Life Free From Criticism of My Appearance
The beauty in each of us
“What does it mean to be an adult, ideally speaking? It means agreeing to certain sacrifices, giving up exorbitant claims, learning that it is ‘better to vanquish one’s desires than the world order’... working to be autonomous, capable of inventing oneself as much as of stepping outside of oneself.” (Pascal Bruckner, The Temptation of Innocence)
It was in 1996, when I was in the 5th grade, that I first heard the newly-invented term “princess disease.” At first, having princess disease meant that you thought you were as pretty as a princess. Even that recently, there was no standardized or absolute measure for evaluating appearance. At that time, we didn’t limit descriptions of beauty to comparisons with actresses but expressed it figuratively; we would say that someone had a face as round and plump as a full moon, a face as pretty as an apple, lips as red as cherries.
Princess disease was used to describe those who employed only their own evaluation of themselves, with no consideration for others’, and mistakenly thought they were beautiful even if others didn’t. Then another meaning of it, as not a disease that must be frowned on but as having a proud and confident attitude and loving your appearance, was added. Celebrity Kim Ja-ok wore a princess-style dress and sang, “Princesses are lonely,” and a little later, the term “prince disease,” which applies to men, emerged.
At that time, in connection with our discovery of the opposite sex, the kids in my class—I’m not sure who started it—began to openly rank the top three among us, using appearance as the criterion. This was when I first began to be aware of people’s appearance being beautiful or not beautiful. And that awareness led directly to awareness of my own appearance.
Female students, please be pretty
This awareness of my appearance and envy of beauty continued through middle and high school, and even university. In school, on the street, in the media, there were always many pretty girls, and the appearances of total strangers were a daily topic of conversation among me and my friends of the same age.
Somewhere along the line, a universal or absolute standard for the appearance that everyone desires was made. The height, body weight, and chest/waist/hip measurements were decided on. The facial features—small face and slim jaw, big eyes with double eyelids, prominent nose, slightly protruding forehead, and so on—were close to those of a Western-looking Barbie doll.
Female high school students felt that they should be pretty. Unaware that we already glowed with fresh youthfulness, we thought that we had to make our appearance match the beauty standards and trends shown in the mass media. Adults thought the same.
After becoming a university student, the feeling of freedom from becoming an adult with more free time was accompanied by an increase in interest in one’s appearance and time spent working on it. We lived for our appearances. The campus was overflowing with beautiful young women.
The boyfriends I had during that time evaluated my appearance highly by their standards (which were not those of society in general), but appearance standards, which occupy a lofty place among the standards by which the opposite sex is judged, were always bothering me. This was because I was never free from the tension of having to look good in front of the opposite sex or from the blunt critique of appearance given by Korean men (at least, many of those I have known and dated).
Not wanting to be ugly, I paid constant attention to my appearance. People expected me to be pretty and slim. It seemed like my family, friends, boyfriends, coworkers, and even those I was meeting for the first time, expected me to be pretty.
Like every citizen of the Republic of Korea, I tried to lose weight. My methods were to exercise and eat very little. I tried several times to lose weight, but had little success and simultaneously picked up bad habits like starving myself and bingeing. To me, food was divided into what I could eat and what I couldn’t eat. I got more and more sensitive about my appearance, other people’s opinions, food, and the like.
Among people who don’t mention others’ appearance
As a French Language and Literature major, I was given the opportunity to spend two years in France; first as an [undergraduate] exchange student and then as part of a master’s degree program. I spent the two years at a university in Belfort, a small city southeast of Paris. Like KAIST in Korea, as a university specializing in technology, it was well set-up for international exchange, and so there were students from many different countries there.
There, I was able to make friends of a much greater variety of nationalities and races than in Korea. Of course, the greatest number of them was from France, but I was lucky enough to also make friends from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, the Congo, Italy, Spain, the U.K., Poland, Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Kazakhstan, China, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia.
I and the friends that I met in class, in extracurricular activities, or at parties, talked freely about our cultures and values. It was while doing this that I came to question Koreans’ attitude toward appearance—striving for what was pretty much one certain type appearance and competitively cultivating beauty—that I had taken for granted.
In France, my speech and behavior became more natural, and I didn’t have a single conversation evaluating someone’s appearance, mine included. This was partially because Koreans’ measures for male and female beauty don’t make sense when applied to foreigners and every culture’s idea of beauty is different, but the most important reason was an atmosphere that didn’t encourage talking about others’ appearance.
In Korea, we quickly become both the subject and object of appearance critiques, but I wasn’t either while I was in France.
Asking for cosmetic surgery to look like a celebrity is unimaginable
Perhaps because I was living in a provincial city and I was a foreigner, who lacked the feelings of belonging and responsibility that natives have, I felt less of a sense of competitiveness than I did in Korea. Life in Korea had felt to me like a jungle where you wouldn’t survive if you didn’t work as hard as you could to acquire one of a limited number of targets.
A certain standardized appearance was one of those targets. In Korean society, the everyday evaluation of others’ appearance, and (because you could never be the most beautiful) the sense of inferiority regarding your appearance, as well as the weight-loss and cosmetic surgery that you dreamed of or actually did to conquer that, were already ubiquitous.
Every time I visited the home of a French friend’s parents, I was quite surprised by middle-aged women’s approach to their appearance. Instead of using up their energy on trendy weight-loss methods, they would fix themselves up in the way that best showcased their own beauty. Just as I saw in my [young] French female friends, middle-aged women didn’t follow trends, but focused on emphasizing their best features. Each one was different, but not ugly or overdone, and beautiful in her own way.
Of course, there is quite a lot of cosmetic surgery in France as well. The most common procedures there are liposuction, face lifts, and breast enlargement. French people consider one’s figure important, and find slim bodies beautiful. They think it is natural that everyone’s facial features are different. They seem to find beauty in faces that are different from most. It would be unimaginable for a French woman to bring a picture of someone to the cosmetic surgeon and ask to be made to look the same.
As France has had more diverse peoples mixing together for a long period of time, and has allowed immigration, the appearances of its people have also become diverse, so that the differences between people in hair, eye, and skin color are much larger than what can be found among Koreans. This may be why they acknowledge, and seek to discover the natural beauty of, their own unique physical characteristics.
France has banned cosmetic surgery advertisements since 2005
After living for a few years free of others’ opinions about my appearance, the bad eating habits that I had acquired while trying to lose weight improved. And I lost weight, despite making no efforts to do so. You could say that being free from consciousness and anxiety about my body allowed it to regain its original biorhythms.
My French boyfriend didn’t evaluate my appearance based on how much fat was attached to my body. He saw my flat nose and small eyes, which are considered reasons for an inferiority complex in Korea, as attractive features. During this period in which there was no mention of others’ appearance in conversations with friends, boyfriends, or family, I gradually became liberated from concern about my body and others’ bodies. I learned the value of natural beauty and of beauty that comes from your gaze, expression, and behavior.
The middle school-aged daughter of a professor I respect was born to a Korean and a French parent, so her features seemed foreign even though they had a clear Asian influence. She liked her small eyes and single eyelids. It wasn’t that she had princess disease, but that she knew and emphasized her good points. One of my friends had big gaps between her teeth, and so of course she considered that an attractive, unique feature. (Of course there are differences in aesthetic viewpoints, and if my friend had been in Korea she would have gotten braces to eliminate the gaps.)
There are several people considered ideal beauties in Korean mass media and cosmetic surgery ads, but their appearances are very similar. As someone who had acclimatized to and internalized that image of beauty, seeing people who discovered and highlighted their own unique features was a minor shock to me. French women are probably less likely than women from any other country to tolerate looking the same as others.
Of course, French society is not free of efforts to improve appearance and the subsequent side effects. It is said that 1.5% of French women between ages 15 and 35 suffer from anorexia. In 2010, Isabelle Caro, a model who had long struggled with the disease, died of related health problems. In response to this issue, the French legislature passed a law against ultra-thin models in April of this year. The country banned advertisements for cosmetic surgery in 2005.
Beauty discovered once you are free from judgment about appearance
Among Eun Heekyung’s short stories, there is one called “Beauty Despises Me.” Upon hearing that her father is in critical condition, the story’s main character, whose appearance is ungainly because of obesity, tries and succeeds to lose weight in order to look good for him (as he had disapproved of her weight).
In accordance with the prevailing opinion of our modern, civilized society, this novel sees a slim body as beautiful and a voluptuous body as not. It also contrasts Botticelli’s Venus, considered a paragon of beauty, with the Venus of Willendorf. Like we do, the story considers the latter an unattractive form worthy of scorn.
I think that it’s totally natural, in human society, to seek beauty. But it’s impossible for everyone to have the same appearance, and just because your appearance fits the standard, that doesn’t mean that it is beautiful. Also, beauty standards might be different 10 years from now. Each of us having a different appearance makes the world more colorful and fun.
It’s boring even to imagine a world where everyone looks the same, as if they were all wearing masks and clothes made in the same factory. Living in French society, I became free even from an interest in appearance. I got in the habit of imagining that I was using a calliagnosia, a device from Ted Chiang’s short story “Liking What You See: A Documentary” that makes it impossible to even recognize beauty or ugliness, and consciously tried to avoid using appearance as an important standard when making judgments about other people.
This is not to say that there is no lookism in France and it is free from that kind of prejudice. But it is a fact that I started to take a more laid-back approach to human appearances and behavior while living in France, and discovered the natural beauty of people with a variety of appearances who seek and highlight their own unique charms.
Published: November 12, 2015
Translated by Marilyn Hook
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7286
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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