I’m sure you have repeatedly heard the notorious quote “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I believe this wholeheartedly. Yet, through traveling I have discovered that the country you are born in or spend a great deal living in, can alter what ‘ones’ eyes’ consider beautiful.
I was born in North America where a typical beautiful woman is skinny, tanned and has defined cheek bones. Growing up, like most young girls, I wanted to be ‘beautiful.’ Luckily I had a good head on my shoulders and my desire to be pretty only went as far as stealing my sister’s clothes and experimenting with weird makeup trends.
As I get older the idea of beauty, it is still just as puzzling to me now as when I was fifteen years old – if not more so.
Beauty is really just an idea. But is it our own idea?
While historical elements trace back to explain some of the major beauty ideals, much of today’s beauty standards form through the media. We are bombarded by images of unrealistically thin underwear models with perfect sun-kissed glows – but of course, no wrinkles. When woman see images of this we often think that we need to match these images to also be beautiful. The average woman in America spends $15,000 over her lifetime on beauty products trying to fit this image. Does it really take $15,000 to make women beautiful?
It’s easy to spend this amount of money when magazines like Cosmopolitan are always popping out new makeup trends and fashion styles – essentially telling us that we won’t be beautiful this season if we don’t jump on board.
As distressing as the media can be I honestly didn’t question it too much while I was growing up. I was so used to being told what was beautiful that I didn’t need to actually think about it for myself. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties when I went traveling for the first time that my idea of beauty was challenged.
It occurred while in Vietnam. It was a perfect day out and I was enjoying it by lying on the beach soaking up the rays – trying to get that sun-kissed glow that Cosmopolitan told me to have. I practically had the beach to myself and I was browning perfectly. Eventually when the sun started going down I started to pack up my things to leave.
But what happened next surprised me. As the sun was going down and I was walking off of the beach, buses full of Vietnamese started pulling up. The beach was no longer empty but suddenly crowded with people.
Why would they want to come to the beach if the sun wasn’t out?
Vietnamese love hanging out at the beach but they hate the effects of the sun on their skin. In their culture, having a white complexion is considered more beautiful so they avoid going to the beach when the sun is high in the sky.
Pale white skin is admired in Eastern cultures. This skin pigmentation is praised because it used to be associated with the upper class who spend most of their days inside versus working laborious jobs in the hot sun. One country, in particular, obsessed with pale skin is South Korea. South Korea, a country very in-touch with its nation’s history, has continued to adopt this beauty standard even in their modern society.
Currently, I am living in South Korea as an English Teacher and am very careful when buying face products because many will bleach my skin. This may sound crazy but think about what we do in the western world – we go to tanning booths and fry our skin!
Since living in South Korea I have found it even more confusing to be ‘beautiful.’ I don’t like light skin on myself because I naturally have a more olive skin tone. When I put my bronzer on in the morning for work, I often laugh at myself in the mirror thinking about how silly this all is. As I do my makeup I’m not sure if I am making myself prettier or uglier. There goes $15,000 down the drain.
Instead of bronzer, there are many beauty products on the Korean market helping woman create a ‘dewy glow’. But what Koreans consider a ‘glow’ North Americans would consider oily skin. In fact, we carry face powder around to avoid this. Since I grew up seeing shine is a negative feature, I find that I can’t shake this idea. I often find myself staring at the shine on my friends noses-watching the oil oozing out of their pores.
Another difference in beauty standards is noses. A student of mine once called me “Pinocchio” because they thought my nose was big. I’ve always considered myself to have more of a round button nose – and certainly not a nose that I could picture on Pinocchio. But compared to Koreans’ small, flat noses mine appeared gigantic. Being told that I have a big nose would usually hurt my feelings (once again, not a desired trait in North America) but I think that it was actually meant as a compliment. In South Korea, many people actually get plastic surgery to make their noses bigger and pointier.
Koreans don’t just tear me apart though-they offer compliments too. For example, I have big blue eyes and Korean are pretty amazed by them. Almost all women in Korea end up getting plastic surgery to make their eyes appear bigger. In case you’re catching on, South Korea is huge for plastic surgery – more so than any other country in the world.
As tough as it is being the only different looking person at my school I have to realize that my students actually have it harder. They are growing up in one of the most vain cultures in the world. In fact, when many students graduate middle school they get plastic surgery as an award for good grades. My friend who teaches middle school in South Korea could not believe it when her students come back from vacation with different faces.
And in case you are not catching onto how influential beauty standards are in South Korean culture, I have another story.
One day I needed to get passport photos taken and went to a photo center for them to do it for me. When I went to pick them up I was shocked at the image staring back at me. They had photo-shopped my face! Even for a government document they felt the need to change me to fit their concept of beauty. They smoothed over my skin, my face was lighter, my eyes were bigger.
This experience has made me wonder now if my perception of beauty isn’t actually my perception at all. Perhaps what I consider beautiful is actually what my environment has told me is beautiful.
Throughout my travels I have been exposed to more and more different concepts of beauty. Each culture with it’s own historical thoughts of beauty and recent media influences.
Recently, while traveling through Myanmar I saw a lot of both males and females with yellow paste on their face. It turns out that this paste is a sun cream and is also considered to make you more beautiful. Even with Western standards of beauty creeping into their culture this historical sign of beauty still holds strong in Myanmar.
While there my friend and I decided to give it a try. See, it didn’t take long for us to want to be beautiful here too. We found a local woman in Yangon who was willing to put it on for us. Even as we were putting it on, locals started gathering around and taking pictures of us. As we walked out onto the street I couldn’t believe the sudden change in reactions that we received. Suddenly men and women everywhere were basically cat-calling us. With something as simple as yellow face paint in the eyes of the Burmese we went from “meh” to “hubba-bubba!”
My friend and I were laughing because if either of us wore yellow face paste back home we would be given strange looks, and certainly not cat-called. I couldn’t think of a more perfect example of how our culture plays such an important role on our own perception of what is beautiful.
Traveling has caused me to re-evaluate what I consider beautiful and made me realize that it is impossible to please everyone on earth. So now when I get ready in the morning I do what I need to do to feel beautiful that day and step out confidently into the world – whichever country I am in.
As a message to my students I decided to create a video for them using my amazing friends to show them that there is more than a single definition about what beauty is.