces a unique appearance – a cultural distinction which can only be seen in Myanmar (as far as we know). [Source: Brigette and Robert on Tour, Blog]

According to the Myanmar government: “Thanakha — which comes from a plant known by the botanical name Limonia Acidissma Linn —is essential as well as a favorite cosmetic which comes in the form of a yellow paste applied to the face. The origin of Thanakha is scarely capable of being historically traced as it springs from the earliest glimmerings of civilization. Over 2,000 years ago the Queen of Peikthano (Srikhsetra) was recorded as a lover of "thanaka". Following the destruction of the Shwemadaw Pagoda in the earthquake of 1930, a circular stone slab used by Princess Razadatukalya, daughter of Hanthawaddy Sinbyshin Minn, was found in the ruins. It showed a woman grinding Thanakha bark. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Some say Thanakha is conspicuous as a rarity among urban Myanmar womenfolk. I wonder. It is admittedly far less used in town than in the countryside. But it does command an appreciable scale of appeal amongst townspeople. While the Modern Miss might not use it when going around the town as a rule she does favour it as a finishing touch after a bath when at home. "Thanaka" is fragrant in addition to having an astringent quality. =

It is in the Myanmar village that the practice of applying Thanakha regularly is rooted so strongly as to defy the impact of time. But it draws its strength not from any sentimental attachment for it on the part of the rural public. But rather because it is still cheap. Unlike face powder it stays fresh and keeps its dainty smell for a considerable length of time. It also possesses a little something that its competitors in trade have not got. For Thanakha means not only a cosmetic for beautifying the face. It is also a cleansing agent possibly without compare for uniqueness. It is a blessing in tropical heat. It removes body odours. Because of such attributes. Thanakha is used by many men and woman in villages and not a few towns. =

Hairstyles in Myanmar

According to the Myanmar government: There was a time not long ago when long, black, glossy hair was considered the crowning glory of a Myanmar woman and the longer and thicker the growth the better. In fact. men also wore their hair long and knotted in the days of the monarchy and even after. Short hair was considered unbecoming and indecorous especially in women. Even small girls used to wear their hair long in a small topknot encircled by a fringe. This style was called a "‘Hsayit-waing". When a girl entered adolescence the hair has grown longer and the topknot thicker, but she still has a fringe with the side ends tucked in a curve behind the ears. This is called a "Hsadauk" and both styles are sweet and charming. When an adolescent girl reaches womanhood the fringe now grown longer is gathered up together with the hair of the topknot. and these long tresses are twined into a chignon. These differing hairstyles mark the progress of the years through childhood and adolescence to womanhood. But the hair was always worn long. Long hair has come back into fashion but now it is worn hanging down like a veil at the back. This style, by the way, was taboo in the olden days. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Formerly women wore their hair long but it was always fashioned as a "Sadone"—a cylindrical topknot with or without tresses flowing down the side. Or else it was twisted and wrapped around a comb—usually made of bamboo, ivory or tortoise shell—or tied into a bun at the nape of the neck.

Long hair calls for neatness and cleanliness. A Myanmar woman never used to allow herself to be seen with hair tousled or tangled. Her hair was always oiled with pure fragrant coconut oil and knotted in place. Cleanliness required at least a weekly shampoo and twice weekly in the summer. And there was a very effective fresh. natural shampoo that was always home made.

Traditional Myanmar Shampoo and How to Make It

According to the Myanmar government: The main ingredients of traditional Burmese shampoo are: 1) the bark of a shrub known as"Tayaw".(Family Name: Sterarliaceae; Botanical Name: Buettneria Adamnensis.Kz); and 2) the soapy fruit of the "Kin-mun". (Family Name: Mimosaceae; Botanical Name: Acacia Concinna. Dc.) The distribution of both plants is countrywide and they grow in the wild and thrive without tending. The shampoo is prepared in a quantity sufficient for all the females of the household, young and old. Both the bark of the Tayaw and the fruit of the Kin-mun are easily available at any bazaar year round. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Kin-mun fruit is first washed thoroughly and boiled with water until soft and pulpy. While the Kin-mun is being boiled the Tayaw is shredded, washed and soaked in a bowl of cold water. Very soon the water becomes a thick viscous liquid. The amount of water used must be of equal parts for both. When the boiled Kin-mun water has cooled it is passed through a sieve and the pulp removed. The same is done for the Tayaw though it is difficult to get rid of all the fibres. Both liquids are then mixed together and we have a shampoo with a faint elusive scent. Sometimes one or two limes are halved and soaked together with the Tayaw but this is optional.

To use this shampoo one sluices the hair with water first. Then with a small cup or bowl the liquid shampoo is poured generously on the head and the scalp is scrubbed and massaged. Scrubbing produces some suds from the Kin-mun, but not much. This is done at least twice, after which the long hair is shampooed and scrubbed in manageable proportions until one reaches the tip. After this, many bowls of water are poured to wash away the Tayaw and Kin-mun and the hair is now squeaky clean. The soapy Kin-mun cleanses the hair. The lime prevents or cures dandruff and the Tayaw is the best natural hair conditioner making the hair soft and pliant and therefore easy to comb.

Tayaw/Kin-mun shampoo is still used by Myanmar women today. In the cities where the pace of daily life has quickened. this shampoo is sold ready-made in two plastic bags: one containing Tayaw and the other Kin-mun. The lime is added at home if so desired. But imported foreign shampoo and conditioners are fast replacing the traditional natural home- made shampoo. Some enterprising Myanmar businessmen with the help of chemists—seeing the economic potential of Tayaw and Kin-mun which are cheap and plentiful—have begun manufacturing local shampoos with a Tayaw/Kin-mun base. They are is made in both liquid and powder form, but I doubt if the purity of the home-made shampoo has been retained.

Tattoos in Myanmar

Traditionally, tattoos embellished or protected their bearer against the blows of misfortune. Because they believed in the existence of spirits and dark forces, the Burmese were covered with them and symbolically reproduced them onto their puppets. Nicolo di Conti, a Venetian merchant who came to Burma in 1435 said: "All inhabitants, men and women, decorate their flesh using an iron point that paints them in an indelible manner. Thus are they painted for the rest of their days". These tattoos could be located on the face, the chest, the pelvis, the feet, the hands and the limbs. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

According to Myanmar.cm: “Tattooing in Myanmar is an ancient practice. Tattooing is the act or practice of marking the skin with indelible pictures or patterns by puncturing the skin with needles or other sharp objects and inserting pigments. It used to be a very painful practice, hence one of the main purposes of wearing tattoos was to give the impression as being courageous. When ancient Myanmar men or soldiers braced themselves for fighting, they wrapped their longyis around the crotch and fastened it in the back thus exposing both legs completely to show off tattoos that covered the thighs, from the waist down to the knees, in the form of cascading circles. [Source: Myanmar.cm >>]

“Among the Burmese, the practice of tattooing is confined to men only and looked upon as macho. In previous eras, young men with no tattoos on their thighs were regarded as sissies and frowned upon by ladies. Today, Burmese men wear various patterns on different parts of the body, especially the chest, back and forearms. Until recently, a number of young men tattooed figures of animals on their bodies, or initials, words or small figures on their forearms. The belief in occultism among Myanmar people used to play an important role in wearing tattoos. Some men were convinced that certain words, letters, diagrams or patterns tattooed on their bodies would bring them supernatural powers. These beliefs and concepts, as well as the practice of tattooing itself, however, are dying out among Myanmar people especially among the younger generations.” >>

Chin Facial Tattoos

Chin women have traditionally worn facial tattoos. On his experience seeking out Chin with facial tattoos from Mrauk U, near Sittwe, Jay Tindall wrote in his blog: “I woke up early and drove to the Lay Myo River where I took a small local boat upriver heading for my destination. Along the way we saw villages of fisherman and farmers and many traditional sail boats, most of them Muslim people living in Myanmar since British colonial days. We eventually reached the first Chin tribal village, and my guide was well known there as he had sponsored the son of one family though school and he is now a teacher. Because of this bond we were readily welcomed into the family home where there were no less than four women with tattooed faces. [Source: Jay Tindall, remotelands.com December 21, 2012 ^^]

They four women with tattooed faced “told me how they were tattooed when they were nine years old, and how it was the ancient custom to do so to prevent invaders from taking away the local women. The tattooing took over a day to complete and was extremely painful, especially when tattooing their eyelids. It should be noted that each area of Chin state has a distinct tattoo pattern that is different from the others, so it is actually possible to know where a woman comes from by the pattern on her face. The practice is now not allowed by the Burmese authorities, and the younger generation is not interested in this custom as well. Therefore this part of Chin culture is dying out fast.” ^^

Different tribes in northwestern Myanmar have used tattoos to distinguish one hill tribe from another or indicate their martial status and social rank. Christian Develter, the Bangkok-based Belgian artist who studied Chin facial tattors, told the China Daily: “For Chin people, they feel like they are somebody having these tattoos on their faces, as they indicate their social status. More than social status, the facial tattoos are also indicative of the women's origins. People can tell where a Chin woman is from the design of the facial tattoos.” Some women in China from the Derung ethnic group in Yunnan also have facial tattoos from the same origin as the Chin in Myanmar, but there are only around 40 who still retain the tattoos.

Chin Tattoos, Modern Art and Fashion

Gao Zhuyuan wrote in the China Daily: “The facial tattoos of Myanmar's Chin women have been transformed into forward thinking fashion. Christian Develter, the Bangkok-based Belgian artist did a show called “Chin: Unmasked collection” at Tube Gallery in Bangkok—with the Thai fashion designers and founders of Tube Gallery, Phisit Jongnarangsin and Sakxit Pisalasupongs— with paintings inspired by Chin tribeswomen with facial tattoos. The three-in-one collection was unveiled among a heady mix of cocktails, music and neon signs, silk, sequins, vibrant-colored dresses and models with facial tattoos inspired by tribal women from the north of Myanmar. [Source: Gao Zhuyuan, China Daily, February 17, 2013::]

"It is about the tattooed faces of the Chin women, it is about my paintings and it is about fashion, so it is three stories in one collection," says Develter, who spent weeks traveling among the Chin tribes last year. Unlike Develter who has met the tattooed women, Phisit Jongnarangsin and Sakxit Pisalasupongs, only saw Develter's pictures. The facial tattoos get an urban look after Develter modernizes them in his paintings. The two designers extracted the tattoo from one of the artist's early Chin paintings and produced what they call an "avant-garde mask". ::

Develter's paintings are integrated into the design through these graphic patterns. Some of the dresses show the woman's tattooed faces, while in others the faces have been inverted against an ocean-blue background that produces an ocean-mirror effect. "He (Christian) also showed us the colors Chin people use on their garments, and the materials they weave like cotton. So we used those colors to create our collection," Sakxit says. ::

Kupluthai Pungkanon wrote in The Nation, “Develter reveals that he aims to be a mixture between the contemporary and the past featuring the perfect symmetric urban contemporary faces of Asian females painstakingly painted with tribal Chin tattoo designs from Myanmar. "I spent about three weeks there," he says. "When you look at the tattoo lines, it seems like they've been done by computer, but they're not. The original is very old generation, and when we translate it to art and then fashion, it is very interesting." The Chin and their tattoos are relatively unknown to the outside world. These paintings are an open invitation to learn more about these remarkable women living in Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar. "I don't want the look to be too ethnic, so I paint on modern women's faces," Develter points out. [Source: Kupluthai Pungkanon, The Nation. December 13, 2012 <>]

“However, instead of simply applying the Chin paintings directly on their designs, the duo of designers add their own vision of beauty and art in stunning looks, in particular when unmasking the spider webs in the face tattoos. "You will see a strong graphic that creates an immediate impact due to its beautiful structure," Phisit says. "We played a lot with the paintings. We started from taking the tattoo off the lady's face in the painting. The result was a very interesting, avant-garde mask, which not many people could have guessed that it came from a face of a woman in Myanmar. Then, we multiplied the mask on a computer program to create a modern graphic pattern. The outcome was a modern yet beautiful graphic that we were not expecting," says Phisit. In term of colors and fabric, Pisith points out that the color stripes are inspired by Chin woven fabrics. <>

Myanmar Rejoins the Miss Universe Contest After 50 Years

In October 2013, AFP reported: “With a whiff of controversy despite the total absence of bikinis, a US-educated business graduate was selected as the first Miss Universe contestant to represent Myanmar in more than 50 years. Moe Set Wine will take her place on stage at the global beauty pageant in Moscow in November, reflecting dramatic political and social changes in the former junta-ruled nation, which last fielded a Miss Universe contender in 1961. "I feel like now I am part of the history and I feel like a soldier that is doing something for the country and my people," she said after winning the trophy. "I'm still in shock. I still can't believe it. I feel really happy, because now I get the chance to represent my country," said the 25-year-old, who has a BA in business marketing from California Lutheran University. [Source: AFP, October 5, 2013]

The Myanmar government has released Aung San Suu Kyi and scrapped draconian censorship measures but the country is still conservative and when racy shots of a model in a two-piece swimsuit appeared online a few years ago, she received abuse and threats. So the Miss Universe hopefuls were careful not to bare any midriff in the swimsuit section and wore long dresses elsewhere in the show. "My personal view is that the competition presents a good image of our country, but if you look at what they wear, it is not what a lot of people here like," Deputy Culture Minister Than Swe said. Burma (Myanmar) sent representatives to the Miss Universe contest in 1959 but stopped in 1962. The event in 2013 was broadcast live on satellite television.

Hemlines are rising in the former Burma as it opens up to the world after decades of iron-fisted military rule until 2011. Myanmar's traditional dress, which is still mandatory in high schools, universities and most state workplaces, is the demure longyi - a sheet of cotton or silk cloth wrapped around the waist and stretching to the feet. Younger people are embracing alternatives, brushing aside concerns about morals and modesty. The country has succumbed to the "Korean wave" spreading across Asia and the wider world with its soap operas, films, "K-pop" and clothing. "Myanmar people dared not wear clothes like this in the past. Now things are improving," said Htay Htay Tin, who designed the contestants' outfits. And the swimsuits? "I wouldn't dare to wear one, but they are part of the competition," she said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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