How Korea Made Me Feel Beautiful

BukchonDongNamsan

When I read Jude’s of Fifty Shades of Snail Post,K-Beauty and Why It Matters To Me, I just had all of the feels. OMG, the feels. While Jude was addressing the normalizing of Asian-Americans in American media discourse, her story of feeling like ‘other’ is so universal that the response was overwhelming. And it was so heartwarming to see the response and it shows how inclusive the Korean beauty blogging community is. I did not really know how to adequately respond at first but I knew I had a lot to say. So much of how Jude felt is also something I can hugely relate to as another minority who felt “ other” and learning how to accept myself in spite of the socialization and internalization of standards imposed in American society.

Long story short, I did not feel pretty growing up-even though my mother always told me so(thanks for the positive reinforcement!)-but I think it was exasperated by my upbringing:I was a thin, petite, tomboyish,geeky black girl with a stutter who didn’t really fit into “black” society but still felt in some way out of place in the upper-white middle class space that I had to exist in 24/7. Things got better in high school:I was in a very diverse magnet high school where I finally got rid of my stutter. And then college happened: I started to travel, learned languages, started dating, started to come into my own in a way. I won’t lie, having male attention other than friendly interactions and basically demonstrating to others who might not have the gumption to do so that yea interracial dating is very much possible was a big boost for me but I didn’t really feel truly self-confident until I went to Korea.

I always joke to my friends that living in Korea helps you accept your vanity but I originally started researching about beauty in Korea as a practicality.I was worried that I was going to have to import everything but thanks to The Wanderlust Project, Sheryll showed me as one of her many very thankful readers that being a WOC in Korea and shopping K-beauty could still be fun! I was also bracing for the fact that I was going to stick out like a sore thumb.

I certainly stuck out but what I did not anticipate was that I was considered beautiful there. Both of my male, old-school principals noted that I was pretty along with the approval of my American accent when they first met me. My students were fascinated by my hair ( I have locs) because of how different it was from their own. Some might think this is controversial, but I let them touch it as long as they asked because I wanted them to understand that hair can be different.

My female coworkers always commented on how pretty I was. I remember meeting my mentor teacher the first day and she could not get over how pretty I was. I was shocked because she was gorgeous with nearly waist length hair, a willowy frame,and did not look like a 42 year old mother with two teenage sons. Old ladies in restaurants would routinely say that I’m pretty to the male coworkers around my age whenever I went to school dinners as a hint that we should date.#awkward I started to realize that despite my brown skin, I pretty much fit the ideal Korean mold: I have a S Line petite body with a small face with double-hooded eyes. With that said, I understand the immense pressure that Korean women face when it comes to their looks and I don’t want to discount that-I just never would have thought that a society as homogenous as Korea would consider my attributes to be in the “attractive” category but it did.

While this is all good, it was at this point in my life that I really started taking care of my skin, not only for myself but because I began to see it as a form of respect. It was a concept I had started to accept in France but I felt it really enforced in Korea so I adapted. But as a teacher, I came to understand that my looks were a tool. Taking care of myself and looking like I made an effort garnered more respect from my students. Also, being brown was important for my former students to see. Many of my former Korean students  have mixed parentage with one parent typically from southeast asian countries and therefore considered ‘lower-class’ in Korea. Some students were only a shade or two lighter than I was. I realized being who I am, I was not only a symbol of American culture but they saw another brown person, another minority with interests, ambitions, and goals accomplished and who was considered attractive by her peers, which for better or for worse is important in Korean society. I learned to take pride in my looks in myself because I realized that my self-confidence was a model for others to emulate.

It was a position that I would continue to take in France. The high school that I taught in France was in a Parisian suburban town dominated by a large working class of first-second-third generation french citizens. Many of my students have family from Northern Africa and the Middle East. They have had or will experience similar psychological pressures from French society as I have seen or experienced in American society and it saddens me. I look at them and I see so much potential, some of which will be tapped but some that might go to waste because of the lack of models in French society that look like them, as a symbol to say that yes, you can do this, this is very much within the realm of possibility. And I realize that my appearance as well as my experience can help demonstrate that.

What I’m trying to say is that women, and I find in particular black women-because that is the only experience that I will have-will for the time being will be judged just as much or more so on their appearance than they are for their accomplishments. I’ve learned now that I cannot be invisible: the places that I occupy(ied) in American, Korean and now French society does not allow me to do so. Korea taught me to own that lack of invisibility and use it to my advantage, in that I use it to be a model,ambassador, or a symbol to others.It’s exhausting sometimes to always be “on”, to know that whatever I do will reflect on not only other Americans but also black Americans but I would rather do that and break down assumptions about American culture and by extension black culture. American media is everywhere and its sphere of influence is vast and therefore stereotypes of certain groups of people get internalized everywhere. I don’t think this aspect of American media can ever be overstated. That is why the normalization of people of Asian descent in American society, even if it through changing beauty standards is so important. It is important for the “others” to be incorporated in the mainstream so stereotypes and fetishization can fall away and people can be judged on their own merit.

I won’t lie, it’s still always nice to hear whoever you are dating/seeing at that time that you are beautiful and it is truly sincere but I realized that I don’t need it anymore because my own self-worth is intact. I’m just not sure if I would have felt that way if I had not gone to Korea and was exposed to Korean culture and by extension Korean beauty. And I’m extremely grateful for my experience in Korea. This is just merely one of the reasons why.

2 thoughts on “How Korea Made Me Feel Beautiful

  1. This is amazing, and I love it! You’ve got a great perspective and such a great attitude towards life and your position in the world ❤

    I also think it's really interesting and amazing to hear your experience because one often hears complaints that Koreans in particular are more racist, due to lack of exposure to other races, than Westerners consider acceptable–yet both you and Sheryll seem to have had really positive experiences there.

    Thank you so much for writing this!

  2. I am so liking this post! Thank you!!! I am honestly longing for more posts and blogs like this. I am growing tired and bored of production type blog posts with relevant hashtags and copy paste contents even with a shameless air of hypocrisy but I won’t vent here. Sorry!

    I enjoy when people share their personal experience and a fresh perspective like yours on beauty, self-confidence and even beyond like living the life. Your writing is authentic and I can completely relate to your stories. And like you back in Korea, I recall people approached me and calling me out “beautiful” a few times where I find this so unusual as I have never heard this compliment in France while growing up. It seems so surreal that being Asian looking but yet in Asia and stand out in many ways (height and tan skin and big rounded eyes with double lids is a thing). But in either case, since it took me so many decades to finally accept how I look, I didn’t feel to affected by the outsider’s perception of me.

    Please keep writing! Bisous.

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