Friday, April 11, 2014

How to Thrive In the Plastic Surgery Capital of the World - My Messy Beautiful

South Korea is an intriguing mix of modernization and traditional values. 
Of new trends and ancient customs. 
Of emerging philosophies and age-old rituals. 

And this curious place is our new home. My husband and I are working here as English teachers and the cultural education has been less of a shock and more of a daily teaching. Every day we seem to learn a little more about what it means to be Korean, how that's different than being American, and what it all means.

And surely the most prevalent and challenging theme I've been learning about lately is 
South Korea's infatuation with "pretty." 

And you may be thinking that "pretty" feels pretty, darn important in America, too, but let me tell you one in five Korean women living in Seoul have had some kind of plastic surgery procedure done. Women will get operations ranging from nose jobs and double-eyelid surgery to the breaking and shaving of the jaw to achieve a more V-shaped face. Some parents give plastic surgery as graduation presents. Others raise the funds themselves and undergo the surgery in order to land a job. The procedures are cheaper than in the States and more common. The importance of beauty cannot be understated and in some ways it's a different kind of pressure than any I've experienced back home.

From Business Insider

Especially, being here as a foreigner where the very features I was born with (and admittedly haven't devoted much thought to) seem to be idolized to a strange degree. For example, my face seems to get a lot of attention. Not that there is anything particularly interesting about my face other than that, by-and-large, the Korean desire is to have a smaller face. So sometimes women will cup my face in their hands like I am a child and say, "How lucky you are to have this small face!" Or my curly hair. Most Koreans have glossy, black, straight hair, but they tell me that they would kill to have such curl. "Such waves," they tell me. Little did I know how "lucky" I really was.

I've made some truly wonderful Korean friends and they are not exempt from this perpetual pressure to be beautiful either. Here's a common conversation from the break room at the school where I teach English:

"Heather, you look so much better today!" a co-worker might say.

Compliment? Metaphorical slap? Not sure. So, I usually just say, "Thanks."

She continues, "Your eyes they look...more..."

"Defined?" I help.

"Yes! Defined. Very nice."

"Thanks, I thought I'd try wearing mascara today."

"You should wear mascara every day. You don't look good without it. Sometimes I am surprised by the way you look. You already have Western features. You already have light, curly hair. Why don't you just try a little harder?"

This type of conversation has been tailored to just about every area: my make-up, my skin. my hair, my body, my height, my breast size, my clothes, or my weight. The things about me that most Americans know not to talk about seem to be fair game in Korea. My friends also talk to me also about their marriages:

One woman tells me: "My husband tells me that I was pretty before he married me, but now I am fat and pregnant. I would not leave the house without make-up because my husband would be upset."

"Oh, wow," I say.

"Yeah, you've only been married for two years. Call me in seven. You'll be miserable just like me."

These conversations leave me heart-broken. Frail. Unsure. Unsettled. And maybe it's just a cultural piece that requires some getting used to because I really don't think my co-workers are trying to be unkind, I just think it's common to comment on each other's appearance because it seems to matter so much here.

But my heart hurts for them. To know that they feel so insecure. So ashamed. So insufficient.

And, at the same time, I don't know how to carry this either. How to feel about this. 
How to believe I am valuable and worthy in a world that is constantly telling me I'm not. 

And it's not only in Korea. And our triggers are not only physical appearance. I'm encouraged by what Anne Lamott has to say about how to handle hard things:

"It's funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools - friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty - and said 'do the best you can with these, they will have to do'. And mostly, against all odds, they do."

Usually the most helpful tools are the ones that take the most work to develop. Tools like: self-acceptance, positive self-talk, vulnerability, kindness, and courage. And they feel cliche and outdated, but they are actually solid and true. 

So in order to thrive in the plastic surgery capital of the world, I use these tools to make it harder for me to doubt my own worth:

  • Community: I surround myself with good people who talk less about diets and more about books.
  • Prayer: a little reminder I keep on-hand when I'm feeling like--as Oprah says--a "schlumpadinka": 

  • Journaling: positive mantras, like: "I am a strong, confident, intelligent, beautiful woman."
  • Positivity: When women tell me about their flaws, I tell them about their strengths. Even when it feels forced. Even when it's hard.
  • Self-confidence: I don't criticize my abilities nor my appearance out loud. Ever. The world has enough self-hatred to go around anyway.                                             

In this day and age, tools like this are really blatant acts of rebellion

Little things that say, "I'm done. I'm not part of this competition. But I'll be here with open arms when you're ready to join me."

This essay was written as part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project

To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE

And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!


KendraKay at said...

Love!! I want to bow out of this competition too.

Bryan Hardin said...

I was always impressed by Mike, because as strange as he was, he seemed to have a lot of confidence.

He might have been insecure about things too, but....I always admire people who are confident and comfortable, even when they haven't shaven (for example) or wear shorts and sandles to Friday night vespers (in this culture).

I have been focusing more on appearance, because I think it helps my students respect me, but I also try to feel good about who I am...Sometimes I purposely wear a tie that is a little bit strange just to practice feeling comfortable :)

(P.S. Off topic but I really want to know if you know of which efiling service is best for foreign workers....regarding taxes...)

Heather said...

Bryan, I will be absolutely no help on the topic of taxes for foreign workers. There are many things about ex-pat life that still bewilder me.

May said...

This is wonderful writing! Thanks for sharing it.

Kristin Normandin said...

Beautiful! Thank you for sharing this piece. I found it through the Messy Warrior page that I also posted on. I cannot imagine being bombarded with that level self consciousness every day. Your perspective is so important! I, as an American not having lived out of the country ever in my life, have felt pressured so often on appearance and have struggled with that. Your article helps me validate that yes, this pressure exists but that yes, women are not always as victimized by that here in the States as in other parts of the world. I still have a wildly accepting culture that backs me up it's just a matter of finding the right "niche" within a media obsessed society. A beautiful writing, interesting perspective and a brave post for Messy Beautiful! Loved it and thank you again!

Laura Trott said...

Thank you so much for this wonderfully written and thoughtful piece! So glad to have found it through the Messy Beautiful project.