As a Korean American, my life has been a constant bridging of different norms, but any conclusion I try to reach about a comparison seems to mask rather than capture the truth and complexity of it all.
Enter Julia Lurie on NPR’s This American Life. Lurie, a white American English-language teacher in South Korea, decides to both educate Korean girls on why their society’s beauty standards and plastic surgery choices are worse than in the US, and alert the Western world to the insanity she has discovered.
Following her segment, Jezebel picks up on her story and frames it in a way that objectifies South Korean women.
Ironically, as these two American voices try to address how Korean beauty standards privilege Western features, their reaction is to suggest that Koreans need to be more “American” in their way of thinking about beauty. And they are not the only ones chiming in. The internet overflows with expats-turned-anthropologists, and one white girl was so fascinated, since her best friend is Korean, that she went to live among the natives in order to make a documentary called Korean High School.
Making their simplistic comparisons between Korean and American beauty standards, the verdict of the Jezebel and NPR pieces is that American beauty standards are more open-minded and less important to our daily lives. This sort of comparison harps upon the false “east vs. west” dichotomies that have served as a pillar of white supremacy.
Representations of “the Orient” as the backwards antithesis of the Western world have been operational in defining Western identity as universal and supreme.
Where convenient, the authors project their own Western-centric understanding of beauty onto Korean society, and seem to have no other framework available to understand the issue. In the Jezebel article, the author goes so far as to suggest, “If you have a limited ability to see beauty in someone who is not big-eyed and small-faced and straight-nosed, do you also have a limited ability to understand, empathize, sympathize and relate to that person, as well? Do you become intolerant of those who don’t meet your lookist standards?”
Her only justification for this random statement is that western society once used physiognomy to make a correlation between physical traits and evil characteristics, which she notes plays out in Disney movies today. Thus, a concern with physical traits must have those same repercussions in Korean society, in a way that is somehow more problematic.
But physical appearance exists in a different context in different societies. One example I have lived with is that Koreans are more open about commenting on others’ appearances, whereas it would be considered offensive in American society. How does that complicate the idea that appearances are considered more sacred or intrinsic in South Korea?
During her lesson, Lurie teaches her students that, in the US, it is illegal to discriminate based on appearance in hiring. That is completely false. It is perfectly legal, and studies have been done to prove what we already know: that looks help you when it comes to succeeding in life.
It is true, however, that people cannot legally discriminate against you based on the constitutionally protected categories, including race. Despite this law in theory, the reality is that the race you look like still plays a large part in who gets what jobs, from higher-paying restaurant jobs to corporate leadership. It shapes American society from the microaggressions and differential treatments in social, academic, and professional situations, to overt, state-sanctioned racial profiling laws.
Like racism, the American way of dealing with beauty privilege seems to be to pretend it doesn’t exist (probably because the two are so related), and instead, stigmatize it, which just makes everyone more secretive and ashamed about how they survive a world where the superficial matters.
And while we ignore our own issues, we are quick to look to other countries or communities of color in the U.S. to see how they are uniquely intolerant. Part of our American creed is to proclaim that we are more tolerant than the rest of the world, and thus, have a mandate to spread our enlightenment. The U.S. has essentially “branded” the very concept of a free, tolerant society and manages that brand meticulously. I think we need to examine our reactions to everyone else’s issues and the excuses we make for our own.