I debated whether or not to write this blog but after South Korean plus-size model Vivian Kim recently spoke up and challenged the Korean beauty ideal I feel more women need to follow her example. ‘Defying Korean beauty norm’ in the Straits Times tells her story and I highly recommend a read.
I have immensely enjoyed my first 2 months here in Seoul but there has been one unexpected consequence of living here that I wasn’t prepared for. I fully prepared myself for the looks I would get when I explained I didn’t speak Korean. I knew I may get a few looks for being with a ‘white’ guy. I knew that looking around a sea of Asian faces may conjure up some feelings about my adoption. I had mentally prepared myself for all these things. But I wasn’t prepared for the hit to my self confidence that happens when you live in a country obsessed with achieving perfection.
It was one of the more recent, and more ugly discoveries of my motherland’s culture. I guess it isn’t until you live in a country that you can scratch beneath the surface and uncover things that perhaps you were blind to before. I know I am a healthy weight, I am not fat, but I am by no means a stick insect. I enjoy doing my weights at the gym, have always played sport and love a cheeseburger. I know my arms could be a little slimmer, my stomach a little flatter but I’m ok with that. There are certain sacrifices I am not willing to make (carbs being the main one). But here, in a society where the ideal weight is under 50kg and the ideal ‘beauty’ is being wafer thin, it does get you thinking.
It gets you thinking when you see all the plastic surgery advertisements on the subway, everyday. It gets you thinking when on the toilet cubicle doors there are posters saying ‘from fat face to beautiful face’. The worst one I read about in ‘Defying Korean beauty norm’ was ‘how long are you going to roll around like that?’ Yep, and we were outraged in the UK by the ‘are you bikini ready’ advertisement! I have watched a program about plastic surgery where they called the girl ‘witch face’ instead of her actual name. They showed how she went from ‘ugly’ to ‘beautiful’ by having her whole face re-shaped; praising the plastic surgeon on his work. She looked completely different when she emerged on stage and was greeted to a rapturous applause. But underneath, her eyes still looked sad.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against plastic surgery. If it helps you address something you are self conscious about or makes you happy then I think plastic surgery is a positive thing. So long as you do it for yourself. Where I am less of a fan of it is when it feels pressured; when society encourages it and when it is expected of you. And that is what I personally believe is the case here. Statistics say that about 1 in 3 women in Seoul have gone under the knife, mostly for double eye lid surgery. For many jobs, it is necessary to include a photograph attached to your CV; sometimes even measurements. I’ve been flat out asked if I have considered getting my nose done (I didn’t think anything was particularly wrong with my nose) or why I haven’t had double eyelid surgery. People aren’t being rude, that’s just the culture here – they are actually saying it in order to give you advice. A friend of mine was told that she would be more beautiful if she had a slimmer jawline (for the record, she’s stunning). I am always the person that gets stopped on the street for diet pills, juice diets etc. Walking down the street, I will get plastic surgery flyers shoved in my face. Because I must want to change the way I look, right? It’s understandable that with all these statistics, all these advertisements in your face everyday – it gets you thinking ‘what don’t I like about myself?’ And we shouldn’t be made to think like that. I know in the West, we blame the media a lot, those magazines and actresses in Hollywood for the low self esteem of young girls but trust me, it is way harder for the young girls growing up here.
The K-pop industry doesn’t help either. Now, I’m not being racist as in ‘they all look the same’ but they do all actually look the same. Because here in Korea there is only one beauty ideal and all girls strive for it. In the West, we have beautiful blondes, brunettes, redheads. Some have oval face shapes, some heart-shaped; some are voluptuous and some are skinny – but there is a range. Here, there is only one beauty ideal – big round eyes, not almond. Pale white skin, not tanned. Skinny, with no definition. Slim face with a v-line jaw. Ok they may have different hair colours. But they have all had the same eye surgery, all had the same jawline surgery, and all are the same size. And so impressionable teenage girls look at these famous idols, then look at themselves and think, ‘what can I change to look like that?’
Growing up, I hated the fact I looked Asian because I never fit in. I was teased for my almond eyes and ironically, later on in my teens I was teased for being ‘too thin’ as well. My biggest gripe growing up as an adoptee was not that I was abandoned, but by the fact that I looked Asian, because I didn’t feel Asian and it made me stand out from my family and friends. At 14 years old, I read about double eyelid / eye widening surgery and asked my mum about it. And that broke her heart. Because she wanted me to love the way I look and appreciate my almond eyes. And since then, I have.
Coming to Korea I was comforted by the fact that I would be in a land where, for the first time in my life, I would fit in physically. But I don’t. I do not weigh 50kg; I like my hamburgers and fries too much. I play sport, I run and I cycle so I have big thighs. I have not had my eyes widened or had double eye-lid surgery because I’ve grown to appreciate that my eyes are a different shape. I’ve not had my jawline or cheekbones shaved down because plastic surgery isn’t that common in my home back in the UK and I quite like my cheekbones. I do not have pale skin because I enjoy being out in the sun. I thought I would find solace in looking the same as those around me, but I don’t. Instead it just gets me thinking ‘What would I look like if I had always lived here? Would I have gone under the knife too? What would I have wanted to change?’
And so it comes back down to the nature versus nurture debate. Because I guess even nurture plays a role in the way you physically look; it’s not all down to genes. More importantly, it was nurture that made me accept the way I look, not nature, not here in my motherland. I thought I would find comfort in a place where I should theoretically ‘fit in’. But I don’t find that comfort here, I find it back at home. Because when I compare that confidence my parents instilled in me to love myself, to the pressure society places on young girls here; nurture wins.