Yesterday I was at lunch with the sister missionaries, and since both of the sisters are Koreans who went to BYU and BYU-H respectively, we began talking about mutual acquaintances. There was one guy we started talking about, and as just as an aside, I said, "Oh man, he is so handsome!" The new sister missionary started protesting immediately.
"Him!?" she said, "No way!"
"YES!" I answered. "He looks like a taller Taeyang." I didn't know how to emphasize this more. But she insisted his skin is too dark and kept giving me looks like this.
Then Sister Son prompted me to tell a story I had told her a few weeks ago about guy I met, who I immediately dubbed, "The most beautiful man alive." So I told the story about this guy, who I had deemed too beautiful to make direct eye contact with, let alone actually speak to. And then to satiate the curiosity of Sister Choi and Oh Kyoung Mi, I showed them a picture of aforementioned "most beautiful man alive."
Again, Sister Choi was SHOCKED. "He's the most handsome man you've ever seen in your life?" Her eyes were telling me I really needed to get out more. I think she thought I'd been living under a rock for the past 25 years of my life. I tried to explain that the picture didn't do him justice, and that if she saw him in person, she'd understand. Oh Kyoung Mi seemed to offer the same sentiment as Sister Choi (that I needed to get out more), while Sister Son just laughed at the whole thing.
So this type of thing happens to me pretty often. I swear I see a literal breathing, moving statue of Adonis himself, and Korean girls are always like
Although funny, I think these anecdotes are pretty illustrative of beauty differences in Western and Korean culture. I've had more than one student tell me they wished their skin was whiter, their face smaller, their eyes bigger, etc. etc. They want to look more liked the idealized Western girls they see in movies. So you can imagine their shock when I tell them that the majority of guys I knew in high school liked dating Asian girls, or when I tell them that darker skin is actually more valued in America.
Beauty in Korea is absolutely fascinating to me. Appearance matters so much to people here, as it does in America. But I think the one glaring difference is that while Americans try not to acknowledge that beauty matters, Koreans do. So people tend to comment on your appearance more than they would in America. I've been here for six months, and I think I've been called pretty more in these six months than I have in the entire 25 years of my life combined. (Which, honestly, just makes me uncomfortable since I've never been attractive by western standards. And the compliments just make me conscious of the fact that people are looking at me and that I look different. So of course I don't believe it and then my face usually turns red and I change the subject as quickly as possible)
But not only is appearance important for women, it's important for men as well. It throws all the beauty and gender constructs I learned in my Women Studies classes completely out of the window. For example, you see just as many male celebrities endorsing skin products here as you do female celebrities. When people ask me the biggest difference between American men and Korean men, I tell them American men use absolutely no skin products. Their reactions are priceless.
I guess this is all just to say one more thing I've learned since being here--Beauty is only geographically deep. So don't worry about what you see when you look in the mirror. You could move halfway around the world and become a model.