Being an Ugly White Girl in a Pretty Korean World

My eyes are round and two different colors; one is blue and one is greenish-brown, depending on the lighting in the room. The students notice this a lot and point and ooh and ahh over it. They tell me my eyes are beautiful. I know compliments always seem less sincere when they’re immediately returned, but when I tell these girls that their eyes are beautiful, too, they are firm when they tell me “no.” They shake their heads and pull their eyelids down, forcing the delicate ovals into the coin-shape they are told is more valuable.

I don’t spend much time looking at my eyes. I’ve had them for almost 23 years, so they’re just a part of my body. What I do notice when I look in the mirror, or when I notice other women’s faces, is my blotchy skin sprinkled with big pores. I notice my eyebrows, which I have carefully constructed to avoid looking like those of the men in my family. I notice my big, Italian nose, my fat layers, my unmanageable hair, and the way my natural, relaxed facial expression makes me look either manically depressed or super pissed off.

So when these young girls sherk my compliments, I start to resent the both of us for wanting what we don’t have. Koreans are so freaking gorgeous in ways that I fear they don’t realize, just like any person of any ethnicity doesn’t realize about themselves when they’ve been picked apart by their culture, or other cultures, for as long as they can remember. What if I complimented these Korean girls on their honey-brown eyes or their glowing skin or their dainty noses or their soft brown hair or the fact that the vast majority of them are slim and fit into any clothes they choose? Would this build self-esteem and send a message of “don’t change a thing”? Because sometimes Korean women have achieved what is called beautiful only because they changed and changed their bodies until they could fit themselves into the puzzle of social acceptability, where every piece has the same shape and each molds together to create one mindset, one concept of perfection, lacking creativity and complexity.

And Koreans are complex people, just like everyone else. There are short Koreans. There are very tall Koreans. There are skinny Koreans, tubby Koreans, hot Koreans, not-as-hot Koreans. Koreans with flawless skin, Koreans with acne. By no means are all Koreans the perfect, petite, doll-like creatures that culture tries to make them represent. Here in Korea, there are a lot of beautiful men and women, sure, but few actually look like that. But there is undoubtedly a significant pressure for Koreans to look a certain way, so there are inevitably going to be many people who just look so…clean. And put together. And well-dressed.

Moving to a new country where there is a specific, demanding standard of beauty can play tricks with your mind. My insecurities stem from many years of wishing I was skinnier or wore better clothes; the U.S. is not exempt from these standards of beauty. We all want to be skinny and in shape and have pretty faces, but the concept of “pretty faces” is more general than in Korea, because America has a social makeup of so many different ethnicities that it’s impossible to demand each girl have similar facial qualities. Yes, we all want good, healthy, probably tan skin, and tiny, toned bodies. However, when I left the U.S., it seemed like many of us were rocking out to “All About That Bass” and were starting to greet ourselves in the mirror with a “Hey, there, beautiful” instead of looking at our reflections like they were an unwanted love child.

So in Korea, there have been times where I’m like, wow. I should probably wear more makeup. My skin is disgusting because I don’t have an hour-long daily routine to take care of it. I need to lose 50 pounds so I can fit into the one-size-fits-all clothing in so many Korean stores. I need to smear on some lipstick so I can look successful and put-together. I need to wear skirts so people don’t think I’m a lesbian (?).

These thoughts have crossed my mind when I see girls primping in the bathroom mirrors, or hear my male co-workers talk about how pretty Korean women are, talk about white women and their comparative frumpiness and hairiness.

In the end, I’ve had to ask myself the following questions: Do I want to attract the type of men who think women are better if they spend hours on their bodies? (Ew. No.) Do I want to sacrifice precious time on this earth taking extra care of and altering a body that’s just going to die in the end? (No. I have too many people to meet, places to see, and things to write about to waste that time.) Do I want to feel healthy and happy with my body? (Yes. Maybe I’ll step it up a little. Continue my jiu-jitsu training. Buy a quality face scrub. Shave my legs a little more often, when I feel like it.) Do I want to kick some ass and take some names? (Yes and yes.)

No matter how long your eyelash extensions are, no matter how many meals you skip, no matter how much a surgeon tweaks your face, you are always going to be you. It only matters how you feel about yourself, inside and out, heart and mind and face and thighs.

So I’m going to appreciate when people compliment my eyes, but I hope that if they do so, they’re not doing it at the expense of their own self-perception, their own beautiful body, fearfully and wonderfully made.

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