On Beauty Standards (and Privilege) in Memoir and Fiction
The Reading Women Podcast Discusses Carly Findlay and Frances Cha
From the episode:
Sumaiyya: My discussion pick is If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, which is set in Seoul, South Korea. This looks at four young women who live in close proximity to each other, and their lives are loosely connected. So we have four perspectives in this novel; they actually felt like short stories to me, that were connected and moved the story along.
From the lens of these women’s perspectives, what we understand is that Korea has these ridiculously impossible standards of beauty that functions as an oppressive force in these women’s lives, because they always feel like they need to change the way they look or alter their appearance in order to fit into the society, and also move up in society in terms of social and class mobility. So, there are quite interesting, complex social structures in place that we get to see in this book. And we also get insight into plastic surgery culture and the beauty industry, which is pretty much profiting from women’s insecurities.
Kendra: And also the realities of, for these women in particular, they are of lower economic status, and they’re able to get better jobs if they appear more beautiful to society. So it’s that tension of wanting to better yourself, but the only way you can do that is if you change the way you appear. Because of their economic status, they’re not even given a moment to sit and think. They’re just trying to survive. And if this is how you can get a better job, that’s often the way it goes. It was really interesting to see that tension play out in the different characters’ lives.
Sumaiyya: We have the idea here that a woman’s face is basically her fortune. And in order to move up in life or in order to become more successful in life, you need to look a certain way. And you need to obtain or create a certain kind of beauty in yourself, which was actually quite difficult to read about, because these women who get plastic surgery done, they go through some really drastic procedures to alter their appearance in order to fit in or in order to grow in their lives.
Kendra: And they take it to such extremes. They consider, you know, not being able to feel your jaw for the rest of your life, possibly, an okay price to pay. There was this one moment where one of the characters had recently had surgery, and she didn’t realize she had a piece of food stuck in her mouth because she couldn’t feel it. And the other one laughed it off like, “Oh, yeah, that happens to me all the time. How embarrassing.” It just really hit home the realities and lengths that these women are willing to go because of the societal pressure placed on them and those impossible beauty standards that we see throughout the world, but particularly in this context.
Sumaiyya: Yeah. There is a great deal of scrutiny in the way they’re looking at their own bodies and their own appearance and the way that society is also looking at them. I do want to acknowledge that I understand that getting plastic surgery is a person’s choice. If that’s what they want for themselves, I’m not going to be the person who says, oh, this is too toxic; why are you doing this yourself? It is their choice.
But I do think it’s important to think critically about where the desire for that change comes from and what is really feeding that dissatisfaction with yourself. Because a lot of times it is society telling us that this is acceptable and beautiful, and that is not okay. It’s because of those distinctions that we start to compare ourselves and feel like we don’t measure up to what is acceptable in society. I think it’s a strenuous process to actually go through to accept yourself the way you are already made. And again, I understand that there are a lot of things to consider.
Kendra: It’s the difference between making a choice for yourself—and plastic surgery has done a lot of women a lot of good—versus making the choice based on societal pressures because you feel like you have to. “I want to make this change in myself to make me happy, versus making society happy because of those impossible beauty standards.”
Sumaiyya: Right. Absolutely. Another thing we should mention is Kyuri’s unique context. When you have this great access to education that everyone has, social mobility or class mobility—because it is definitely a class-based society—those things start to depend on the only remaining option, which is your beauty and the way you look. So people start to pay a lot of attention to their appearance, to how they behave with each other. Just their general appearance consciousness. Making yourself more beautiful in order to climb the ladder is the context these characters are living in because most of them are struggling financially, and they’re not born into wealth. When you’re educated and you don’t have money, the only thing that remains is how you look.
Winter in Sokcho by Elise Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism edited by Nikki Khanna
Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture by Emma Dabiri
Modesty: A Fashion Paradox by Hafsa Lodhi
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett