It’s summertime. I don’t know what day it is, nor does it matter. Summer days tended to flow from one to the next, and the memories stick together as if I lived a whole summer’s worth of adventures in one long day. I wake up with a start, with the thrill of excitement at starting a new day. The first lazy rays of sunlight seep into my room, bringing the silent air of mystery that I’m enamored with. Nobody else is awake, nothing moves. I’ve got this special time all to myself.
I slide out of bed, barefoot and already dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. No need to change, I’m fine just as I am. From the kitchen I grab a little plastic bowl, then slip on my sandals and quietly sneak out the back door into the garden.
The sky is still an inviting shade of bluish-violet, which means today I’ll be able to see the watercolor sky redden until the first shock of sunlight spills over the horizon. That special kind of sunlight that tints everything it touches and makes it glow, like I’m looking through rose-colored glasses. The birds are yawning out their first peeps and chirps of the day. As the sky warms gradually, the birdsong swells and the air fills to saturation. The smell of the dew on the grass is uplifting, and the unmoving air leaves a refreshing chill on my skin.
I like being here alone. The presence of anyone else here in my special world would undo its perfection.
In this calm, still moment, I don’t even want to breathe too loudly, for fear of disrupting the sanctity of it all. The whispers of last night’s dreams are still in my head, and reality feels abstract. Time is immaterial, and it feels like anything and everything is possible. I feel capable and independent, like I have no limitations and the world is mine to discover.
I walk slowly and deliberately toward the back of the garden, where the raspberry bushes sit. The raspberries wink at me from their hiding spots, scattered among vibrant leaves. The color combination is deeply attractive: variegated shades of green leaves and beautifully arched stems are punctuated with the luminous red berries.
I pick the first raspberry of the day and pop it straight into my mouth: the seeds crunch and the fragrant, sweet, slightly sour berry flavor overpowers my taste buds. The flavor is so concentrated that I can both smell and taste it at the same time. Glorious. I continue to hunt through the thorny vines to fill my plastic bowl with more. I love the satisfying feeling of a freshly-ripened raspberry slipping off the vine–to me, they look like little crocheted hats meant for garden gnomes.
As my bowl fills, I dream about the raspberry waffles that Mom will make in my favorite Bugs Bunny waffle iron. Maybe she’ll let me pour the batter and make my own waffles today…
The flavor of that first berry fades, and I consecrate myself to my task. The day has begun.
Never before was I bombarded with pressure to look attractive than when I lived in Seoul.
I say Seoul specifically, because it seems that, out of all other cities I visited in South Korea, judgment on one’s looks is the most suffocating there. Unless you shop at the Western franchises like Forever 21 or H&M, you’d be hard-pressed to find clothing that accommodates larger than a size 6. Subway advertisements show images of women (and men) before and after plastic surgery: larger-than-life sized posters with close-ups of eyelids, stomachs, hips and thighs, cheekbones and complexions. Parts of your body you never thought to scrutinize before are laid out in painstaking close-up detail. So I started to scrutinize parts of my body and notice things I never imagined before could be a problem.
In Seoul, I was constantly bombarded with the “ideal” image of beautiful. There is ONE standard of beauty for Korean women to fit into…and it’s an ideal that, for nearly ALL Korean women, cannot be achieved without surgical enhancement. Slender frame, with a butt that’s not TOO large, C-cup bust size, milky white blemish-free skin, long pin-straight hair, large eyes framed by a prominent eyelid crease, a high nose bridge, prominent cheekbones, and a V-line (a chin that comes to a distinct point).
Plus-sized figures, beauty marks, body hair, tanned skin, rounded cheeks, naturally curly hair—not only are these traits completely absent from the typical South Korean beauty advertisement, but they’re relentlessly criticized and stigmatized.
The “before-and-after” images on these advertisements are relentless. A sad, gloomy expression haunts the “before” photos; women with their blemishes, small eyes, and flat, round faces seem to be looking into the camera with no confidence, no hopes of being beautiful. They’re miserable faces indeed. But after! They’re smiling into the camera with their sparkly new veneers, cheek implants, and shaved-down chins to match that beautiful, perfect standard.
If you start feeling a bit self-conscious when you start comparing yourself to these images: Not to worry! Those adverts tell you exactly where to go if you want to change anything that doesn’t match that robotic, freakishly unnatural standard to a T. In the bottom corners of those advertisements, some doctor and his/her team of cosmetic surgery experts wear idiotic smiles and point you in the right direction to their clinic. Come on in, we’ll turn that frown upside-down, they promise. Here’s a handy map in case you get lost—hurry on down today!
To me, the “after” images are more depressing than the “befores.” Congratulations, you’ve given your hard-earned money to another clinic that has successfully pumped out one more plastic mannequin to parade around downtown. You’ve bought your confidence from one of those smiling doctors, and you’re fit to take on the world now!
“Beautiful people are successful people,” my students would tell me. I found there was a woeful lack of dialogue on acceptance, on natural beauty, on the possibility of loving yourself and being confident in rejecting that impossible standard of beauty.
So for as Eurocentric and warped as the American standard of beauty is, it pales in comparison to what I saw in Seoul. At least here in the States, there are more and more women of color, curvaceous figures, and natural hairstyles being shown in beauty advertisements and in the media. There is plenty more improvement to be made, but at least those images are out there. In Seoul, it’s not just limited; it seemed to be absent altogether.