12 was the number of years I had lived when my grandmother suggested to me plastic surgery. I remember this incident quite clearly and in my head, I can still picture the exact streamlined couch on which we had been sitting on, and the exact low key coffee table on which our feet had been perched: She had spent the morning dressing me in bright pink Hello Kitty attire and brushing my sleek black hair into one of those tight, scalp-ripping buns, all whilst complaining about the galore of hair strands that littered her floor. I wanted to complain that day, I remember, and tell her that she wouldn’t have this issue if she had let me throw my own hair into a messy ponytail like I had asked, but I bit my tongue and shut my mouth. In my culture, there is a dominating hierarchy that has been in practice for so long that it is now completely unspoken of. And in this assumed pyramid, the elderly surpass children by several, several levels.
A pretty face took over my grandmother’s TV screen – at the time she had one of those giant, bulky ones that screamed “I’m rich!” I imagine that is why I was always dressed to have my little purses match my shoes. So that as my grandmother’s little accessory, I would also send the same message – and she turned to me and asked, “When will I see you up there?”
I was used to these kinds of little compliments and heard them almost daily. “You’re hair is so beautiful!” my mom would tell me as she yanked on her comb to brush out any last tangles. Or “You’re eyes are so clear – they sparkle!” I had lived my entire life being showered in adoration over my looks and being compared to celebrities and movie stars. I had grown immune to the kind of flattery and encouragement that they were meant to induce.
So instead, I ignored my grandmother’s remark with a shrug and focused on the show. Suddenly, she turned to me, her body positioned a little closer, and pinched my nose. Hard.
“Ow! Halmoni!” I screamed in my broken Korean, letting my assimilated respect temporarily crack. Despite my many years of Saturday Korean school back in the states, I only ever found the chance to use this language with my parents and during brief encounters with my Korean friends’ parents. But luckily, facial expression is a universal language, and my grandmother understood immediately. “You’re so beautiful.” She told me, as she retracted her hand. I scowled as I rubbed my bruised schnoz and rolled my eyes at the words I was frankly getting tired of hearing. “But your nose is too flat.” But my nose is too flat? Why the “but”? I remember wondering to myself.
I was quite the arrogant 12-year-old and I thought everything about myself was beautiful; everything from my small eyes to my chubby cheeks to my small, flat, nose that flattened even more when I smiled. I wanted to tell her these things, but again, I bit my tongue and shut my mouth out of respect. I had already been rude once today. That was once too many. “Here, pinch it like this every day and you’ll get a sharper nose.” My grandmother continued as she tried to assault my beautiful nose once more. I quickly darted away and furiously shook my head. “Your nose is too flat, don’t you think?”
I thought about it. My nose was flat, but I did not think it was too flat. To say that it was “too” flat would mean that I was acknowledging that the it’s flat characteristic was excessive and therefore unwanted. But it was not unwanted. At least, not by me. “Do you want me to pay for a nose job when you graduate?” she asked, even though I had yet to confirm that I was unhappy with my nose. “If we raise it just a little bit, I think it would be very pretty.”
I let her pull and twist at my cartilage in various directions as I sat there in thought. Was my nose really “too flat”? Did it make me ugly? Was I ugly? My grandmother dropped the topic quickly when her favorite drama came on. She spent the next hour babbling about how “that’s not her real husband! She just has memory loss so she can’t remember that they divorced!” And over the next few weeks that I stayed with my grandparents, the topic never came up again.
Five years later, (which, incidentally, is the number of years I thought I had been sober from thinking about memory) the topic recently resurfaced when I was trying to figure out meaningful episodes in my life. This particular incident was meaningful, not because I decided to take my grandmother up on that offer and get myself a brand new nose (because I didn’t), but because I ended up loving myself even more.
The self-love wasn’t immediate. In fact, the following weeks after my grandmother basically told me the center of my face was ugly, I was devastated and insecure. I felt ugly and gross and every compliment that my parents lovingly gushed was taken with a giant handful of salt. I remember that I mentioned to my mom what had happened and she became furious. So I did my best to appear as un-devastated and secure as possible, to prevent her from confronting and fighting with her mother-in-law.
The self-deprecation, however, was immediate. I forgot about my grandmother’s seemingly innocuous words as I became busy with school in the fall and boys became a thing, but the insecurity lasted a while. I had began to question my physical appearance, and I noticed everything that could contribute to my “ugliness” every time I looked into the mirror. I played with makeup and dressed in cute clothes to try and cover that “ugliness.”
My issue was that, since I was a child, my greatest quality had been my appearance. Which I know is totally superficial and narcissistic and just wrong, but when the only compliments I received were based around what I looked like, it was easy to believe that it was the only thing that mattered; that it was the sole most important aspect of my identity. And that was quite, quite sad. Believing I am defined by my looks, is a total insult to my personality and my intellect and my abilities and everything else about me.
But like I said, this whole self-acceptance thing took a while. There isn’t an exact moment that I can pinpoint. I didn’t just have this sudden epiphany that changed my perspective forever. I think maybe I just grew up. I think I found beautiful role models to look up to that were not stereotypically “beautiful.” I think high school made me care more about sleeping than taking a shower. I think God forced other things in my life to take priority to open my eyes to all the other great things I had to offer.
Now as a more confident and mature person that can look back at this memory of my grandmother without feeling the way I did five years ago, there are three major, totally cliche points I would like to have memorialized:
- Don’t let others determine your self worth. For my specific case, don’t let others determine how beautiful I am. After all, beauty is subjective. I think it’s so embarrassing that I let myself become so affected by my grandmother’s comment, that I let her words have that much power over my emotions. It can work vice versa too. I let myself feel good about myself because of the compliments I received – but that should not be the case. Obviously, you will feel sad or happy based on what others think and say about you, but at the end of the day, the greatest thing that matters is how YOU feel about YOUrself. I think most people don’t take the time to wonder and really evaluate, because they automatically create their opinions of themselves based on what other people have said. But others don’t know you like you know you, and you need to be both your best critic and supporter. I apologize for the excessive repetition of the word “you.”
- You don’t always have to love yourself: Like I said, you need to be the one to evaluate and (only if you want to) change your life. So if you realize that you aren’t happy with it, that’s fine! I think we are so desperate to always be happy and satisfied with our lives, because we have been taught that feeling otherwise is abnormal or pitiful. However, it’s not a bad thing to not be completely in love with everything about yourself. It motivates improvement. I’m not perfect, and you know what, you’re not either. Striving to fix our flaws should be an idea that is praised – as long as it is because YOU want that change. I don’t like the way my eye’s always look tired, so I wear make up. I don’t like how I’m falling behind in class, so I study. The key is that whatever you chose to do, you must be doing it because you want to, not because your grandmother told you to. I choose to change and improve myself solely for myself, and no one else.
- You are more than appearance: I feel as though this is self-explanatory, but so easily overlooked. Essentially, there is more to you as a person, than your outer shell. Your hobbies, your quirks, your personality, all make you who you are, and if you only rely on your looks, then I’m very sorry that you are a pathetic person. Not everyone will fit society’s definition of “pretty” or “hot.” I’m sure I don’t. And while it may bother me, it will not be the end of me. There are so many other things about me that make me great. Don’t get me wrong, appearance is important. I’m not going to come out and lie and tell you it’s not to make yourself feel better. Appearances I think are great. I love beautiful people and I think they’re so fun to look at. They are also a great way to gauge at the surface. But they’re also not everything.
I’m sure that my grandmother hadn’t meant to be offensive. She was old, and old people do have that tendency to just say whatever they’re thinking. And I’m also sure she did it out of love. She saw in me, what she considered to be, a fault that she had the ability to fix. She probably thought I was unhappy with my nose and that she was doing a big favor by offering to give it a makeover. And she is a sweet, sweet, lady. And while it’s not to say that I’m glad she insulted my honker, at least I learned some life lessons that are much more rewarding than any nose job. On a side note, I was seriously considering setting the feature image to a picture of my nose and just my nose.