In 2016, I wrote a comic about my experiences confronting the beauty standards I saw in Seoul, Korea while I was living and working there as a Chinese-American. Our relationship to beauty is a complicated and multi-layered subject, and while the comic allowed me to dive into some of this complexity, I knew there was so much more that I couldn’t include. When my good friend Ahran Lee brought up some of her discomfort about reading the comic as a Korean woman, I invited her to have a follow-up conversation with me about it. Here is some of our wide-ranging conversation over tea.
A: Why did you choose to write about Seoul versus your experiences in America?
C: These feelings about beauty were really strong when I was a teenager when you’re still trying to figure out how do I present myself to the world and how cool am I? The way I got beyond that was to opt out of everything. I’m never going to reach those standards, so I’m not even going to play by those rules — which worked in America and in my life for a long time. But when I went to Korea, because I was in the Sinsa neighborhood and because I was staying at a hotel where people were recovering from plastic surgery and because I was working on a project for a make-up company…
A: You were at the epicenter of the epicenter.
C: …I couldn’t ignore it, I couldn’t opt out anymore. And it brought up all those feelings in myself that I had never resolved. It was one of those times where life presented me an opportunity to dive deeper. That rage that I felt walking through the subway station was stronger than anything I had felt in a long time. In America, we feel these things on the level of microaggressions — if we see bus ads here or ads in the magazine racks in drugstores, it’s all so normalized at such a pervasive, low-level hum.
A: I just realized that there are parts of the American beauty standard that I absorb, and there are parts of the Korean beauty standard that I absorb. Sometimes when I’m at the grocery store and I’m going through the checkout aisle and I see all of these magazines, none of those people look like me, so I feel like I’m kind of protected in a way.
But on the flip side, that’s how American people consider beauty, so I must not be beautiful. But then I feel relief knowing that. It’s this complicated feeling of: I can’t be that, so it’s okay, but then how do other people see me?
C: For me, it’s almost better that the American beauty standard is so out of reach for me. It’s almost better that it’s on those blonde hair blue eye faces because it’s so out of reach, that makes sense that I’m never going to reach it. To see those same standards applied to Asian faces through the plastic surgery ads in Sinsa Station was like well, fuck, it’s following me here."Sometimes I feel guilty for wanting to feel beautiful."
A: When I go anywhere that has a lot of Korean people or a Korean business, I instantly feel like I have to shrink to hide my non-makeup-wearing face and my non-high heeled feet. And then I start to worry about eye cream, losing weight, face contouring so it's shaped more “egg like,” the ultimate ideal facial shape for Korean women. But how is that possible when we’re genetically made to have very round faces?! I think the first instance of me learning what beauty standards were was all around weight. Because thinness equaled success and success is everything for Korean people. My parents’ way of thinking was stuck in the late 80’s early 90’s of Korean mores. And they brought that with them to the States. And since I was a chubby girl, they constantly pointed it out but did so out of tough love. We love you and this is what’s good for you. And if you’re a kid and you love your parents, you believe and absorb everything your parents tell you.
I think my rebellion against that was to adopt a very loud personality and tomboyish characteristics. It was a shield. I think deep down inside, I always wanted to be feminine, but being feminine felt weak because then it meant we were giving into those beauty standards, we were giving into those pressures. Like they won.
C: Sometimes I feel guilty for wanting to feel beautiful. There was one version of the comic script where I was trying to go through all of those different layers of contradiction. There’s the level of messaging from media and marketing that is like: “You’re not beautiful enough, but you can be if you buy this lipstick!” Then there’s the level of: “Everyone’s beautiful on the inside!” But then there’s another level of: “Why does beauty even matter? Why are women judged by our looks and our beauty?” It doesn’t even matter whether you’re beautiful or not. There was a great opinion piece article that was like: “You’re NOT beautiful, and that’s okay.”
A: That makes me feel uncomfortable hearing that.
C: I think beauty is fine if we’re able to define it for ourselves, but the problem is that there is this machine and this system that profits off of us feeling less than and not enough.
A: Sometimes there’s this pressure of getting older means you become less valuable based on what you look like because more wrinkles and more cellulite and all that bullshit, but there is some sense of freedom because you start to have a relationship with yourself and once that starts to grow and bloom, you think less of those things. I don’t try to impress people based on how I look. I just want to feel good, and if that happens to be wearing a certain thing or putting on makeup, then fuck everyone else. It just makes me feel good.
I think for me, I’ve tried really hard to define that beauty for myself.
Christina: How did you feel when you read my comic?
Ahran: I had to read the comic multiple times because I wasn’t sure if I was misinterpreting something. I felt protective and defensive about an outsider making claims or criticisms about my culture. I felt uncomfortable feeling this way because there was no obvious or blatant hurt that was done to me. And if anything, your comic was written gracefully with an ending that carried a positive message. So, there was a lot of confusion around the various feelings I had.
I’ve felt similarly in the past when I taught English in Korea when engaging with ex-pats or non-Koreans (mostly westerners, whites). They’d openly judge certain customs or things that were standard in the Korean cultural context as gross or weird or backwards without realizing how insensitive and offensive their comments were. I understood where they were coming from, but I also felt hurt and angry. A lot of cognitive dissonance I was very unprepared for. I felt so small and stupid for not being able to defend my feelings or even my people!
Reading your comic didn’t stir up that much of an intensity, but I recognized that it brushed up against a familiar trigger.
C: There was a really complicated issue in the comic that I was trying to be sensitive to: that if I’m calling out plastic surgery, I’m not putting any judgment or blame on the individuals who get plastic surgery because you have the right to do whatever you want with your body and your self. What I’m trying to call out is the system and the machine around it, but it’s really hard to separate the two — negativity toward one can be misinterpreted as negativity toward individual people or about a culture.
A: Anyone should be able to write about culture, but there should be extra responsibility and accountability on a person if they’re writing about a culture they do not come from. The most responsible way to do this is getting the perspective of a person who originates from the culture you’re writing about to be a part of the writing process."Anyone should be able to write about culture, but there should be extra responsibility and accountability on a person if they’re writing about a culture they do not come from."
C: I have some ambiguity around the question of whether it was appropriate for me to write about the Korean culture. I think if I were to rewrite the comic, one thing I would definitely change is to be more explicit about how damaging I feel the western influence in Asia is, and that my reaction was more about my critique and rebellion against the entire global marketing-driven misogynistic beauty system as a whole and less of a specific critique of Korean beauty standards.
A: I think a complication with my feelings is that I consider you an Asian person, and I assumed you understood these nuances. It felt like, why is an ally saying these things about my culture as if they’re not my ally?
C: That’s interesting because I consider myself an American. I was just being a dumb American!
A: I mean, maybe! I think I assumed that all Asians think the same about a thing, but there are so many different Asians, different perspectives, duh. This just shows that we all have blindspots. How could I assume that all Asian people are one hive mind just because we’re of the same arbitrarily constructed race group?!
C: We should talk a little bit about our backgrounds. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, so I’m second-generation Asian-American. My parents immigrated here from Vietnam during the war, and I consider myself Chinese.
A: I was born in Korea, and the majority of my life has been spent in America, but I don’t feel American. I sound very American. I behave and think very much like an American, but I never felt like I belonged here. We moved to the States when I was was 9 months old, lived here for about nine years before going back to Korea. Those five years from 9-14 years old completely and utterly defined my sense of who I am. I am a Korean person. I never feel American because I’ve been told implicitly and explicitly by other people, including Koreans, that I’m not.
C: Can you talk about how you felt beautiful on your wedding day?
A: I felt beautiful in the hanbok I wore at my wedding. It was a modern but classic dress. I felt beautiful inside and out because I felt a harmony in my body for the first time in my life. There was no need to emulate something that was marketed or advertised to me. It was the garb of my people, but it wasn’t weighed down by too much tradition or with my insecurity of not being Korean enough. Simultaneously I felt very American too because I carried myself with self assurance and pride. I felt feminine without trying to be feminine. I felt Korean without forcing myself to look Korean. It all just felt right, and I’m so glad I made that choice. And it’s so silly that that all came from a certain kind of clothing, but that’s how powerful clothing can be. It’s a form of expression.
C: It came from the clothing, and it also came from your choice.
A: I think the hanbok represented to me that this was a choice I made for myself. Having made that choice for myself, not bound by any marketed/advertised bullshit, but solely based on my own intuition. Being able to do that is so rare. It felt good. As a woman in this day and age, you rarely feel that way. Why am I buying this mascara? I don’t know, because Maybelline told me to get it. And Maybelline is probably some male executive.
Those moments when women can make a choice and not feel bad about it is so rare. We rarely feel fully self expressed."Those moments when women can make a choice and not feel bad about it is so rare. We rarely feel fully self expressed."
C: I think that ties into why beauty is so complex, because our choices are wrapped up in it. So it’s hard to tell whether you’re making a choice because it’s what you really want…
A: for yourself…
C: …or if it’s because of the messages you’ve been hearing all your life or because of these internalized messages of what you should be doing.
A: Because you’re fighting so many voices inside of you, and when you’re caught up in the fight, you forget which voice is yours. I think that on my wedding day, none of that noise was in my head.
C: That’s why this project was always going to be more than just a comic. It’s related to the Dear Daughter letters. It’s related to these workshops where we can take letterwriting and artmaking and give people space to practice taking control over those voices. This idea of ‘writing on the world’ is all in service of: how do we help people feel like I can make this decision for myself, and I’m in control of the messaging that goes in.
A: You can pick and choose. You don’t have to surrender to all of it.
C: And you don’t have to accept it. We can question it and refute it. We can resist.
A: Recently, I was going through the explore page on Instagram. I spent at least 30 minutes turning off and marking “see less of this” on all this beauty related stuff — celebrity news, makeup tutorials, clothing — and that felt really good. I’m not going to totally disengage from social media. I’m still going to want to look through Instagram, but there’s some source of agency there where I could control the content in some way. There are little ways you can create space for yourself. Little victories are better than utter surrender.
It’s important to know that you are just one person and there’s this whole mountain and you have to accept there’s only so much you can do. And that in itself will have ripple effects that you won’t see immediately, but that’s worth trying."You can pick and choose. You don’t have to
C: That is all there is worth doing. That’s my philosophy right now. It has to be recognizing our agency and hoping for and planning for those ripple effects. And artmaking is a really powerful way to do that.
A: Do you think this conversation would have taken place if I hadn’t mentioned my discomfort with you?
A: That was very very very difficult for me because I was afraid I was going to offend you. I appreciate you wanting to dive in and explore this. it’s given me an opportunity to investigate something that is so familiar but that is so foreign to me at the same time. And it’s so important.
C: And I want to thank you for bringing it up. It did make me uncomfortable and that’s why I think it’s a worthy conversation to have. It’s a worthy boundary to keep thinking about as artists, especially as artists. I think this brought to light how much this was an American writing a story for other Americans, and it resonated a lot with people on that level. But we can’t take for granted or be careless about the subject matters we write about especially if they’re not our own culture. And I'm sorry if I was careless in my process.
A: And I think that’s the most you can ask for. I can’t expect you to understand all the in’s and out’s, the nuances of what it means to be a Korean person in America. The fact that you care is enough. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone ask me these things without being judgmental in their curiosity.
C: The nature of this stuff is that it’s all so complicated. It’s not ‘done’. It’s an ongoing conversation. Thank you!
A: Thank you!
C: Tell people about your current project.
A: The series I'm working on now is #100DaysOfFaces. People's faces, whether they're reference portraits I pool from the internet or if they're people I know in real life, tends to be more vulnerable. It's a way to get to know someone without speaking to them, an indirect channel into someone's inner world. And that process has led me to reflect on how I see myself. Every curvature, shade, color, the shapes and topography of a person's face is MAGIC. It's made me realize that even my face -- a face that I often see as something to correct/hide/enhance -- is a landscape of wonder, magic, and beauty.
Thank you for reading. You can find Ahran @ahranmakes and Christina @s0delightful. We hope you continue having these conversations, interrogating the rules of the game, and (of course) making lots of art.