This is a guest post by Chelsea Bruck. Chelsea is currently teaching English in South Korea where she hopes to inspire confidence in her students, especially the young girls. She grew up in New Rochelle, New York and graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Communications Studies. She spends much of her spare time learning how to brew traditional Korean alcohol and exploring the country.
Three sixteen year old girls walked into class, one of whom had tiny flesh colored bandages sprinkled across her face. They ended up being the only 3 students who showed up for class that day. I had seen these same bandages on kids at school before, and once I was sitting and chatting with them I couldn’t help but ask.
“What happened, are you alright?”
She gave a slight giggle and unabashedly exclaimed, “Oh, teacher! Spots! Ugly!”
“You mean, freckles?” pointing to my own.
“Yes! Yes!” all three exclaimed.
“But why all of them?” At this point I still thought it might have something to do with cancerous moles.
“Beauty, teacher! Spots are ugly!”
“Well,” I told them, “I like freckles.” I pointed out the isosceles triangle that my 3 biggest ones form on my cheeks and chin. They laughed.
This conversation quickly evolved into a discussion about everything these girls want to change about themselves.
Korean girls are generally known for being shy, but put this typically taboo topic on the table and they are anything but! For the past month I have been coaxing English sentences out of these girls as if they were cavities, but now they were fervently typing away on their dictionaries, eager to express themselves.
The desire for double eyelid surgery was unanimous. One girl wanted her forehead pushed out (never heard of that one before). They all wanted smaller noses, a bridge between their eyes, thinner faces, bigger boobs.
I did my best to explain the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ I even brought up the term ‘Asian fetish’ to try and get my point across, but it fell flat.
One looked me in the eyes and stated earnestly, “Koreans are ugly. We want Chelsea teacher face.”
I implored them to appreciate their unique beauty, but how much convincing and self-esteem bolstering can really be done in a forty minute period? And what do I know about the role of beauty in their society, or about their culture at all for that matter? Who am I to sit here with my double eyelids and nose bridge and tell them to embrace the way that they look?
As much as I felt sad for what I perceived to be their incredible lack of self-esteem, could it be just another cultural difference? Or, possibly a cultural similarity? After all, I realize that these desires are hardly confined to this peninsula, but rather universally felt. However, it is not the desire I am struck by but the zeal with which it is expressed and approached. Every building I enter seems to have a plastic surgery clinic, and it’s not at all uncommon to see people going about their daily business while wearing bandages from their latest remodeling.
While speaking to these girls it seemed as though they were less insecure about their looks and more excited about the prospect of improvement.
South Korea is a nation of overachievers. In about 30 short years these people have managed to pull themselves up from developing country status to become the country with the 15th largest GDP in the world. Considering this context, (and the Western influence on their success, but that’s an entirely different beast) it becomes slightly more understandable that plastic surgery is seen as just another puzzle piece in configuring their best possible self.
Two of the girls playfully teased the one with yellower skin, and she took it like a champ. One of the teasers unsolicitedly explained that she uses whitening cream. They alternately compliment each other and point out flaws so frequently with no apparent harm done.
I pointed to the freckles on one girl’s face and asked her, “So, will you get yours removed, too?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she replied.
“Teacher likes them.”