As I sit on the subway, gazing happily at the beautiful little child across from me, I see the love in her mother’s eyes. Mom glances over at me, sees my White face and begins to speak English to her daughter, which the child mimics perfectly. “One, two, three, four…”
They play together as if there are few cares in the world. The beautiful image strikes a chord in me and I imagine them going home together. In my imagination, they live in a modest high-rise apartment. The living room is littered with educational toys, blocks, and dolls. Dad arrives home, exhausted from work, but excited to play with his child. Picking her up and tossing her in the air, eliciting giggles, they join Mom in the kitchen where they prepare dinner as a family. This scene, I admit, is a bit idealistic. But the sweetness and love radiating from the mom and her child have taken my heart for a few moments and transported it to a place that is safe and joyous.
My heart is not long in that peaceful place, however. Soon my thoughts turn to the realities of life in Korea today. Many people are choosing to have very small families because of the high cost of education, to name only one economic pressure. At very young ages, children are placed into hagwons or private academies for language, math, science…you name it… anything that will give that kid an edge later in life. And these academies are a huge money-suck for Korean families. The returns for this investment are not very good, but parents insist that it is the only way to be successful and to find a good job.
There is something else that many parents insist is another key to success.
My mind wanders back to that family and I imagine them a few years into the future. The little girl has blossomed into an even more beautiful person with her own thoughts, ideas and dreams. The topic of plastic surgery, as casual and ubiquitous as conversations about the weather, comes up and the family talks together and makes a plan for changing their daughter’s face. The face that if left untouched would reveal a certain history, invoke memories of the ancestors, and show the unique and beautiful gifts from her parents.
“Well, her Asian eyes have to go. They have to look bigger and more open if she is to be beautiful. And her nose is ugly. She needs a bigger bridge and we could make it a bit more narrow.” The family then decides what percentage of the annual budget will go to the plastic surgeon, where they put many of their hopes for their daughter’s future. It has been said, and perhaps it is true, that their daughter will not get a good job unless she has a small, v-shaped face and big eyes.
I have talked to Korean parents who speak of plastic surgery as if there are absolutely no other options. My students talk of it as if it is as essential as oxygen or food. One student said to me when I expressed confusion as to why she would want to change her gorgeous Korean face, “I am ugly.” The conversation continued and I told her that I have eyes and I could see that there is nothing ugly about her. Not one. Single. Thing. I then asked her about standards of beauty and how those are decided. “What is beautiful?” I inquired. “Western face,” she answered matter-of-factly.
I wish I could say that I was shocked. But I have seen the damage and devastation that the West has brought upon nearly every inch of this planet. I know a bit about history. And I can attest to being subjected to unrealistic and unfair beauty standards. There has never been a single time in my life when I have looked in the mirror and thought that I was perfectly acceptable. There is always at least one thing I’ve looked at and deemed was awkward, imperfect, or downright ugly. In my head, I know this is all bullshit, these standards of beauty that .001% of the population actually resembles. And yet I am still affected by it. So on some level I understand that every single woman feels inadequate.
But it is just too painful to imagine that perfect little girl on the subway and what her parents see when they look at her. It is just too heartbreaking to picture having a daughter and feeling pressured by society to have to tell her, “Baby, you are just too ugly to survive.”
Here are some more thoughts on the topic…