Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Women are from Venus, but They'd Rather be from Mars.

I have learned this little tidbit of information fairly recently and I learned it from the young. For anyone concerned about body image issues solely in North America, they should perhaps take a gander at the culture of thin that exists in Korea.
While teaching my middle-school kids about the nine planets in our solar system this past week, I discovered that the girls were particularly excited about Mars and Mercury.

Why? I assure you it has little to do with the Gods after which the two planets are named. It does, however, have everything to do with the fact that their gravitational force is less than half that of Earth. Ergo, a 100 lb person would weigh only 38 lbs on the surface of either Mars or Mercury. When I told my class this, there were murmurs and whispers and looks of longing. I asked what was up and they offered to tell me that they'd like to live on Mars instead of Earth. They said that they would prefer to live there so that they could weigh less. These girls are maybe 15 years old.

You might expect that they were saying what they said with an acknowledged sense of irony, yet there was a certain resignation in their voices and faces. Then the discussion began. I found myself somehow remembering what Professor Rebbecca Sullivan said in my only option of Women's Studies during my brief dip into post-secondary introductory feminism, and I started letting them know that weight should always be about health, and never about they way we look.
But then they let me know that that is not how things are - at least where they are living.

On a recent trip into Gangnam - a fairly busy and fashionable district of Seoul, we came across this aptly-named store. Can you think of anything more true than this name? At least it's honest. Though I wonder of the ladies and gentlemen who frequent it recognize the truth in the idea that false beauty is only borrowed, and eventually, someone's gonna come collecting. We went into the store and found crazy amounts of cosmetics and skin creams - among them: "whitening creams" for men and women so that they can closer approach the western ideal of what it means to be beautiful.
It made me a little bit sad, and it made me a great deal more than thankful to count myself among the apparent minority who could give less than a rat's ass about taking beauty out on credit.

Age gracefully, eat healthy food, and tell the haters to piss-off. Their only getting deeper in debt anyway and when that bill comes, they're going to be some pissed. I'm going with the freedom 55 plan, and I'm sure I'll look like James Cromwell with love handles by then, but at least I'll be happy and prepared for it. I will probably also have traveled around the world twice with the amount I will have saved from lack of plastic surgery. There's beauty in living that shows.


ROXSTAR said...

Yeah, the whole image thing in Korea has a life of its own...
I had a girl in one of my classes.. no older than 13... write in her essay (the topic was if you won the lottery, what are three things you would do?)... that she would fix her nose because it was flat, her lips because they were too big...and her jaw because it as too square... it actually broke my heart reading that.

Btw... the discussions and information you give to your class sounds really interesting! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh, while I agree that in modern Korean culture you find some of the worst instances of lookism/chauvinism that even we Koreans find alarming & disgusting, I'd like to point out that longing for 'white skin' is not particularly western-oriented/Jacksonisque. In East Asia, white skin (as opposed to dark, sunburned skin) has always been associated with nobility and good health, for obvious reasons.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Dear Anonymous - thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting. I certainly didn't mean any offense to Koreans in particular. Perhaps this is just a defensive and awkward response from me - a pale and freckled foreigner who happens to see natural skin for what it is. I can understand nobles with white skin in the Josean era, but to me there is nothing noble about staying out of the sun completely or about falsely attained anything - be it using whitening cream or lying on a tanning bed to go the other way. That's not noble - it's a mask and it's false. Being a westerner, the idea of wanting to be more white simply means that you live on neverland ranch, have an affinity for young boys and play with a chimpanzee named "Bubbles", but that's just my opinion. It genuinely frightens me to hear young girls more frightened of public scorn for their weight than they are concerned with health. Perhaps this is just a cultural difference and I can respect that. For me, I associate "wanting to be white" with very negative ideas involving race. Wanting to be whiter than you naturally are in my mind is the same as racial gentrification. Only both sides are buying into it in this case. I could go on, but I really don't think it's necessary for young Korean girls to want plastic surgery on their eye-lids to look more like women from the western side of the world. As a people, and I'm speaking from within the target, caucasians really aren't that beautiful. In my world, being natural is associated with... well, being natural. Isn't that what we should be striving for? Liking what we were born with - perhaps striving to be better without betraying who we are? Just my thoughts. Some of the most beautiful people I have ever met have had the darkest skin I've ever seen or felt. There is nobility in that too.
Again, thanks for reading and I meant no offense. But consider this - I chose to publish your anonymous comment, while you get to read everything about my thoughts. The least you could do is leave your name :) I hope that you keep reading and commenting. This is always an interesting discussion topic.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

PS - I haven't missed your point about "wanting white skin" being a broader issue than simply West vs. East. I appreciate you bringing that to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I simply forgot. My ID is "GESTALT" and my name is Jung-jin. ^^.

Eh... I'm not in any way offended by your remarks because I had very similar experieces with cultures other than my own; I just wanted to point out that so many critical cultural nuances (and complex reasons behind them) tend to get literally lost in translation, especially through the kind of unequal communicative setting (meaning, between native-speaker-teachers of English and non-native-speaker-students) that many ESL teachers find themselves in.

p.s. That skin whitening thing is originally a decade-old Japanese fad (subliminally called, 'Beauty-White Cosmetics'), that somehow got imported here and now the Korean makeup industry is busily exporting the stuff to China and Southeast Asia, thanks to the power of "Hallyu." lol

Mariko said...

I'm not sure how rampant it is in Japan anymore, but I do remember when having white skin there was viewed as ideal. From my experience, I do feel that the current trend for white skin is at least subliminally related to wanting to be viewed as more Western, and I have heard Japanese people (in Japan) comment on the 'strange' appearance of white painted medieval courtesans.

It's actually a lot closer to home: if you go to T&T, you can find skin whitening products in the beauty aisles from Japan, Korea, and China.

Thanks for writing about this. I've grown increasingly frustrated and sad that some Asians refuse to accept themselves for who they are. All of us should be proud of our heritage, whatever that may be.

이안..ian said...

I think people in Korea just have a different idea of what beautiful is. To think that young/old girls in Canada don't have little beauty obsessions of their own isn't being honest either... and let's remember, if the argument is that they are pursuing the western ideal, which we have already established they are not... I think we need to realize and admit that perhaps our prepackaged, generic culture is at least partly to blame.
Go out to any nightclub in the west, and you'll see exactly the same issues. We don't have cosmetics to make our skin white, we have creams to make us look tanned... and people use the stuff..? Isn't that the same thing?
Men and women who know the dangers of baking themselves under tanning lights do it anyway... not natural, and dangerous to your health??? I think we are all the same, the ideals which we pursue are where we differ. And on the other hand, I could be completely wrong... I totally get what you're saying, I just don't really see where we westerners are any different. I mean come on, we are the culture that brought 'The Swan' to the world.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Yoink! It seems that many people have very strong opinions on this here post. Quite the conversation starter.

For every negative comment I've received on this little observation from a week ago, I've also received very positive comments or emails from people, Caucasian and Asian, about how they feel discouraged by the trend I spoke of. I'm pretty sure that nowhere in my blog are any words saying that Westerners don't have issues. I think that goes without saying, and I agree that Western beauty ideals are at least partly to blame for what I speak of here.

For every Koren Metrosexual man who digs on hair product and enjoys the mirrors that seem to be everywhere in public here, there are four or five frat boys back home on the Red Mile with sagging quads and biceps the size of my head packed into a tight t-shirt to impress the ladies on a Saturday night.

I think it goes without saying that Westerners have their issues with looks and "health". I'm not saying one side is worse - I am saying, as I introduced the entry, that Westerners are not the ONLY ones buying into white artificial representations of beauty. I had meant to state that it is an uncomfortable place to be, as a Westerner - to see adds for cosmetic eye surgeries in a country where, I have been told, many young teenage girls receive eye-rounding operations as a birthday gift. I agree that tanning is bad too, but I'm sure most people already know that. I've never been a big fan of anything that, by it's advertised nature, is designed to make you look younger, stronger, or "more beautiful" than you naturally are. Be it whitening cream, tanning cream, or some dude with a scalpel cutting into your flesh - I guess you could say that I'm just not a fan.

It's uncomfortable to know that the underlying incentive for a lot of the "beauty market" here in Korea is based on the Western ideal. It just is for some people - not for all, but for some. When I look around the stores, I don't see a whole lot of Korean models in advertisements - at least a see a inordinate ratio of Caucasian models to Asian ones. I do see this as a problem, at least it's a problem for me, which is why I chose to write about it.

I'm pretty sure that for anyone who's reading this blog, they already know that the Western World is full of falsehoods that permeate popular culture and help to reinforce beauty stereotypes. I'm simply speaking from the side of the "privileged" in this case, and saying that in a world where, as Chris Rock says, "white is right", it's important to call that idea on what it is: bullshit. I know that I presented a one-sided argument here, but for the small readership of this blog, I figured it was an important one to make nevertheless. Yes, I chose not to talk about tanning beds and the surgery of various E-Talk stars, but other people omit truths to focus on the point at hand. Just call me a less-than-informed Michael Moore with a big fat bee under my dirty green Michigan State hat. Go Spartans!

PS - there was nothing dishonest in my opinion as stated. That's really how I feel :)

PPS - I have received emails from people of Asian descent who have felt burdened by the "Western ideal" that they have felt they have faced their whole lives. So, I would disagree and say that I think we have firmly established that there ARE some people out there who continue to be affected by a cultural striving to be more white.
I would blame Paris Hilton, but there are more important people to blame... like the people behind her little curtain, and I'm not talking about Rick Salomom.