December 11, 2012 by travelinggrits
Your eyes are so blue.
Your eyes are so big.
You have a small face.
You are tall and slim.
Your hair is like a doll.
Middle school: I remember it as the time in my life when I started comparing. I went from the blissful ignorance of childhood to the awkward acknowledgment of my own body. I began to watch myself grow and change in the mirror. I remember observing that my spandex dance recital uniform clung to me like an ill-fitting clown costume but looked a pop star outfit on everyone else. I began to primp my hair, wear lip gloss and adorn myself with jewelry.
It’s no different for my students. It’s not uncommon for me to catch a student rearranging her bangs in a hand mirror in class or absent-mindedly combing her hair. But I feel that the insecurity here may even be at a higher level.
Every woman faces some level of insecurity about her own appearance. Unfortunately, it seems to be ingrained in our female subconscious. But I do feel that I’ve successfully reached a comfortable place in my life where I take pride in who I am, both inside and out—which is particularly important now that I am an anomaly, the subject of scrutiny, everywhere I go.
Sometimes it’s nice to be the idolized foreign presence, but I don’t mind the compliments, but I hate the inevitable coinciding phrase of comparison: “… but I’m ugly.” My students, even my host mother, often cower behind me or put a hand over their cheek when taking a picture to minimize the size of their faces.
South Korea is the leading nation for facial cosmetic surgery, from noses to laser treatments to double eyelids. I saw a television program documenting the proliferation of foot ailments in women walking the streets in heels. The dress style seems to be the reverse of many Western trends; women never wear clothing that would expose their chests, but even fashionable adult women sport short shorts or skirts with tights. Men attend to their personal appearance, both complexion and attire, in a manner that is certainly attractive but likely creating pressure for their sex as well. Perfect has a number – somehow, the ideal height has been deemed 180 cm, precisely. And directly centered inside the school entrance is a full-length, elaborately carved mirror. What message does that send?
As an undergraduate student, I contributed to planning a special program called Carolina Beautiful Week. This program, which coincided with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, featured discussions and events to promote positive body image, like collecting skinny jeans and covering mirrors in school bathrooms. Last year, I launched a “Beautiful Lengths” ceremony where women donated their hair to American Cancer Society. I surveyed the participants about the experience, and I found that the overwhelming response was that it was great opportunity for them to develop their own self-confidence as well as pass it along to a cancer patient.
A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson on beauty to my second graders, a mini “Korea Beautiful” week, if you will. As I started the class, while facing the board to write a few notes, I said a quick prayer. Please, just let me touch at least one person. That’s enough. Then I dimmed the lights and began.
The “Evolution of Beauty” video brought gasps and whispers from the audience. Afterwards, we discussed the difference between outer and inner beauty, and the students rated what they felt were the most important aspects of each of these. (I found it rather ironic that the personality trait of “smart” was consistently ranked lowest, despite the pressure of the educational system here.) We compared beauty ideals (like light vs. dark skin) in different cultures and different times.
What is beautiful here is different from beautiful from other places. Standards of beauty will change over time. You will change over time. So perhaps the only thing you can control is who you are on the inside. And that’s what counts.
The students spent several minutes reflecting on the lesson in their journals at the end of class. I didn’t reach them all; I was saddened to read that some still said, “Beauty is skin and big eyes” or “Beauty is outer beauty” or even “I think not beautiful.” Some described a balance: “Beauty is pretty face and good personality.” But I got some gems from others:
Beauty is heart.
Beauty is nature.
Beauty is magic.
Beauty is unique.
Inner beauty is more important.
I think all people be pretty and beautiful.
I think beauty is inside of mind.
I think beauty is original.
I think beauty is yours.
I even had one male student stay after class to discuss how bad it is when women have surgery to change their appearance.
I may just be one person swimming against the tide. But for the girl who watched me intently throughout the lesson… Maybe I can’t stop her from looking in the mirror. But maybe I can make sure that when she does look, she smiles.
My students dancing in the first snow flurries on a Friday afternoon.