I faced the camera with the air of someone awaiting a root canal. Always preferring to be behind the lens rather than in front of it, and liking to capture the spontaneity of life in my pictures, I loathe posting for photographs. As I stared down the photographer, a cluster of students shuffled themselves around, arguing over who would have to stand next to me in the picture. After a losing a round of rock, paper, scissors, Su Jin was declared the loser, and shoved to my side. Face filled with dread, she turned up to me and said “Teacher, your head too small.”
After spending nearly six months in Korea, and hearing a myriad of comments about my physical appearance, I know that Su Jin was not trying to offend me, but was instead voicing her own insecurities. For those just arriving to Korea, it can be shocking to hear really blunt observations about your racial differences, though they are rarely meant in a bad way. Comments like “You have a big nose,” “You have big eyes,” or “You have a small face” are actually high forms of praise, with the speaker pointing out that you possess the traits of modern day beauty in Korea.
As globalization becomes even more widespread, the Western standards of beauty have also infiltrated into societies across the world, providing a sense of insecurity and inferiority for the women whose striking and exotic features I envy. While traditionally, wider faces and almond shaped eyes were considered beautiful in Korea (and indeed, I still find them beautiful!), the ever-increasing access to Western media has lead to today’s women taking drastic measures to look “more white” than their ancestors.
I’ve long found riding in Seoul’s subways a disturbing experience, not for any reason related to travel, but for the content of the advertisements inside of the stations and trains. Countless ads for plastic surgery clinics have been plastered about, advertising painful and expensive procedures guaranteed to produce a more Western look. Women are having painful operations on their eyelids to remove their epicanthal folds and create the Western hooded eye, a medically unnecessary procedure that takes between six and twelve months to heal completely.
Asian rhinoplasty is also popular, where surgeons will use silicone or even Gore-Tex, to create a more pronounced nasal bridge. That’s right. The weather resistant material that is used in our rain gear is inserted under the skin, to form the larger nose seen in the Caucasian population. Perhaps even more drastic and disturbing is the facial reconstruction designed to create the more narrow, oval face that is so envied in Korea. Doctors will literally shave down the mandible, chin, and zygoma of their patients, all of which are rather important facial bones that have not been evolved out of us for a reason.
Even for the most secure woman, these advertisements send a message: Being a beautiful, strong Korean woman is not enough any more. You must be a beautiful, strong Korean woman, with Western features, several operations, and countless dollars spent on “self-improvement.” As a feminist, I fundamentally disagree with anything that detracts from a woman’s sense of self-worth and beauty, and I take personal offense to the fact that some people are growing very rich off making the every day, hardworking woman believe that she needs to be changed and “improved” (editors of Cosmopolitan, I’m looking at you).
While these influences may be more pronounced in Asia, Korea isn’t the only country feeling the pressure to conform to Western society. It’s a trait that can be noticed everywhere, from complaints that Bollywood stars have far lighter skin than the average Indian, to Peruvian advertisements showing men and women with more Spanish features, as opposed to those of the large indigenous community. In order to ensure that our future daughters are not being subjected to these impossibly harsh standards of beauty, we need to reevaluate the messages our media sends out about race, and support equal representation of all ethnicities, sizes and colors in films and advertisements.