Korean Faces

      February 27, 2009 09:47

      In the summer of 1987, I was 18 years old and had just completed my freshman year at Yale College. For six weeks, my parents sent me to Yonsei University to learn Korean. It was a wonderful summer and it was exciting to attend my mother's alma mater. My first year of college had been a challenge, and being in Seoul was making me happier -- one of the unexpected reasons was that in Seoul, I felt good about my face.

      I am a decent-looking person. I am no great beauty nor am I difficult to look at. I grew up in New York City, which has an enormous variety of faces and bodies, and consequently I'd always felt fine about my appearance. But when I started at a fancy college in Connecticut, I became aware of a narrower standard of beauty. At Yale in 1987, a girl was considered pretty if she was slender and had the angular features of a white woman of European descent. During the late 80s, J.Crew, the preppy American clothing brand, used to recruit its catalogue models on the Yale's campus -- no doubt to attach the image of elite, white American college students to their retail goals.

      I have a traditional Asian face, more round than oval, with a broad nose and small eyes. In my family, my parents did not talk about my looks or the looks of my two sisters. In his own way, my father was a kind of feminist, because he encouraged us three girls to study hard and have big dreams. My father and my mother taught us to be proud to be Koreans, because we were from a tough and smart nation. My father told us: "If a boy doesn't like you because you're intelligent, then he's guaranteed to have dumb children."

      To my surprise, when I started at the predominantly white and wealthy college, I felt for the first time in my life physically unacceptable. But when I came to Seoul, I felt good again about being a Korean girl. All around me, I noticed confident and intelligent young Koreans who looked like me. To my mind, that summer left an imprint -- a gift of self-esteem from the nation of my birth.

      So imagine my sadness as I see witness Koreans' meteoric rise in the world as consumers and purveyors of plastic surgery. I recently reviewed a terrific book called "Bodies" by the psychologist Susie Orbach, who treated Princess Diana for her eating disorder. Orbach explained that we now live in a globally wired world where people receive from 2,000 to 5,000 images of bodies enhanced by digital manipulation each week. The irony is that as our brains are being saturated with manipulated photographs, the content of the images is dangerously homogenous. In short: there are more fake pictures and the pictures look eerily alike. In Korea, I can no longer distinguish among media personalities. It's like these men and women came out of one paper doll factory, or perhaps the same doctor's clinic.

      I live in Tokyo now, and it is the same here. Every Japanese fashion magazine features Asian women who no longer look Asian. The women look like dolls or manga characters with western features, bizarrely less and less human. Every age and nation has their own idea of beauty, and cosmetics have been around for millennia, so maybe it's just a matter of drawing the line. If wigs are okay, then why not false eyelashes? If dieting is okay, then why not liposuction?

      As a parent, I hear the argument that our children need to compete in the global economy. Some believe that if your daughters have round eyes, sharper noses, bigger breasts, and thinner legs -- the list goes on -- then this will help them. Really? Eighty percent of plastic surgery patients are reportedly dissatisfied with the result. So, for the plastic surgery pragmatists, if the nose job didn't make you happier or help you get a better job or husband, then what?

      In 1987, I saw for myself that Korean people were elegant and strong. As a young woman, their pride and self-possession gave me the courage to return to America and believe that I was okay.

      I cannot fault anyone for having plastic surgery. That seems naive and wrong-headed. I can sympathize with women and men who feel the need to do this. The issue is much larger than one woman's decision to get Botox or buy thinner thighs. Global marketing relentlessly focuses on making us feel unsure of ourselves so we can purchase the next new thing to calm us temporarily. We are made to feel anxious, but we have to remember that we were not born this way.

      I believe that Korean people are beautiful. Every painting in the long history of Korean art celebrates our almond-shaped eyes and rounded noses. Ironically, this fact has not been lost on the West. In America and Europe, artists and photographers scout for models with Asian eyes and noses to depict an authentic, ethnic beauty, and high-end advertisers of luxury goods use these models because they are considered more beautiful. A quick perusal of western glossy magazines will show models who would not have been chosen in Korea, because they look too Korean. Whether or not Koreans believe that the double-eyelid surgery is a way to look more European or, non-politically, a way to imitate TV stars, Western critics and scholars interpret this surgery as unequivocally self-hating. This recent phenomenon of having surgery to copy soap opera stars is an aberration in Korea's historical definition of beauty, but even reasonable people often want what everyone else has. This is the siren call of the tribe.

      By Min Jin Lee, author of "Free Food for Millionaires"
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