I’m a teenage Korean girl living in the United States. I may live here, but the internet has made it ridiculously easy for South Korea’s beauty standards to affect how I view myself. Unlike here, there’s only one standard of beauty in South Korea (just look at the Miss Korea contestant lineup), and beauty is unspeakably important there. Job resumes have the requirement of sending a picture in, and high-school graduates commonly receive gift-certificates for plastic surgery as graduation gifts. Girls use glue and tape to achieve a Western double eyelid, and desperately try massaging their faces into the ideal face shape. Even my cousin had eyelid surgery as a tenth grader.
I know, I know, I don’t live there and I never plan on living there, so what do I care, right? But nowadays, I look in the mirror and all I can do is check off the things I do have and desperately wish for the things I don’t. I may be on the paler side, with a higher nose, skinnier body and delicate lips, but I’m stuck fixating on everything else I *don’t* have, with a high dose of acne scars and acne.
I’m afraid of my Korean relatives calling me ugly, and it doesn’t help that my 10-year-old sister has all of the qualities except double eyelids. Even when she was four years old, a relative who came over looked at both of us and admired my sister’s beauty and beautiful face shape, while she looked at my stronger jawline and squarer, more round face and said, “Oh, her too,” a euphemism for “too bad you didn’t get these genes.”
My sister is the pretty sister already, and I don’t want to care, but I honestly, truly do. I want plastic surgery for eyelids, but I wish I could have been born naturally beautiful. And even if I do get the surgery, what will westerners think of me? What if I get surgery? What if I regret it?
Honestly though, deep inside, it’s not about the surgery. It’s: what if I’ll never be as pretty as my younger sister and always get compared and pitied? I don’t think I’m ugly, but I want to be considered pretty in Korea, you know? I’m not considered striking here, but I want to be at least pretty in my home country.
I don’t know what I’m asking for, Auntie. This letter was all over the place.I think I just need a dose of therapeutic general advice.
In that case, Sparkler, let’s start with this: Not only is your letter all over the place, but it’s full of contradictions!
For example, let’s talk about your desire to be naturally beautiful—according to a cultural standard that is designed specifically to be unattainable by natural means. There’s a reason why South Korea has the highest plastic surgery rate per capita of any country in the world: What’s considered “beautiful” there is a set of features that pretty much no South Korean person is born with.
And then, let’s talk about how what you’ve done is not just to adopt the South Korean standard of beauty, which is arguably among the most narrow and unattainable in the world, but to also adopt the very American notion that beauty is supposed to be effortless, and definitely not obtained through surgical means.
In short, darling, it’s no wonder that you’re having a bit of a crisis. You’re trying to reconcile two diametrically-opposed schools of thought inside one brain… and on one face.
Which, for obvious reasons, is never, ever going to work.
But that’s also where, if you were so inclined, you could choose to pivot and give yourself a new perspective. For instance, you say that you want to be considered pretty by Korean standards like it’s a foregone conclusion—but why? Why adopt this one particular definition of “beautiful,” of all the available ones out there? Why set the bar in this unattainable place, of all places, and let yourself be ruled by someone else’s unhealthy and unreasonable standard of beauty?
How you look is largely a roll of the genetic dice; you don’t choose what you get, and you can only work so much with what you’ve got, short of going under the knife. But how you think about it is completely within your control. You can choose to appreciate your face for the unique, natural work of art that it is; you can even choose to appreciate that you don’t look like you ordered your features off the drive-thru menu at Faces ‘R’ Us. I mean, sure, the finalists in the Miss South Korea pageant are all very pretty; they’re also about as unique as Robert Palmer’s backup dancers. And for every person who looks at that lineup and thinks, “How beautiful!”, there’s another who thinks, “How boring.”
And because beauty is in the eye of the beholder at least as much as it is an objective quality, they’d both be right.
Which is something I’d like you to think about, the next time you look in the mirror and think, “Ugh, I wish I had [thing that is unachievable without surgery].” I’d like you to consider opening your mind to a broader definition of “beautiful,” one that perhaps includes the preferred look in your country of origin, but that also includes Lucy Liu and Choi Sora, Chiaki Kuryama and Beyonce, Mindy Kaling and Keira Knightley, Priyanka Chopra and Ashley Graham—and maybe even you, too.
But on top of that, I’d also like you to consider that you have a choice not just when it comes to how you define beauty, but how much value you place on it.
Because that’s the second half of this equation, and also the more important half. I mean, let’s just suppose for a second that your worst-case scenario comes to pass, and you wind up being objectively less attractive than your little sister—and your relatives notice, and pity you for it.
I mean this in the nicest possible way, sweet pea: So the [bleep] what?
So what if your sister is prettier than you? And so what if people notice?
Where does that leave you? What effect does it have? Will your entire existence have lost all meaning? Will you roll over and die? Seriously, I want you to answer these questions. For extra credit, I want you to imagine how you would answer these questions if someone else were asking them of you. What if puberty is exceptionally unkind to your sister, and, heaven forfend, she ends up being the less attractive of the two of you? Would that make her worthless, or worth less than if she’d happened to be born with a superior face and figure? Is beauty so important that beautiful is the most important thing a person can be—more important than clever, or kind, or hard-working, or loyal?
I’ll also give you a hint: If your answer to that last question was “yes,” that is truly sad, and you should really pick a different one.
Because no matter where you’re from, or what you look like, you owe it to yourself to push back against the toxic, awful idea that your appearance is the most important, meaningful, interesting thing about you. You need to realize that even the most glorious beauty fades eventually, and that life is too short to spend throwing all your energy into a losing battle against age and genetics. You need to consider what you might accomplish in the time you’ve been given on earth—and look at how many of history’s most fascinating, inspiring, celebrated people were not only not beautiful, but downright funny-looking.
And whether or not you redefine your concept of beauty to include something other than the South Korean pageant princess look, you will hopefully realize that how you look is utterly peripheral to who you are. You are so much more than a pretty face… or an ugly one, for that matter.
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