No One But You

No one decides the standard of beauty but you.

I asked the man working at the print shop if the phrase was correct and if it made any sense.

“I don’t understand it. What are you trying to say?” he said. He seemed a bit uncomfortable. Most people printed stickers here to advertise a service, like a hair salon or a real estate company.

I immediately felt self-conscious about my Korean and re-read the phrase. If he didn’t understand what I was getting at how were other people supposed to? I was pretty sure it was grammatically correct. I had mulled over this phrase for hours during the past several days, and had it double checked with one of my younger brothers whose Korean was better than mine.

“Nevermind, it’s ok. You can just print it,” I said.

“One thousand stickers in small, 5 cm by 8 cm, correct?”

“Yes, please.”

“Okay, we will email you with the design and if you like it we’ll print them. They should be ready a few days after that.”

I’ve never been the march-in-the-streets kind of protester. I had only ever been to one protest, and I only went because some friends were going and I wanted to see what it was like. Everyone seemed to be having a good time; and with the loud music and free-flowing beer it seemed more like an excuse to go to a party with several thousand people. I left feeling unsure if I understood demonstrations, but at least knowing that perhaps this wasn’t my protest method of choice.

Instead what appealed to me were guerrilla art protests: Using the power of anonymity and randomness in favor of whoever was trying to get a message across. They were Easter eggs in their often colorless surroundings: graffiti, stickers, plants or chalk drawings. When I spotted one it was like sharing a secret with whoever put it there. Yeah, I get what you’re trying to say.

A few months earlier, I was riding the subway in Seoul with a couple of friends who were visiting the city from abroad for a few days. Because I had lived there for so long they had asked me to show them around and translate for them when needed.

A seat became free in front of where we stood and one my friends sat down. She immediately pointed above the train doors behind those of us who were standing.

“Is that a plastic surgery ad?”

She pointed to an ad with before and after pictures of three women. In the before pictures they were women of varying ages and facial structures. In the after pictures it was difficult to tell. The three of them now had V-shaped chins, round eyes and high cheekbones. I had seen many plastic surgery clinic ads during my ten years in the country, but I’d never seen one like this before. Almost two years later, I still remember the name of the clinic.

I was part of a group of friends in my last year of high school before I decided to be home schooled in English. There were six of us and we were inseparable for the entire year. We were kind of a motley crew, with a diverse range of academic engagement, interests, and life goals or lack thereof.

But one thing we all had in common was commenting on the way we looked. One friend complained about her small eyes, using the common description that she had “ripped eyes,” eyes that were torn into her face. I always hated that expression and blocked out any accompanying visuals. Another would remind herself that she was a Korean beauty in the traditional sense, as if countering anyone who would argue that she was plain.

I also honestly didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t know if it would be of any use. I knew that high school girls everywhere were filled with insecurities. But I couldn’t help but feel in some way responsible if inundation by the media of my country of origin had anything to do with how they felt.

A month passed since I saw that one ad and decided to try out actively protesting against something for the first time ever.

I didn’t do it. I flew back to Europe to continue my liberal university education. Half a year later, in the winter, I was back in Korea. I thought about it, contemplated it, weighed the idea in my head. I decided that this time I was going to do it.

I told my father about it. I was wondering whether he would ask me why I would do something so out of character. But he talked to the printing office at work about good print shops in the area. It seemed like it was off to a good start.

I did understand the appeal of plastic surgery. People wanted better jobs and better marriage prospects and the surgery was supposed to help with that. But it also scared me how some girls would badmouth others who got eyelid surgery over winter break as a gift from their parents. A friend also told me that when a colleague returned to work almost unrecognizable, everyone told her it looked nice even when they thought otherwise.

I couldn’t even say that the thought of having plastic surgery myself had never occurred to me. I have a bump on the bridge of my nose and it took me years not to hate it. But I was angry at myself for even considering it, because I was trying so hard to convince myself that I didn’t need to change anything about the way I looked to feel beautiful.

If I wasn’t succeeding with convincing myself, why was I so frustrated when I felt I couldn’t convince my Korean friends and other people that they were beautiful?

After about a week of active searching, I finally found a place to print the stickers and took my second brother Vasya with me. He knew about the whole idea. He was sympathetic to my cause and was willing to help, but more for the fun of it – not unlike when I went to my first demonstration.

We had moved to the country when Vasya was six and he had grown up here. We often joked that he was the most Korean in the family. After visiting the print shop, we sat in the food court of the mall sharing a meal of cheese deopbab, fried rice, because the portion was huge.

While eating, we discussed the different reasons why people got plastic surgery, letting our Korean and Western sensibilities seep into the conversation.

Was there such a thing as ethical protest? Was that a contradiction? Was this vandalizing or defacing property? What would happen if I got caught? Would they let it slide because I was a foreigner? Or put it on record which could, in the worst-case scenario, give me difficulties when visiting my family? And this country that was the closest thing I ever had to a homeland? Was I abusing my position as a non-Korean or the fact that I wasn’t a resident here anymore? Did I have a right to tell people here to accept the way they looked? Possibly jeopardize their prospects for the future? Was this being culturally insensitive? Did my university brainwash me? Was this really something that I would do? Was the message on the stickers too cryptic? Could it be misunderstood?

I wasn’t sure if it was normal to second-guess this much. I sat on our heated floor, stared at the frozen rice fields through the massive window and mused.

After several days, the stickers got printed. One thousand of them. They looked smaller than I thought they would be and were rather ordinary.

No one decides the standard of beauty but you

After the stickers were printed, Vasya and I stuffed about fifty stickers in our pockets before we traveled to Seoul from our house in the countryside.

While riding the subway in Seoul, panic slowly started creeping in. I couldn’t see a single ad. We were on our way to visit one of our other brothers, not deliberately riding the trains looking for places to put the stickers. I knew that this could take up a lot of time, especially if there were just the two of us. I began to consider that I didn’t think this through enough.

Finally, while transferring, we spotted a giant billboard. In the hubbub of the station people poured through the hall, while we stopped and stood in front of the massive sign. It was huge, almost larger-than-life.

“Where should we stick them?” I said.

Again, should have thought this through. People looked at us strangely as they passed. We were the only ones standing around.

“Let’s stick several,” said Vasya. He started peeling the plastic off the back of the stickers and I did the same.

“Don’t stick them on their faces,” I said. Something about that would have seemed disrespectful and mean. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a protester.

We crossed to the other side of the passageway to see what it looked like, pushing our way through the flow of people. Five or six little yellow rectangles on a massive surface, more like a glitch or printing mistake instead of some kind of message trying to push through.

Over the few remaining days I had in Korea, we put stickers up whenever we saw an ad. I considered going to Apgujeong that was said to have five hundred clinics on one street. But we stuck with the subway.

The first time I put a sticker on an ad inside the subway train, I was with two of my younger brothers. The train was crowded and we coincidentally stood right in front of it. I reached into my pocket, which always had the stickers in them by now.

I felt a rush as I peeled the plastic off and stuck the yellow rectangle in the blank space of the purple-themed rectangle. I patted it the sticker down, taking my time. The sticker was the perfect size for it. A few people nearby looked up.

No one decides the standard of beauty but you.

A lady standing nearby looked at it for a bit. I hoped that she understood what I was getting at. At some point she went back to her phone, as did the others around her.

But I felt okay about it.

[fruitful_sep]

Renee is half-Dutch and half-American, but having grown up mostly in Russia and South Korea, she’s not sure where she’s from. Her main interests are storytelling, representation, and figuring out the best way to listen to and tell stories. She also loves watching dystopian sci-fi with her German husband. She’s doing her MA in Critical Media at SOAS.