Suddenly Beautiful

I am not beautiful in my country.
Okay, so I guess I’m beautiful in that Dove ad, body positivity, everyone-is-a-unique snowflake kind of way, but I would never be described as objectively beautiful by American beauty standards.
My two front teeth are a bit indented because when I was growing up, my parents couldn’t afford braces.  I used to weigh significantly more than I do now, and my heaviest weight is what I’ll always feel like I am.  Sometimes I have acne, because I’m a human.  I have those little rolls of fat near my armpits that ladies with big boobs have.  I don’t tan, I don’t wear makeup, I don’t wear high heels, and I’ve never once gotten a manicure. 
I am not beautiful in my country.
The first time someone passed by me on the streets in Korea and whispered, “Oh, beautiful,” I thought it was a fluke.  Maybe they were looking at someone else, or maybe they’d never seen a foreigner before.   
Then it happened again.  And again.  And again.  Students would tell me I was beautiful, strangers in bars and cafes, clerks in stores.  And suddenly, I felt beautiful. Over time I grew confident and held my chin up.  This is incredibly strange to me, because in Korea, I am definitely not beautiful to other Americans.  In fact, I’d say a large percentage – not all, to be sure, but a lot – of North American men come to Korea because they find Korean women to be so beautiful.  And stranger still is that so many Korean women do not consider themselves beautiful the way they are naturally, opting to get plastic surgery, wear heavy makeup, and wobble around on stilettos that will ruin their feet in the long run (this is in part due to unrealistic Korean beauty standards that are based on unrealistic western beauty standards, creating a WHOLE CLUSTERFUCK of expectations of an external appearance that no one will ever be able to live up to).
I am fully aware that cross-cultural attraction is fraught with colonialism, racism, degrading sexual stereotypes, objectification, and exoticism.  That sometimes what’s happening is not genuine attraction to a person, but attraction to the romanticized and dehumanized version in someone’s head of what that person represents.  I’m also aware that my white privilege has an impact on my social interactions in Korea.
But I’m going to keep it one hundred on my end and say this: being told I’m beautiful – something that never happened to me at home – feels good.  Even if it comes out of exoticism and a bullshit adherence to western beauty standards.  When it’s paired with sincerity and stated as an opinion rather than used as a manipulation tactic, it can be so empowering.  The guys who pass me on the street and whisper, “Oh!  Beautiful!” aren’t looking to hook up; they’re not asking for my number.  They say it shyly, quietly, as if they’re just thinking aloud.  And I straighten my back, turn and smile coyly at them, and think, “Yes.  I am beautiful.”    

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone were told this enough to really, truly believe it?

If you’re interested in reading some fucking fantastic articles about gender and beauty in South Korea, look no further than The Grand Narrative – really incredible blog.  On the other end of this experiential spectrum, check out this horrifying pieceabout the intersection of online dating and racism.  

2 thoughts on “Suddenly Beautiful

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