We often hear that there is an impossible standard of beauty here in America, but I’m personally glad to live in a place that embraces so many different types of physical beauty. I was born in arguably the most beauty-obsessed country in the world. And though I’ve only visited Korea a few times since moving to the West Coast at age nine, I know all too well the extremely harsh standards to which women are subjected there: porcelain white, translucent skin; large doe eyes; oval face; and slender, muscle-less frame. It has the highest percentage of people who have undergone plastic surgery–in 2009, 1 in 5 women had had some form of cosmetic procedure. Over here, plastic surgery is something that celebrities or socialites might get done–there, it’s more like a rite of passage for many women, a graduation present from parents, or a self-investment for finding a husband or a job. And of course, there is the constant dieting to maintain a “ladylike” weight, which is widely seen as 48 kg (105.8 lbs) for grown women.
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I was mostly saved from this insane standard of beauty, but still not immune to it. Korean moms are notoriously harsh on their daughters, though they see it more like their sacred duty to help their daughters become beautiful. Our mom–whom I consider the best mom in the world–alternated between praising our prettiness and occasionally telling us that our arms or legs were becoming too fat. And growing up, I detested meeting my parents’ friends because they would always comment on our physical appearance–which sounds (and feels) absolutely rude. I still don’t enjoy meeting older Korean people, even if what they say is complimentary–because it feels like I’m being judged constantly.
On the other hand, I also grew up feeling “different” at our predominantly white, private schools. I wasn’t blonde and blue-eyed with a cute button nose. The truth is, I didn’t fit into the idea of beauty in either place. But strangely enough, not fitting into any of these cultural ideals helped me establish a healthy self-image. Here are things I learned about self-confidence as a Korean American.
1. Imperfections are beautiful.
There is definitely something you learn from seeing Seoul, a whole city full of beautiful women–and it’s that cosmetically perfected, nearly identical faces are very boring, awkward, or simply off-putting. Patients tend to request features of actresses, and flock to doctors that specialize in certain types of looks–and so you end up with women who look uncannily similar. Imperfections are not just metaphorically beautiful–they’re literally what makes you look distinctive, interesting, fascinating.
2. Don’t think in terms of parts, but the whole.
In Korea, there are surgeries for everything–including getting rid of your calf muscles for slim lower legs, and inserting a bit of fat directly underneath your eyes for a smiling, “cute” look. If that sounds ridiculous, criticizing your other body parts isn’t much less ridiculous. I could pick apart my body until I find 15 things wrong with it–or, I could choose to look at it as a whole and see a vibrant, energetic, feminine being. It is so much less of a headache to choose the latter.
3. Be with people who appreciate your beauty.
I’m not everyone’s idea of pretty, and especially not by Korean standards. In my memory no Korean guy has ever approached me with amorous intentions–and that’s totally okay. Like Dita Von Teese said, “You could be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” It’s not worth wasting your time with such people and letting their negativity affect how you feel about yourself. My first college boyfriend didn’t think much about my body and gave me crap when I wanted to eat a vegan chocolate chip cookie after dinner. But because I was 18, I took my sweet time realizing what kind of time-suck that guy was (who was, by the way, really, really not my type, as I later realized). Eventually I dated someone who adored my body, and actually praised places I didn’t like myself. It’s not because my ass was miraculously made better by that point, but because some people will adore you exactly as you are and others just won’t see it.
In the words of the great Frida Kahlo, “Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic.”
4. The beauty you represent says something about you.
Even if it were within my means to look like a willowy Korean actress with thighs the size of my biceps, I could never even want that. The look represents the kind of docile, passive, fragile, almost infantile idea of women, and I’m not sure you can look or want to look that way, without also becoming that way mentally and emotionally. By the same logic, I don’t crave to look like Kate Upton, Jessica Alba, Charlize Theron, or countless other celebrities whose looks I do, in fact, really appreciate. I like that their looks say something about their individuality, their brand of femininity. But my physical appearance holds my experience, my mind, and my soul, and I wouldn’t give that up just to look like somebody else.
How has being different affected your self-image? Has it ever made you appreciate your brand of beauty more?
Photo: Peaceful Dumpling