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.
I hope you understand that you follow in a long tradition of sexist institutions that have told women and girls, particularly those of color, that they are inadequate and ugly; that they are undesirable, and so disgusting that they should not even be in public. This was the message you sent to Taylor and millions of other girls. If you can’t get this idea through your thick privileged skull, head over to Sports Illustrated to read the words of Courtney Nguyen.
Maybe the USTA needs a few more women in its ranks (as suggested by Lindsey Davenport); maybe its men should check their racial and gender privilege at the locker room. You have a training program for that? Given her ample success on the court, I can’t help but think your sexist shaming has NOTHING to do with her play on the court; your claims for concern about her “health” are absurd and offensive. This all seems to reflect your desire to produce a profitable commodity. Do you think she can only be successful if she wins titles and covers of Maxim? Are you searching for a great tennis player…or a body to market to men throughout the nation? Irrespective of your intent, your methods and message are disgusting.
Is it just a coincidence that the two girls/women who have been chastised, ridiculed and demonized for their weight, for their body, for their appearance, are both African-American? Did that even cross your mind? It is hard to look at this as anything but racism and sexism, as yet another African-American tennis phenomenon dominating the White world of tennis only to face unfair criticism. Yet another Black female tennis player being reduced to her body parts, prodded, and examine as if her worth and value could be measured by your hands. To get back on the court, will you examine her, checking to see if she meets your expectations? Disgusting.
Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding says one of the reasons jazz music has a difficult time becoming more mainstream is that by the time an artist gets good enough and polished enough to be really celebrated, he’s a middle-aged man who no longer fits into mainstream society’s image of what’s sexy.
“It takes decades to get the music to a place where it’s worth sharing, and that’s what you get [middle-aged men],” Spalding, 27, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The beauty of this craft is, it shouldn’t be about who’s prettiest or fastest or strongest or has the coolest clothes. Those are all details that can be sprinkled on top. But we’re in a culture that is obsessed with youth and women and body types and looking cool and hip and selling clothes and products. And the basic tenets of the music don’t align themselves very well with those requirements.”
Spalding, who is making the rounds to promote her new “Radio Music Society” album, said American culture has pushed the necessity of physical attractiveness in the music business so far that we are denying ourselves the opportunity to hear incredible talent.
“It’s a pity that if someone who has a really profoundly potent art to share chooses not to or doesn’t fit into this very thin slice of what’s desirable and marketable, chances are the public will never get a chance to hear what they’re doing,” she said.
Spalding acknowledged that at the moment, with her winsome beauty, she does happen to fit into the slice of what’s marketable. And she has found a way to make it help other musicians.
“Because I know aspects of my image fit into that thin slice, I want to take people with me, hoping that through the music they’ll get exposed to an audience they might not get exposed to because of the stigma about image,” she said.
Suddenly I found myself thinking back to the toys I had in my childhood. My primary toys were my Barbies. I had about sixty of them, mainly because I inherited all of my older sister’s Barbies once she outgrew them. Truth be told, Barbie and I got off to a rocky start. When I was two years old and my sister was at school during the day, I had the habit of taking her Barbies, completely denuding them and hanging them by their hair in the bushes outside our front door. After coming home to this disturbing scene, my sister began hiding her Barbies out of my reach.
A couple of years later, though, I developed a finer appreciate for Barbies, and with me they lived an extremely privileged life: I had the Barbie townhouse (three stories, with an elevator), the Barbie van, Barbie horses, a Barbie convertible, you name it. All of them were the standard Barbie: blonde, blue-eyed…oh, you know…
I never questioned Barbie’s attributes, of course, because I’d never known anything but white dolls during my entire young life. The only non-white toy I had was my Care Bear (I had Lucky, who was green).
Things changed, though, when I finally got a Mexican Barbie. Yes! A dark-haired, brown-eyed, tan-skinned Barbie…who, now that I look back on it, still had that impossible Barbie physique that didn’t look like that of any woman in my family, but still–she was brown! Like me! I was totally thrilled! Of course, back then, I couldn’t really have articulated why my Mexican Barbie was so important to me. I just knew that she was special.
Of course you do, we just saw it a day or two ago.
Whew! That’s good, right? They listened to those who complained.
Except, here’s their response:
On Saturday, February 25, we uploaded the March issue with Bela Padilla on the cover on our Facebook page. Just hours later, a slew of comments on the supposed “racism” of the cover image and cover line flooded the magazine page, prompting the editorial team to re-examine the cover so that we could put into context its execution and assuage the concerns of our readers and non-readers as well who’ve weighed in on the issue.
We took all the points into consideration and have decided to take the side of sensitivity.
When FHM hits the stands in March it will have a different cover. We deem this to be the most prudent move in the light of the confusion over the previous cover execution.
We apologize and thank those who have raised their points. We apologize to Bela Padilla for any distress this may have caused her. In our pursuit to come up with edgier covers, we will strive to be more sensitive next time.
SUPPOSED “racism”? Scare quotes and all? Really? Do you know what this smells like? It smells like “we apologize but it’s not racism!!!”
Of course, it doesn’t end there. (Because it never does.)
Bela Padilla, the pale model on the cover, would like everyone to know her feelings on it! Don’t watch this video unless you want to watch Bela give a lot of excuses and no reasons.
Apparently we needed to “see the article to understand the cover”.
Sorry Bela, but U RONG.
And of course, bonus blackface mention from the HuffPo article: [Bela Padilla] adds that two of the girls in the cover photo were actually of Filipino descent who were painted to look darker.
From the video: “Some of those girls were actually Filipinas painted black. Not to represent Africans, but we were really doing that to portray shadows, because it’s my coming of age.”
Oh, well isn’t that nice for you, to use skin colors actual people have as “shadows” for your coming of age, Bela.
More bonuses from Bela’s video:
“When I see a Black person, I don’t initially think of a certain race because we also have Black Filipin@s.” I don’t even think the girl realizes what she’s saying here.
“We didn’t mean to hurt anyone with the shoot.” Repeated only five million or so times, often to avoid answering questions that actually address the problem!
When asked if she regretted taking part in the shoot? “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, so I actually don’t regret it. It was a beautiful photo, but if I did hurt anyone, I am sorry.”
We’ve all hurt that before, haven’t we? I don’t regret doing anything hurtful, but if you happened to get hurt, I guess I could be sorry for that much.
Do us a favor, FHM Philippines? And get yourself, and Miss Bela Padilla, even the tiniest education on colorism in Asian communities, and just why everything surrounding this is plain wrong.