[Originally published at OhmyNews!]
One thing I learned quickly when I first came to Korea is that only white people wear underwear here. Well, Koreans tell me, it’s because underwear looks better on Western models, for the standard reasons: whites supposedly have the desired longer legs, bigger chests, better features. But this got me to thinking — what kind of psychological sign is it that you literally can’t imagine seeing one’s own people in underwear? Do white models inherently simply look “better?”
I think Korean readers know the answer to this rhetorical question. I won’t get into a long conversation about beauty standards, influence from the West, etc. I think we know where the beauty standards come from. What I’d rather talk about here is the suggestion that maybe Korean aesthetics have a charm of their own.
Of course, there is the reality that there are thousands of plastic surgery clinics across Seoul, that Korea is actually a center of “medical tourism” for facial procedures, that if you watch Korean TV, eyes have gotten much bigger than when I first started coming to Korea in the early 1990’s. People are also concerned about both the length and width of their legs, the length of their torsos, size of their breasts, and even how big their heads are. Now, I have become used to seeing men wearing makeup on the streets of Seoul. For better or worse, Koreans are very concerned about appearance. Photoshop has become an accepted way of life, even on official ID pictures.
I won’t get into a long conversation about how Koreans should have Korean standards, go away from Western ones, etc. Rather, I’d merely suggest trying to forget about set standards at all. For example, bigger eyes are not always better, not just because smaller ones are “Korean” or eastern, but because they naturally, aesthetically match other features on a person’s face. You’ve seen examples of this — one woman might have no fold in her eyelid at all, and her eyes are small. Even with plastic surgery, her new eyes look forced, unnatural, fake. On another person, that same eye job might look natural, and sure, large eyes do fall within the range of nature, even for Koreans.
I don’t think plastic surgery is all bad, or good. I’m not trying to preach that standard sermon. What I’m trying to say is that people have gotten so used to taking the quick and easy path of artificial enhancements and just thinking in terms of a single standard for something that it leaves little room for actual, normal people.
You know, some petite women who use that in their style simply look great. Not everyone with a small head looks better, but look awkward and disproportional. Just because you are tall doesn’t mean you look like a model. I still see, despite the plastic surgery, many beautiful eyes that don’t have folds in the eyelid. And you know what, as a Westerner who is used to a lot of sizes, not all breasts are better because they are bigger.
And yes, I think a lot of Korean woman would look just fine in an underwear ad, like the one a model once told me she wanted to do, since she liked the style she had seen in magazines. She didn’t have a large cup size, her torso is long, like many Korean women, and no, there wasn’t any Photoshop used to change her shape. Beauty is not just about changing and alteration, but about presentation and context. In this particular picture, the side lighting, placement of the hair, camera angle, her expression, and the choice to crop below the underwear line made her look great. And yes, she is naturally an attractive young lady, but trust me when I say that many such women don’t look good in pictures. And it’s not about plastic surgery, but about self-confidence and presentation.
What would make Korea a better place to live, with more aesthetic room for everyone? A big, sexy woman, with big legs that are curvy and she’s not afraid to show off. Beyonce does, for example, and I’ve seen these girls on the street. But why don’t I see them on TV? How about short, petite girls who use that to look a way that tall girls can’t — prim and cute? How about a makeup style that isn’t afraid to show off eastern features, instead of awkwardly trying to “hide” them, which makes things look worse, anyway? I seriously see nice pairs of legs on the street that aren’t straight, aren’t long.
Maybe it’s because I come from a culture that actually appreciates variety. We have different standards, which influence one another. This is not to say that Americans don’t get plastic surgery, but it’s usually more of a personal aesthetic choice. Black women have learned to appreciate themselves after the 1960’s in the “black is beautiful” movement. We didn’t have to put down the dominant white standard by saying “white is ugly,” but simply remind ourselves of what we had forgotten about the beauty of ourselves. And now, you have some non-black women adding fat to their buttocks because they want more bounce on the dance floor. Yes, most black women still straighten their hair, but that can be seen as a small thing. No longer is it acceptable to hate oneself for the color of one’s skin, which even many black people did. Now, even a woman as light as Halle Berry or as dark as Grace Jones can be considered beautiful. But before others do, they must consider THEMSELVES beautiful, first.
And that’s the trick — appreciate what you have and try to value those things on their own merits. Create an aesthetic system where more than only one thing can be “pretty.” There’s a lot more beauty to discover in Korea, if only people would be open to it. Non-Korean men find Korean women very attractive, and in more ways than many Koreans do. Sometimes, Koreans remark when they see a Korean woman who doesn’t fit the Korean norms of beauty with a western man, and make the comment that we don’t know what a true Korean beauty is. But are you so sure we’re the one who is missing something?