“I look awful.” “No, I look awful!” (“You look perfect to me.”)

I have noticed, but more so after attending this Gender & Popular Media class, that the standard of beauty we each have is causing us to internalize the message (“This is what beautiful / sexy / attractive / (fill in the blank) looks like. This is how beautiful people dress / behave / sound / live. This is what beautiful people buy / eat / believe in / do.”) by recognizing the things we don’t do––and therefore we are not beautiful or sexy or wanted. We are told to feel that we are not what we want to be.

This type of self-criticism based on false evaluations wasn’t anything new or surprising or all that hidden; however, the way these messages can be manipulated to target different groups of people––whether the group identification is based on gender, age, race, sexuality, ability, or class––was rather a shock to me, especially since I had not noticed how much of my own self-identity was shaped and twisted by the media and the (South Korean) social norm, even when their standards really aren’t relevant anymore here in the US.

I kept on finding myself in situations or conversations that seemed to perpetuate the downward spiral of our self-esteem and self-image; my boyfriend and I would see each other, and see a piece of ourselves that didn’t deem “good enough.” (Good enough for what?) Sometimes it’s just a couple of bittersweet admiration of each other, while at other times, it almost becomes a contest of who looks more “awful” based on our different standards of beauty set by our cultural differences.

For me, being thin or skinny has never been a good thing. Being a male in Korea, I was always harassed by older relatives, friends (both guys and girls), and the popular media’s portrayal of men, for being “too skinny,” “too scrawny,” and “looking weak.” Although being skinny wasn’t entirely my fault (I was a preemie baby), by the time I was old enough to do something about “it”, internalization and socialization have already taken their toll and I spent more time worrying about six-pack abs and workout routines than anything else.

For my boyfriend, it was an entirely different story. The issue of obesity in America has been the most influential message for him while growing up, and this has evolved into the general dislike or prejudice against overweight or “fat” people and a constant concern about gaining weight. He firmly believes that he is “fat,” and that my skinny body type was “the ideal.” To me, not only does my boyfriend seem just perfect with his current body, but his juxtaposition of my body-image to lower his own also does not make sense, both because I feel that his perception is skewed and because I myself do not see my own body-image as “the ideal.”

Here are some snippets of the “positive” traits we see in each other:

  • I am skinny.
  • My boyfriend has masculine body.
  • I have the “Asian hair” (apparently it always looks good).
  • My boyfriend has green eyes (and bigger eyes).
  • I have little facial hair.
  • My boyfriend can grow a beard.

Of course none of these “positive” traits are focused on our intellect or personality while we are on the downward-spiral competition. And we would both deny the other’s compliments, out of modesty or denial.

But what these experiences make clear for me is the illogicality and the foolishness of human perceptions forged by the messages we consume from the media (and the society). How can one trait, being “skinny” for example, be both admired and despised at the same time?

It’s almost as if the media and the companies who benefit from the paid messages are trying to minimize the deadweight loss of their target audience. A shampoo company could profit from hair thickening shampoo by idealizing thick, strong, and possibly more masculine hair to my boyfriend, while marketing another, hair softening shampoo product by idealizing a smoother, softer, and silkier hair for people with much coarser hair like me.

The media is tapping into our insecurities, and we are also at fault for perpetuating these negative mindsets about ourselves and each other. The popular media definitely has to step up their game and stop intoxicating the masses’ mind, but we also have to step back, take a deep breath, and shut down our own internalizing machine.

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