Beauty can be defined as “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight.” Everywhere you go, aesthetic judgments and perceptions are made. The mass media thrives on this and somewhere along these lines we find ourselves lost in a battle of perfection.
If you travel and live in a different country, this ideal perfection still exists, even if it is defined differently. Sometimes, it’s only natural to try to see how you “measure up” according to the “standard.” Me? I am done playing this game. At the end of the day, I want to be remembered for my actions, my impact and the way I treat people, not as a “cute” face…
How other people perceive my physical appearance does not define who I am. It is more telling of how we judge each other easily. How long are we going to let ourselves be fooled by the media and by comments thrown at us right and left? There’s an unrealistic bar set by celebrities, photoshop and airbrushes and, for those of us in our everyday lives, it’s tough to compete.
- You’re so cute… I never realized how pretty you were until I saw you in the light…You are so small…You have a small head…Such a cute face, baby face… Wow, I want to have your body shape… Hair yellow, why yellow? So pretty! Are those eyes real? Hey, stop! Can I have your number? Beautiful…Hi, are you lost? Aww, so cute, but Korean must be too difficult for you…
School dinner: One glance at my table.
So cute. Sorry, I don’t do English.
Gwenchanayo. Naneun hangugoh chogeum malhaeseo, sun saeng nim eun nae yup ay ancheul su ithda… (That’s okay. I can speak a little bit of Korean, so you can sit next to me…)
–Still walking away. Laughs circulate the table. I laugh, but inside, I feel like a deflated balloon…
- “You don’t know my brain the way you know my name. You don’t know my heart the way you know my face…” I sprint along the winding roads I have grown to call home and sing this tune as tears stream down my face. It’s been a day. One of those days when I wish I could wear a paper bag over my head. I am a strong spirit with dreams. I’m begging you to just give me a chance; to not judge me at face value. In return, you will have gained a friend and a shoulder to lean on.
“Blonde hair, blue eyes” doesn’t mean ignorant Anglophone. With my Québécois heritage, this label tagged on my appearance has caused me inner turmoil. My ancestors fought for their language to become a legitimate part of their society in the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of Quebec. I am proud of my multilingual heritage and I have the spirit of a fighter. You can be sure that I will do the same for your language. I am not a neocolonialist. This is a cultural exchange. I am willing to learn. I do speak some Korean…Oh, too difficult for me? Challenge accepted: I will study every day.
In your own country, you should not have to feel ashamed for the fact that you aren’t fluent in English. I shouldn’t have to be ashamed for being me. Yet, somehow, I still feel like a fraud. In past travels, I was the cultural chameleon. It felt like a game. I fooled cab drivers into thinking I was French, Québécoise, even Argentinian. After a time, I even fooled myself. You win this round. I can never pose as Korean. In any case, I’ve outgrown that phase.
In Gangwon-do, I stick out like a sore thumb and sometimes it feels disconcerting. Still, I see people bragging about how “beautiful, sexy and cute” they are in Korea. I despair. To me, it’s insulting to be objectified. Better to have someone comment on my strength of character or my actions: things that define who I am to the core of my being, rather than this physical shell.
I wish I had the nerve and the language capacity to transmit this message to all those with whom I interact on a daily basis. It would give me the feeling of liberation. Until then, I will utilize the strategies I have available: running and yoga. Ergo, said liberation has come in the form of my first yogic headstand ever. Before Korea, I never had the confidence. Now, if I fall, it’s me who picks up the pieces and tries again. I lift my legs—inhale, exhale—is this what it feels like to fly? Absolutely.
III. Comparisons: Measuring Up
Wow, I want to have your body shape. I wish I was (X) like you.
Upon first hearing this, I’m taken aback. I feel embarrassed to receive comments, especially when someone is comparing…
Thanks, but do you know how beautiful you are? From the inside out?
Here, it is culturally more acceptable to make comments regarding physical appearance. For me, this doesn’t justify comparisons. It hurts to see co-workers and students compare themselves to me. It makes me feel like a negative influence just for bringing these thoughts into their minds (Yes, I am always thinking about my impact. No, I shouldn’t pretend to read minds).
I want to empower those around me to see that, since they are beautiful just the way they are, they shouldn’t feel the need to be anybody else. (Notwithstanding, as I initially stated, it’s hard to compete with media and in a world where we are BOMBARDED with images of what is beautiful and what body shape is in. Body type is being treated like a trend…). This is a lesson on self-love wherever you are in the world. I am surrounded by wonderful people, who radiate beauty from the inside out. What is more, I get the chance to help them to see it in themselves everyday.
In the classroom, comments on appearance are out of place and detract from the lesson. Last year, during my first year as an ESL teacher in France, I initially thought these comments were cute and made the mistake of saying, “thank you” when working with my maternelle (pre-school) classes. However, this response signaled choruses of “MAITRESSE VOUS ÊTES TRÈS BELLE!!!” (“Teacher, you are very beautiful!”) every class. Back then, I was working at three different rural schools, so my class times with each class were few and precious. Coming from this particular background, I now simply transition to my lesson rather than dwelling on commentary. The attention is meant to be on the lesson and on my students.
- Incorporating These Understandings: Teachable Moments
This newfound cognizance has manifested in teachable moments with my sixth grade class. I remember during a certain class period, I asked my students to make drawings. Without hesitation, my students diligently put pencils to paper and silence elapsed… At least until Student A said to Student B, “Wow, your drawing is pretty bad. It’s so ugly!” At that moment, I was circulating the classroom and drifted over towards these students and surveyed their artwork. “You know,” I said lightly, “there are many different kinds of beauty. Everything is beautiful in its own way.”
CARPE DIEM! Cue Google. Before you could say, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck,” I had Van Gogh, Picasso, Edvard Munch, Salvador Dali and several others on the video screen for my students to see. It was my attempt to share with my students the beauty of diversity. It’s okay to be different, to look different, or to do things differently. My students are themselves; they do it beautifully and just because someone doesn’t meet their standards for beauty doesn’t say anything about self-worth. It is a lesson on tolerance.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is an expression I have taught my older students. In my haven of English learning, this statement is a steadfast golden rule, but not everyone in the world knows or practices this principle. It’s a personal dogma. I am learning to be more patient with those around me. It’s easy to make base assumptions, but I challenge my students, and I challenge you all, to look beyond the “cover” so to speak.
I would like to think that my lessons taught in the classroom translate into my students’ lives outside of school. Truth is: they are amazingly beautiful in ways that words cannot express. I hope that by the end of the year, I will have made an impact in their lives, even if I don’t get to witness the full extent of this impact. To everyone reading this post: keep being your beautiful selves from the inside out!
Amanda Barrows is a 2015-2016 ETA at Yuchon Elementary School in Yuchon, Gangwon-do.