Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Japanese people hate their faces."

The above is a quote attributed to Hayao Miyazaki, acclaimed Japanese director and animator for Studio Ghibli, when someone asked him why anime characters don't look at all Japanese (huge eyes, blonde hair, etc). For reference, here's some brief anime ridiculousness:

Sakura, from Naruto, one of the most overrated series ever.

Yuri, Momoko, and Hinagiku, from Wedding Peach, which is surprisingly good-but-brainless maho shoujo fun.

So yeah, Japanese and Korean (and probably Chinese) beauty standards are pretty heinous. They basically amount to "East Asian = ugly, white = pretty." Cosmetic facial surgery is distressingly common among Korean women, with procedures for looking younger AND for looking Western available. The owner of Sherlock Academy, Mrs. Lee, had some done a few weeks ago, as did one of my coworkers. Coworkers! And while Mrs. Lee is pretty affluent (she drives a BMW, which is a huge deal here in Hyundai/Daewoo/Kia land), I know that my Korean coworkers make even less money than I do. That gives you an idea of just how common it is.

And while the images that American women see every day in the media are pretty out-of-touch, their problems center mostly on youth and weight, the message being (for white women, granted): "What you are essentially is okay, it just needs to be tweaked." In Korea, though—all of the women and girls in ads have abnormally large eyes and look just as much Western as they do Korean—whether it's the result of PhotoShop, cosmetic surgery, or "lucky" genetics, it's hard to tell. Here the message is: "What you are essentially is NOT okay."

I mentioned earlier that I had gone to see Thirst, the latest movie by one of my favorite South Korean directors, Park Chan-wook. Cast in the female lead was Kim Ok-bin, an actress (my age!) who had previously been a model—in ads and commercials, selling clothes and beauty products to women, ostensibly so that they could look like her—before taking to the screen. Here she is:

I imagine for most of you reading this, she looks pretty Asian still; you're not surrounded by Koreans 24/7. But when she first appeared on screen, my initial reaction was confusion: "What's this white girl doing in a Park Chan-Wook movie?!" For reference, consider Margaret Cho:

Maybe that even doesn't illustrate just how much of a difference there is. But spend even a month in Korea, and all of a sudden half-Asians or photoshopped models in ads look less and less Asian and more and more white. So you have things like Double-eyelid surgery, or rhinoplasty procedures to create a "high" nose bridge.

My first night out in Hongdae, a Korean fellow (absolutely plastered and well into Blackoutland) kept on telling me that I was "so have a nice, high nose." At the time I thought it was a weirdo compliment from a drunk person who didn't speak English fluently and sort of laughed it off. But then, talking with a Korean woman at a language exchange about cosmetic surgery, she used the same phrase. And I caught a bizarre lyric in a translated music video of a song by After School, a K-pop girl group. Of course I don't know good "crazykyootie's" Korean (or English!) is, but nonetheless:

You're falling for my perfect legs and looks
With one wink you're falling for me
Your high nose bridge...

Yeah. What? A collective national hangup about the bridge of one's nose? Double-eyelid surgery I had known about beforehand, but this one was news to me.

(Incidentally, I was nonetheless tickled to get complimented on my nose, of all things—I think it's rather heinous, normally.)

One of my students in my newest conversation class (a girl named Cailyn) told me I have "very big eyes."

"Um. Thank you?"

"I want your eyes."

I'm sure there are a lot of things more depressing than watching some colonialized/racialized version of The Beauty Myth play out in girls as young as 15, but still it doesn't exactly warm your heart. I tried to do my part to undermine it.

"In America," I said, "there are lots of boys who think Korean girls are really pretty. They don't like white girls."

Cailyn and her partner-in-crime, Kitty, smiled and did little victory dances in their seat. Maybe by the end of the year they'll actually be okay with being Korean.


  1. good job --- keep motivating the Korean girls ... it's an important message

    BTW --- people commented on your "big eyes" when you were a baby :)

  2. That girl is not Kim Ok-bin. She is Nam Gyu-ri.

  3. Fail on my part! That image came up in a Google Image Search for Kim Ok-bin for some reason. Photo changed. ^^;