Monday, September 8, 2014

Your Own Beauty

As my dental bills loom over what might have been in my bank account, I think about how my definition of beauty and style has evolved. I have become more willing to recognize that I do care about how I look because I am proud of the attributes I have. I like dressing to impress myself. 

With that, I am more willing to invest into that look nowadays. My dental work, while much was medical (root canals and cavities), a large portion of that work was bridging over gaps left by four baby teeth with no permanent teeth to back them up. I was getting by - eating steak, popcorn, and everything else. But at the end of my treatment, the dentist said to me, "Now your eating is much more comfortable and easy." I must also say, my bottom row of teeth has never looked prettier. 

That is valuable to me, and that is something I have realized living in South Korea - that caring about how I look and taking time to take care of that look can be healthy. Beyond physical fitness and a diet that celebrates vegetables, Koreans take care of their bodies, their skin in particular. Sun umbrellas, sun screen, giant visors, and driving sleeves (light-weight fabric tubes one wears on the forearms) because the sun is a death ray trying to kill us all. They fuss and primp and protect their skin. And their skin is gorgeous. 

It's true that the flip side of the Korean beauty practice coin is extreme, in popular opinion and my opinion. Plastic surgery to get the right jawline, to get the right face shape, to have bigger eyes with a separated eye lid -- it's crazy but not only do I get it (I lusted after Lyndsay Lierman's ski jump nose for years), I appreciate the candidness. Plastic surgery is advertised and sold like make-up in a beauty shop. It's not a scandal, it's probably reasonably priced in Korea, and like plastic surgery everywhere, it's pretty obvious when someone has had work done. 

I don't want to talk about the good and evil of plastic surgery, but I do find that idea of openly achievable beauty something different from what I grew up understanding beauty to be. All those heard compliments about a good bone structure or good genes or a desirable combination of nationalities - well, fuck. How am I supposed achieve that? My weight is in my control, and for twisted reasons of the mind, I always expected any half-hearted, healthy eating scheme to end with me looking like someone else with "good bone structure."

Being your own beauty is different from people telling me I should feel beautiful. I had this overpowering perspective from childhood bashing me over the head in popular culture of perfectly unique individuals being doted on for untouchable, born-with qualities that amassed into a suspiciously familiar dish. Far-fetched comparisons, I think about that poster of all the presidents' faces -- and then about a Buzzfeed parody video "If Men Were Women" showing a young boy looking  up at a poster of the United States' Presidents, who in this alternate universe are women. Beauty was something like that to me. The first in the entire history of a nation and a stacked deck should I ever want to be happy with myself. 

This past year living and teaching in South Korea, somewhere in between receiving the odd, slightly uncomfortable compliments about my small face, applause for morning walking and my "s-curve" shaped body, having my hair stroked and admired for its natural brown color, my students noticing the smallest change in my morning routine ("Teacher, make-up? Teacher, [motions hair] new!"), and recognizing features of myself in the people and work ethic around me, I started buying lipstick. I started liking my round face. I really got into brushing my teeth at my desk after lunch and then scuffling down the hall with my co-teacher to spit. I hauled my butt up a mountain after a long day of school with my co-workers. At the top, we shared a tomato. 

I like that ownership in Korea of such truths that we do judge each other on appearance, relationship status, age, and religion. And I like the sheer number of opportunities to address all those things in Korea - make-up shops, plastic surgery offices, exercise equipment in every park, mountains, the second grade teacher has a son your age, you don't look twenty-five, and church invitation #610. I like that candidness - here's a projected problem, let's work towards a solution - and I have enjoyed the opportunity to really decline and say, no, this isn't what I want. Or hell yeah, why haven't I been doing this my whole life?! Or alright, I'll trust you and go along for the ride because this is a completely new situation for me. 

That's what beauty has started looking like to me - understanding what I am comfortable with, exploring new ideas or ideals, and being accepting of the work it takes to be healthy. 

My co-teacher SK and I joked one day, "I think that I am a man." We both are ladies of style but maybe we don't wear make-up everyday and the ponytail is one in our bag of hair-do's. There will always be pressure to be what culture defines me to be. And it's worth laughing realizing how wrong society is about me or how ironic it is that I fit certain stereotypes. The beauty of self-image is how different perspectives can disagree, agree, and merge into my own creation and happiness. 

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