Way to tackle the big topics, huh? I should have just called it “The Meaning of Life” or “Israel and Palestine, So Happy Together.”
I’d started a post about my skincare routine because I’m always asked about it, but then I read this great piece on aging by actress Amanda Peet and I started thinking about the very complicated relationship women have with beauty—and how it relates to power and freedom.
I’m going to tell you a little bit what it’s like to grow up Korean. Girls are immediately assessed for their pretty potential and the greatest compliment to give a girl is that she “could be a model or an actress.” When I was young, it was, “She could be Miss Korea.” When you visited aunts and uncles you hadn’t seen in months, years or ever, the first thing they’d say was either, “You’re pretty” or “You’re fat.” It’s a vain and uncompromising culture. Unsurprisingly, Seoul is the plastic surgery capital of the world. South Korea has the most plastic surgeries per capita on earth, with nearly ONE MILLION recorded operations in 2014. That’s 20 procedures per 1,000 people, far ahead of the Unites States’s 13 procedures per 1,000. That’s the kind of f’ed-up milieu I was in, but I can’t say it’s much different for any girl anywhere in this world. Beauty is prized everywhere. South Koreans are simply blunt about it.
I’ve had diaries since I could write. There’s one from when I was eight and I’d noted that I’d started a diet, only eating half a bagel for breakfast, a scoop of rice for dinner. When I was eleven, my dad took me aside for a heart-to-heart: “You have to stop eating so much food, Maggie. Otherwise, you’ll be obese and no man will want to marry you.”
So yeah, my own relationship with beauty is… tangled. Apart from parental/cultural pressures, I also grew up in the States at a time when you were blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful. Or you weren’t. There was more than a decade when I thought I was generally unattractive, even downright ugly. It didn’t help that I had a protracted awkward phase and it wasn’t until college that people started to tell me I was pretty—and many years after that before I really believed it. I understand beauty’s value and how it’s elevated my life in many ways, but spending your formative years having your family call you fat and your peers say you’re “weird-looking” (read: Asian) makes you focus on other things besides your (lack of) looks. Instead of boys, I hooked up with books and music. I think I got a pretty good deal.
Being in Cannes for the film festival is a lesson in the commodity of beauty. Dman and I were having lunch on the beach and watched dinghy after dinghy transporting gorgeous young women to the giant yachts docked further out. Starlets? Wannabe models? Prostitutes? How do you even draw lines that thin? At a private cocktail party later that evening, two pretty women stuck out because of how young they were, how much makeup they had on and how desperately they seemed to be looking for a way to belong—in their cheap dresses and their silent discomfort as they sidled up to men who might be able to upgrade them.
The difference between a supermodel cozying up to the billionaire who lent her million-dollar diamonds and these less-adorned girls is what? Luck? Decimal points? Between me and these girls? When you’re a gorgeous young woman (and all young women are gorgeous), it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll find yourself in a situation where your youth and beauty come up against wealth and power. If you play that game, you can guess who usually loses. Sure, sometimes a woman wins—which is why the game keeps getting played—but the odds are never in our favor.
I said to Dman, “I hope our little D never has to go through this kind of bullshit.” She’s six and unless the world changes drastically in the next few years, of course she’ll endure this bullshit. She’s lucky to have stable, loving parents, to be receiving a good education, but it makes me weary sometimes to think about all the awful things I’m going to have to teach her so she can protect herself.
Beauty is a weird, wonderful, terrible kind of power—it’s completely unfair and inevitably going to diminish and while you have it, it never seems enough because there’s always going to be someone with more. Maybe that’s the definition of power.
I love Amanda Peet’s honesty about what it’s like to go from being a hot young movie star to a TV mom. I miss some things about making music but I’m glad I don’t have to be beautiful because my job requires an audience’s gaze. Getting wrinkles and cellulite is bad enough, I would hate to be an aging actress, model or famous-for-nothing person because the camera has zero pity.
The flip side of those dewy young things in Cannes? The spent beauties, floppy and leathery, their flimsy outfits barely covering lapidified breasts. They missed the memo about age-appropriate dressing or maybe they simply DGAF and bravo to them for that. I’m getting older and as young as I look “for my age”—isn’t that such an awful expression?—no one escapes time or gravity. There’s a certain consolation to it. I have some much-younger girlfriends and I see the pressure they/society put on them(selves) to be beautiful, sexy, thin, fit, younger. It reminds me of the insane pressure I used to put on myself, the insecurities I had about not being enough. They’re still there, but they have lessened. Mainly because age has made me lazier, if not wiser, and having kids means there’s little time for self-obsession.
I think freedom comes into the equation when you can remove yourself from those demands and insecurities, though I’m still not sure what aging gracefully means. Is it letting life and time leave its marks or is it fighting off the inevitable with whatever arsenal you have at hand? Let’s not forget that the world would have us believe there’s nothing more irrelevant than an old woman.
I’ll say it right now: I am nowhere near that kind of freedom. Thanks to a lifetime of conditioning, I am vain AF and after my recent NYC trip when all my friends told me about their Botox and filler treatments, I’m seriously considering an appointment with the skin doctor. I’m also on the market for a chic one-piece bathing suit because those old ladies in Cannes have way more body confidence than I do. At the same time, I’ve spent the past seven years actively discouraging people from placing any importance on my daughter’s beauty. I know it’s naive to think I can shelter her from the good and the bad of being born beautiful, but if I can get her to fall in love with books before boys, I’ll feel like I did something right.
Maybe she’ll know what it means to be truly beautiful, powerful and free.
Does getting older freak you out or have you found a way to accept it gracefully?