Conversations about Beauty

I have always been uncomfortable if someone compliments my appearance. Usually because I don’t think about it too much and tend to focus on aspects of my character instead. Fortunately, the student choruses of “Teacher, pretty!” are finally dying down, but the issues of Western and Korean beauty standards are still at the forefront of my mind. Especially after today.

This afternoon, I met one of Ye Bin’s friends at the mall. We ate pizza, practiced English and Korean, and then went to a photo booth. Even though  I usually dislike taking pictures of myself, it was surprisingly a lot of fun to make silly faces and poses.

But when we went to print the pictures, a Photoshop application popped up on the screen. That’s where it went downhill.

“Big, big, big, big, big,” said Ye Bin’s friend, pressing an arrow to enlarge our eyes on the picture.

“How white?” asked Ye Bin, pointing to three shades of white skin ranging from Wonder Bread to sanitized lab coat.

AHHHHHHHH! I was screaming internally. “No, no, we look fine!” I insisted. “We don’t need to change what we look like. It’s okay as…”

“Okay, little white.”

Though the final picture didn’t look as cartoonish as I expected, it was still disconcerting to see our faces distorted. It was even more disconcerting to realize that the two Korean faces next to mine were distorted to look more like my face.

Later that night, Ye Bin and I were sitting in the living room watching TV when a commercial came on. Ye Bin tilted her head to the side as she looked at the woman advertising skin care products, and she lowered the volume. Then she looked at me and said, “I want to understand American mind.”

“Okay,” I answered. “What about it?”

“Beauty.” She crossed her legs. “What is beauty in America?”

I had been thinking a lot about beauty standards for the last several days, and especially since the photo booth that afternoon, but I was not sure how I could communicate such a complex topic with simple English and simple Korean.

“What is beautiful American woman?” Ye Bin prompted.

I thought for a minute. “On TV,” I said, “American women are tall and thin. They are usually blonde and have long hair. They wear makeup and sometimes have surgery.” I started gesturing at my torso.

Ye Bin looked very serious. “Glamour?” she asked.

“Yes, sometimes people think they have glamour. In magazines, a lot of them are changed with Photoshop. But,” I said more brightly, “most Americans do not look like that. Americans can be tall or short, fat or thin, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, with long hair or short hair. What you see on TV or in magazines–that is not what all Americans think are beautiful. Americans are different and like different things. I try to find something beautiful about everyone.”

“Ah. Me too,” said Ye Bin. “In Korea, many people get plastic surgery. Face surgery. Double-eyelids and small face. But I don’t want. I like my eyes and face!”

“Yes!” I said, relieved and thrilled at my sister’s confidence. “Because you are beautiful the way you are!”

We looked deeply into each other’s eyes, sharing what I thought was an intense moment of understanding and connection.

And then she asked, “Janine – what is ‘way’?”


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