Thursday, May 23, 2013

Make Korea Beautiful

I didn’t recognize my student in the hallway - not an uncommon occurrence for an American living in Korea, even after two years of practice differentiating between shades of brown eyes and black hair. We traded ‘hi’s as we passed, and my brain went into overdrive, flipping through classes and student rosters, semester to semester until it came up with that same pair of eyes. Two steps later I looked back to confirm my conclusion - Alice, Chinese major, Spring 2012 - and saw the girl’s embarrassed smile disappear as she turned away.

The same smile, different eyes, a different chin, a smaller face, paler skin, and longer, darker, straighter hair.

She was prettier, I recognized clinically, but if anything that only increased the eeriness. It was her, but less. A tamped-down version of Sarah, a Sarah with her bones scraped until she resembled hundreds of other young women more than her mother, more than herself. A pale, big-eyed, small-faced, high-nosed Sarah. A perfected Sarah.

My bright student had flung her body, face-first, into the chomping, mashing, stampeding Korean beauty machine. And she had come out beautiful on the other side.

Horrified, I reminded myself of the cultural differences. I reminded myself that I grew up American, fed on a diet of individualism whose main course was pride of self, seasoned with abhorrence of anything artificial or acquiescing. Sarah and the plurality of women here who get plastic surgery grew up Korean, concerned first for social harmony, nurtured by the concept of presentation and the importance of one’s “face,” both literal and metaphorical. Mentally I knew better, but my gut clenched at the image of Sarah cutting herself up to become just one more of the faceless mass emerging from the factory only to blend back into the crowd.

Over the last two years my students have educated me on the why, my first question when I heard the numbers (76% of Korean women get plastic surgery in their 20s and 30s; 25% of mothers with daughters between ages 12 and 16 suggest plastic surgery to them). America has plastic surgery too, of course, but it’s an object of derision in most cases. Plastic surgery is the hallmark of the insecure, the unhealthy, the shallow and bourgeois. Koreans agree it’s for the bourgeois, but for them that’s not a bad thing. Rich is good. As for shallow and insecure, my students use their dictionaries to look up the word “a complex.” People get plastic surgery to take care of inferiority or shyness complexes, they explain, not altogether adequately.

In Korea, plastic surgery is the opposite of inappropriate. There is nothing more appropriate in Korea than seeing a weakness in yourself and shoring it up for the greater societal good (one student defended the practice by saying, “Make Korea beautiful”). Others are only too willing to help. My friend tells me she often is approached by strange older women on the street who tell her to get her teeth fixed. If a girl “needs” to diet, she is told, and more often than not, the girl herself announces it freely.

This commitment to society-rather-than-individual-first makes Koreans far more pragmatic about beauty than I. I’ve watched the Twilight Zone’s “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” music video, so when someone talks to me about improving their beauty - with plastic surgery, diets, creepy pupil-only contacts - I balk at the ideological implications.

It’s obvious such tales have made no impact on Korea when my students defend the pursuit of beauty. They shrug and say, “First impression is important.” Your face is your first impression, they say, and if you want a good job . . . This from students who are willing to forgo reliable sleep for eight years prior to their college entrance exams without the guarantee that all the efforts during these eight years of what they openly denote “torture” will, in the end, pay off and earn them entrance into one of the country’s top three schools. What’s a tiny surgery compared to that?

More later. This is an essay in progress (I hope), but I’m busy writing other things and editing theses and (most prominently) catching up on Game of Thrones, so I haven’t had a chance to post much. Boy I’m getting worse and worse at this blogging thing, huh? :/

Make Korea beautiful (and androgynous!) with snail therapy!
Fujifilm is the way to go for all your photo needs!

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