I’ve never had more people tell me that I’m pretty. I’m blonde, blue-eyed, and buxom, so as much as I would often like to I don’t exactly blend in. I must have a rather exotic look to most Koreans. People my age are suddenly coveting the large, pointy nose that made me a target of the ridicule of 12-year-old boys. Just a few months ago my dad was suggesting that I visit a tanning bed, but then I wouldn’t have swarms of middle-aged women stop me on the subway to tell me how beautiful my ghostly complexion is.
But despite all this, whenever I walk around the streets of Seoul my self-esteem drops to levels they haven’t reached since I was a pudgy middle-schooler who made her own clothes and was still learning how to use makeup. The people here seem impossibly chic and I’m constantly bombarded by images of beautiful, slender people. I don’t think I have ever seen so many attractive people in one place at one time. And the stick thin women in sky-high heels have made me feel rather uncomfortable in my pants that are fitting just a bit more snugly lately.
Maybe it’s Korea’s homogeneity that’s hurting me in ways I never felt back home. It’s not just that people are pretty, it’s that they all seem to be pretty in exactly the same way. The popular makeup style seems to be universal – perfect skin, gently winged liquid eyeliner, lips the color of fresh raspberries. It’s an effortless look that was surely achieved with an hour of preparation, years of practice, and a five-step skin care routine. And if you’re considered pretty it always means that you are very skinny. I don’t know of a single Korean Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé or even Scarlett Johansson. This all might be exemplified I the fact that South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world. It’s not only just with celebrities, but also often with average people who are trying to conform to the strict standards of beauty. The subway is lined with plastic surgery ads it’s not all that uncommon to see a woman with a gauze-covered face on the street.
Shopping for pants has become a non-option. Which is devastating because the clothes here not only gorgeous, but cheap too. I usually can’t even shop at clothing chains. The first store I went into didn’t carry much above a size small. And when I excitedly tried on the large sized shorts I managed to find I was crushed to realize that they not only didn’t fit, but the unzipped pants wouldn’t even begin to rise above the curve of my butt. I was on the verge of tears in that dressing room as I watched myself in the mirror trying to pull the waistband just a bit above where it stood constricting the fleshiness of my mid thigh, the protesting fabric seeming only to dig its heels in more with every tug on the belt loops. That has to be the most crushing of all – to know that you’re not even considered large by Korean standards. That you’re probably not even extra large. That while at home you may have considered yourself to be curvy or shapely or even callipygian, overnight you suddenly you think that you’re so fat that department stores don’t make clothes for you.
And I think I have become more critical of my outward appearance too because there seem to be mirrors everywhere. Not just in bathrooms, but almost every time I step into an elevator or shop or restaurant. And now whenever I pass one I pause. I adjust my untrimmed bangs and finger the breakout on my chin, regretting going into the city fresh faced.
But I’m trying not to let all of this get to me. If being in this city can put cracks in my typically resilient ego, I can’t image how it must make people feel who already struggle with self-esteem. It obviously hasn’t affected me all that much, because I still can’t bring myself to diet or get off of my lazy butt and go work out. Besides, why would anyone want to turn down all of this delicious food? If I’m only going to be here for a few months, I can’t let something so trivial prevent me from getting the most I can out of this experience.