A couple weeks ago, we were discussing cosmetic surgery in class, and a few of the articles we read mentioned a procedure that puts folds in the patient’s eyelids, one way of “[Westernizing] Asian eyes.”1 It reminded me of one of the first places I heard about this kind of surgery, a website called Eat Your Kimchi that has videos and blog posts about South Korean culture. It’s run by a Canadian couple (Simon and Martina) who used to teach English to middle and high schoolers in Korea, but their work online has been successful enough that they now live by the internet alone.
Curious about what they had to say about cosmetic surgery, I combed through the archives trying to find discussions of beauty and did come up with a few relevant videos. Here’s the one that interested me most- a direct comparison of beauty standards in North America and South Korea:
(The video and the original link, which has some writing on the topic as well)
Not much on cosmetic surgery, admittedly, and this was the only place I found a mention of it. But thing that immediately struck me was that they make North American beauty standards sound very forgiving. For weeks now, we’ve been discussing how constraining American beauty standards are, how people who are perceived as beautiful get advantages in work and relationships, and how our beauty standards are shaped around whiteness.2 Many of the sources we’ve read paint an American ideal of beauty that celebrates Northern European features and coloring- pale skin, blond hair, blue eyes, and slight curves (See footnotes: 3456789). So for someone to say that American standards are broad is jarring. It is possible that Toronto (this pair’s home city) is more diverse than most American communities, or perhaps Simon and Martina are picking up on the fact that different groups within one community can develop different standards of beauty. Like “Dominican women [in the U.S.] consider women they perceive to be Hispanic… as the most beautiful”, opposing American norms.9 It’s possible, too, that either Korean beauty standards are even more constraining than North American ones, or that they’re simply constraining in different ways and Simon and Martina are noticing the extra pressures more than the alleviated ones.
They also bring up a general fear of tanning they’ve observed among their Korean acquaintances, and in the blog post that goes with the video, they do mention that it’s debatable whether that fear is about whiteness or about historical representations of the leisure class. In both Europe and Korea historically, only the lower class had to work outside, so workers grew tan and the wealthy stayed pale. Doubtless, that is part of the reason that tanning is avoided in Korea, but if it’s the dominant reason, it’s interesting that the history of class markers is more powerful in Korea than in Europe and North America. But this also reminded me of discussions we’ve had about how in the U.S., at least, “light-skinned people earn more money, complete more years of schooling, live in better neighborhoods, and marry higher-status people than dark-skinned people of the same race or ethnicity.”10 This phenomenon is referred to as colorism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was strengthened in Asia by American influence there. “After [World War II]… surgery to westernize Asian eyes became increasingly popular [in] Asia” as the U.S. fought with and occupied Asian countries, bringing along Western (whiter) ideals of beauty.11 The surgery is still common, implying that the influence has remained powerful. Fear of darker skin could be another symptom of imposed American beauty ideals.
Seeing beauty standards from around the world like this, even through a North American lens, is a powerful tool for analyzing our own culture. There are many other interesting topics in this video, like the similarities between North American and South Korean media, but I’ll leave that to the comments.
1 Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins Univeristy Press, 1997), 200.
2 Catherine St. Louis, “Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand,” The New York Times (October 12 2011).
3 Janell Hobson, Venus in the Dark (New York and London: Routledge, 2005).
4 Haiken, Venus Envy.
5 Lanita Jacobs-Huey, From the Kitchen to the Parlor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
6 Frances Negrón-Muntaner, “Jennifer’s Butt,” Aztlán 22 (Fall 1997): 181-192.
7 Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Vintage Books, 2007).
8 Maya A. Poran, “Denying Diversity: Perceptions of Beauty and Social Comparison Processes Among Latina, Black, and White Women,” Sex Roles 47 (July 2002): 65-81.
9 Ginetta Candelario, “Hair Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity Production” in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 145.
10 Margaret Hunter, “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality,” in Sociology Compass 1 (2007) and The Author Journal Compilation (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007), 237.
11 Haiken, Venus Envy, 200.